A is for Alternative

Success has been an uphill battle for Brymo. Born Olawale Ashimi in the Okokomaiko suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, to a carpenter father and petty-trader mother, Brymo has been swimming forcefully and on his own terms towards his dream.

Brymo, alongside Darey Art-Alade, Bez, Timi Dakolo, Omawumi, J’odie, and Aramide, belongs to a group of musicians in Nigeria whose sound is called ‘alternative’, for the lack of a better description. Tune in your radio to most stations and the music of the moment rushes in: It is deeply percussive, often with deliberately inane and hyper-sexualised lyrics, and is intended for dance. Alternative music is characterised by its soulful and reflective rhythms, with meaningful lyrics that dwell on life, love and matters arising from both. This is Brymo’s genre of choice and it is probably the main reason that his journey to stardom has not been as smooth as his voice.

 

Brymo, alongside Darey Art-Alade, Bez, Timi Dakolo, Omawumi, J’odie, and Aramide, belongs to a group of musicians in Nigeria whose sound is called ‘alternative’, for the lack of a better description.

 

B is for Brymstone

Brymo first entered our national consciousness when he laid the hook for Ice Prince’s breakthrough song ‘Oleku’ in 2010. His smoky voice singing, “Feeling the boy” is the song’s most memorable phrase. It sealed Ice Prince’s rising reputation as a superstar rapper under the Chocolate City label, which boasted some of the biggest signees at the time – the Abaga brothers, M.I. and Jesse Jagz, for example.

Before 2010, Brymo had been underground. He released his debut album, Brymstone, in 2006. The album had a fast tempo and boiled over with American R & B influences, from its drumbeats, its bass lines and its flourishes to Brymo’s ad libs.

 

For Brymo, the journey to stardom has not been as smooth as his voice.

 

The first song on the album, ‘No Vex’, starts with him singing in a style that is unmistakably R. Kelly. To this day, this song fills any room with its big guitar strums and funky percussion. A few moments of local metaphor were deployed in the album, such as the song ‘Shawdy’, which sampled Yinka Davies. Featuring 12 tracks, Brymstone was supposed to be the boulder for Brymo to sit on. Unfortunately, it was a modest effort, enjoying mild, if any, recognition from the mainstream.

 

C is for Chocolate City

Brymo only dropped his second LP, TheSonofaKapenta, in 2011, five years after his first. Released under Chocolate City, this effort would be his only album on that label. TheSonofaKapenta boasted biblical allusions to Christ in its title, but this is where the references ended.

The most evocative song on it was ‘1986’. Named for the year he was born, it is a moving ode to his mother, highlighting her travails in raising him. But the album is better known for songs like ‘Ara’, a tune that took a popular Yoruba brag and turned it into a dance, and ‘Good Morning’, the sonic equivalent of breakfast in bed, stewing with adulation and slow dance rhythms.

In retrospect, TheSonofaKapenta was not much of an improvement over Brymstone. Residing in the space between the commercial and the critical, the funk and the Fuji, the foreign and the local, Brymo’s sound on this LP is both memorable and conflicted.

Brymo has also stated that the lack of promotion for TheSonofaKapenta as one of the reasons his deal with Chocolate City fell apart without making him a commercial or critical success.

D is for Dealers

“I consider my first two albums ‘finding my voice’,” Brymo said in a 2015 podcast interview with Ade Bantu, the convener of the Afropolitan Vibes music concert that takes place in Lagos. No one could better this commentary or criticism on his early oeuvre.

Merchants, Dealers and Slaves (MDS) was his third album, which he released as an indie artist, having parted ways with Chocolate City in 2013. By releasing MDS, Brymo was accused of breaching his contract with the record label, which slammed him with a lawsuit seeking N100 million in damages. The matter was eventually settled out of court, and MDS was a critical success. It was produced entirely by Mikky Me, a producer with whom Brymo continues to work. At 11 tracks, lasting 32 minutes, MDS is a moving tour de force that leaves an indelible impression on any listener’s mind. On it, Brymo’s songwriting moved beyond making memorable lyrics and he became a storyteller. His urban tales were most accomplished on ‘Down’ and ‘Purple Jar’. His music was arranged differently as well, with an overarching Afrobeat and a slower tempo so that his lyrics could be better reflected upon.

 

Residing in the space between the commercial and the critical, the funk and the Fuji, the foreign and the local, Brymo’s sound on this LP is both memorable and conflicted.

 

This technique was replicated on Tabula Rasa, his fourth album, which is best viewed as a mirror image of MDS. Every song on Tabula Rasa has an equivalent in MDS. MDS opens with the deeply percussive ‘Truthfully’, which sounds very much like the guitar-centric ‘Back to Love’. His moving paean to Lagos on MDS, ‘Eko’, is replicated in the inspired Afrobeat tune ‘One Pound’, which also depicts Lagos in a manner that Afrobeat great Fela would have been proud of. Brymo sang about the zest of his 100-year-old ‘Grand Pa’ on MDS and in ‘Dear Child’ on Tabula Rasa he remembers the profound sayings of his grandmother. Also on MDS, ‘Purple Jar’ has no equivalent in Brymo’s discography; ditto for his near-vulgar ‘Prick No Get Shoulder’ on Tabula Rasa.

If Merchant, Dealers and Slaves is cynical in its outlook, Tabula Rasa carries a smidgen of redemption. Both albums are different sides of a coin and both deserve the label ‘classic’, which has been associated only with his fourth album, Tabula Rasa.

 

E is for Esse

Brymo has yet to make a proper dance song since ‘Ara’. His fifth album, Klitoris, released in 2016, oscillates between low and mid-tempo. At 11 tracks and lasting 35 minutes, this is yet another worthy addition to the growing Brymo corpus. It is reflective and a tad biographical. On ‘Naked’ he sings with Esse, the mother of his child, and asks, in what may be one of most vulnerable moments in the booth, “Is