From local to global stardom, Wizkid has established himself as a preeminent star, with a footprint unmissable in the sands of Nigerian music. As Afrobeats continues to coast into and conquer new territories, Wizkid has established himself as an artist whose immense talent and star power helped connect Nigerian music to the rest of the world.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.
Wizkid’s music career has, to an uncannily precise degree, paralleled the trajectory of contemporary Nigerian music’s flight in a global context. It is a nicety often missed by even his most knowledgeable, ardent supporters: how a teenage Ayodeji Balogun emerged at the close of the 2000s, as Nigerian Pop made its nascent introductions to the United Kingdom under its newly-given name of Afrobeats, or how the culmination of Afrobeats’ cross-continental aspirations ten years later coincided with the crystallization of Wizkid’s own crossover efforts. Even now, nearly 15 years since his unforgettable debut year instantly lifted him to national stardom, Wizkid’s biggest wins continue to trace Nigerian music’s highest peaks. In October 2021, the Wizkid-Tems joint, ‘Essence’, became the first-ever African song to reach the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. A month later, Wizkid made history again, selling out the monumental O2 Arena in only two minutes, and a further two times the next day. And while his biggest steps in the last few years have seemingly been obscured—or at least matched—by Burna Boy, the 2021 Grammy award winner, it is this history, the decade that came before, that reveals Wizkid as Afrobeats’ strongest influence.
THE MAKING OF (A) SUPERSTAR
For Wizkid, the biggest obstacle was getting to the microphone in the first place. Ojuelegba, a suburb of Surulere, Lagos State, is hardly in the news for good. In interviews, Wizkid describes it as a ghetto, an appropriate encapsulation of the lyrics of ‘Ojuelegba’, his watershed track: ‘My people dey there/ My people suffer’. At only 11 years old, he began his music journey in church under the moniker, Lil Prinz. Even then, his love for music and passion to produce it were throbbing, but music needed to be properly recorded in the studio and studio time needed to be paid with money, which an adolescent Wizkid had very little of. Breaking this vicious cycle required borrowing a leaf from a few other underprivileged, overenthusiastic acts; Wizkid morphed into a studio rat. Helping with chores and cleaning in the studio bought you a little studio time in return, and if you hung around long enough you could feed off time left unused by established musicians. More than just this airtime, though, the experience Wizkid gleaned watching stars at work still guides him years later.
When Wizkid did get on the microphone, his talent was unmissable. In mid-2009, he had met a number of mainstream artists, and just as eager as he was to gain traction from them to advance his own career, they also were to provide this obviously gifted singer with the right platform. One of Wizkid’s first big performances was on ‘Fast Money, Fast Cars’, a track on M.I’s debut album, Talk About It. Even ten years later, M.I still bubbles with the excitement of Wizkid’s lustre when he recounts the story of their first meetings, and how he nearly signed him to Chocolate City.
While M.I, OJB, Kel, Naeto C and even DJ Jimmy Jatt all played significant roles in Wizkid’s prologue, Banky W was the one who would provide him a platform to build a career. In 2009, Banky W was settling in Nigeria after a spell abroad, and in search of talent to sign to Empire Mates Entertainment, his new label. After a nudge from M.I, he discovered the nascent Wizkid at a show opening sets for Kel. After Banky W secured Wizkid’s signature in 2009, the next year was earmarked to be his breakout. He opened with ‘Holla At Your Boy’ in January, where Samklef’s production kept the tempo for Wizkid. ‘Tease Me’ and ‘Don’t Dull’ were his other releases for the year, and each time, he reprised his cocktail of youthful energy and catchy melody, for which he was an exquisite creator and the exclusive distributor. In June, Wizkid coalesced his time in the industry in two years into a debut album, which, by some combination of prescience and raw confidence, he named Superstar.
At the time of its release, I was in JSS1, pleased with the achievement of becoming a secondary school student. One of my sharpest recollections of a young Wizkid was first hearing ‘Don’t Dull’ at my Inter House Sport finals. When the chorus arrived, I was the only one of the students at the venue who didn’t know the lyrics. Everyone else paused in unison to chant ‘Don’t Dull!’ in response to Wizkid’s declarations of abundance: ‘Our boys don hammer/ we wearing all Prada.’
I come from a relatively conservative family, I was always going to be the last to know when a new artist was taking the block. But Wizkid was inescapable: even before that day I already had every word of ‘Holla At Your Boy’ memorized, an impressive feat when I had no device to my name with which to play it regularly. You didn’t need one for Wizkid in 2010; you simply heard the music play from enough phones, parties and shops, until it started to play in your head as well. It was easy to see what made Wizkid so endearing to high school students. He was a superstar, but not like D’Banj and P-Square who were more uncle figures, Wizkid was one of us. He might have been a student; he could be your schoolmate, the suave, popular social prefect.
An understanding of Superstar’s impact on the streets a decade ago is also essential to dissecting Wizkid FC, the fiercely loyal, also furiously rabid fan club that tracks and celebrates every new step of Wizkid’s journey today, for the line between them could not be straighter. The biggest proof of Superstar’s ubiquitous acceptability for me, however, was only to come retrospectively years later, when I finally owned my own phone and could listen to the album, in order, in completeness. As I spun Superstar for the first time, finally able to catch up with the music my mates had enjoyed years ago, I noted with increasing surprise that this was not the big reveal I thought it would be. I was already familiar with every song there, somehow I had heard them all before.
LAGOS TODAY, LONDON TOMORROW
After Superstar became a fixture in Nigeria, its next natural home was Nigerians’ preferred foreign base, the UK. After a blistering debut year and debut album, Wizkid was prepping for international success. Already, the work done by acts like D’Banj had established the patency of the Lagos-London pipeline, but it was then not nearly as smooth as it is today. Radio appearances and interviews were to help solidify his profile in the UK, and the 2011 Cokobar Afrobeats festival at the HMV Apollo Arena provided an opportunity for Wizkid to market his craft to the audience with the support of other established stars like P-Square, Ice Prince and comedian, Basketmouth. The following year, Wizkid returned to the Apollo as part of a three-day tour of the UK, but this time, he no longer required a shared ticket to pull in an audience. When CokoBar reunited Nigeria’s finest for the second edition of the Afrobeats festival in August, Wizkid, now a MOBO award winner, was not in the number.
Wizkid’s sophomore album, the self-titled Ayo, was released in 2014. The top right corner of its album cover bore two logos, one for Empire Mates Entertainment, the Banky W-owned label, and Starboy, Wizkid’s own label that he floated a year before. In a way, it was a small re-enactment of an artist-label battle that had played out over the previous two years. It had been messy at times—Banky W and Wizkid exchanged heated words on Twitter in 2013—but they made up long enough to release this, their final project together.
While the circumstances surrounding it were shaky, Ayo itself was a congruous body of work. It pictured Wizkid less as a challenger and more as the occupier. ‘Ojuelegba’, the slow-burn ode to his hometown, might have slipped under the radar at first listen, but it soon emerged to capture most of the album’s shine. It was powered by the vulnerability with which he narrated his unsavoury origin, the contrast it painted to the joie de vivre that his music embellished, and the bouncy groove it was strung with. A combination of these strengths fuelled it for a journey beyond national borders, where it picked up Drake and Skepta for its acclaimed remix.
SOUNDS FROM THE OTHER SIDE
In the mid-2010s, the possibilities that the rest of the world offered meant the end goals of Nigerian artists and labels were altering significantly. The number on the bottom line, of course, was sacrosanct, but greater figures were to be made in North America and Europe, where better economic indices meant better spending power and greater profit margins for the artists they chose to spend on. The race was afoot. After the release of Ayo, Wizkid spent the next two years building stateside connections. In 2016, he featured American singers, Chris Brown, Tyga and French Montana, on ‘Shabba’, strung by a trippy Hip-hop beat produced by the iconic Mike WiLL Made-It.
At the time, there were no maps to cross-continental travel, and Wizkid’s crossover efforts centred on creating American-like songs as an inroad into their market, an antithesis to the ‘Afrobeats to the world’ movement that is the template today. Sounds From The Other Side, Wizkid’s next album and his first under RCA records, with its band of American features, was an opening up of his creative culture, not just to America, but to the Caribbean and Europe. It was, however, not the penetrative force he needed it to be, and having lost some of the familiar elements that should ensure connectivity to the Nigerian audience, it dangled somewhere in the chasm between home and abroad.
But Wizkid was not deterred. He had said in an interview with DJ Semtex in May 2017 before the album was even released that the project would not necessarily be his finest work, but nonetheless an important step in his artistic evolution towards Made In Lagos. ‘The album after SFTOS. is the main stuff,’ he said. ‘SFTOS. is mad, but the next one? People will understand. The world will get it.’
Like Superstar, Made In Lagos arrived to signal the start of a new chapter, but unlike it, it was not planted in very receptive ground. Nigerian music journalist, Joey Akan, wrote in his review for Pitchfork: ‘Wizkid’s legacy is secure, but in 2020, he’s a king under threat of deposition.’ Already he had come under fire for the musical direction of his last album from none other than Davido, his contemporary, in a thinly veiled battle that played out over Snapchat and Twitter. Davido had made comments about how Pon Pon, the mid-tempo Ghanaian groove that was powering him, Mr. Eazi and Runtown to local dominance, was all the Nigerian palate had a longing for—and not Wizkid’s cross-cultural fusions.
Maximizing Wizkid’s earning potential required the big intercontinental handshake between Nigerian music and Pop, but making this deal while satisfying both parties was proving especially difficult. Davido himself had made his world-building efforts via Son Of Mercy, the Pop-strutting EP that he would come to regret after it significantly altered his sound without paying the promised dividends. But Wizkid persevered, past the mixed reactions to SFTOS. and the less-than-mixed reactions to the Soundman EP, past criticism from rival fans, bloggers and fellow artists alike, and into the release of the epoch, Made In Lagos.
MADE IN LAGOS, FOR GLOBAL APPEAL
After shaking off early poor reviews mainly from rival fans, Made In Lagos began to soar. It was easy to see why: slow, steaming hooks that warmed the ears, coaxing his silky melodies into your bones; a generous assortment of well-fitting features, most of whom already shared a rich history with Wizkid and faithfully translated this chemistry into song; and Wizkid himself, sporting the honeyed voice and stellar charm that made him a fan favourite a decade before. When ‘Essence’ debuted at number 82 on the Billboard charts, it was a culmination of the decade of consistency that came before, for Wizkid and for Nigerian music.
His crown now firmly restored, Wizkid is more regally relaxed than ever. He released More Love Less Ego two years after, 13 tracks that sparkle and seduce with all the sultry steam of Made In Lagos, but nothing else—an artistic decision that showcased an increasing prerogative he held over his music, and perhaps a creative languidness as well. Outside the studio, Wizkid’s growth is equally evident. Age has come with maturity and an exchange of the impetuous energy of youth for a laid-back confidence. In the interview with DJ Semtex, he spoke about learning to be a man again after having his son: ‘Now you’re not thinking for just yourself, you have a human being to raise to be someone great, or it could go the opposite.’ Wizkid has welcomed a further three children since then, with each bundle of joy also a renewal of a promise to live a life they would grow to be proud of.
Nigeria’s putative ‘Big 3’ wasn’t always a 3. After Davido made his breakout the year after Wizkid’s and won his Next Rated award, effectively matching Wizkid’s achievement from the previous year, it was clear that we would have these two youngsters shepherd the next era of Nigerian music. For the most part, this healthy competition would be a welcome development, but for a small subsection of fans, it was time to draw up arms and pick a side. Burna Boy’s arrival as a dark horse threw open this discussion. In June this year, Davido courted controversy when he named Burna Boy among the ‘new cats’, an attempt to reinvent the criteria to exalt himself and Wizkid from Burna Boy. In actuality, he was inadvertently praising Burna; to have made up so much distance in such little time speaks to his ability and competitiveness.
It has become a lot harder to place points on the board for the people who maintain these rankings because the expansion of Nigerian music to the world has necessitated the use of two parallel charts that will not always be in concordance. It is for this reason that Wizkid remains head and shoulders above his peers. Davido has especially struggled with globalization. Son Of Mercy EP (2016) and A Better Time (2020) were his attempts, but their inability to make the right impact meant they were always immediately reversed by their subsequent Nigerian-leaning albums, which admittedly fared much better. For Burna Boy, the trend has been somewhat the reverse—his music sells out venues all over the world, but a number of controversies continue to widen the gap between himself and the Nigerian audience, and according to his most recent album, the feeling is mutual.
But the current global superstar status enjoyed by Wizkid has come at some cost. Three consecutive projects (four, if you count Soundman EP) working to globalize his sound have drifted him from the sweltering Afropop of his first two albums, which were closer to Nigerian music staples. But as Afrobeats has evolved in the last ten years, so have its artists. Very recently, Wizkid announced a four-year hiatus from music, news that would be scary only to those not used to his proclivity to half-serious announcements—he began the year by announcing a joint tour with Davido, and subsequently never mentioned it again. Whatever he chooses to be his next step, and whether or not he even returns, Wizkid’s legacy is indelible. He has struggled in his attempt to formally train younger artists via his record label, Starboy Entertainment, but his influence in becoming a template to younger acts like Rema and Fireboy, as well as in featuring acts like Tems and BNXN on the biggest stages should suffice. The last decade of Nigerian music has been the stuff of legend, creating tales that will be told and retold with excitement for years to come; none of these stories will be complete, or even correct, without Wizkid’s name⎈
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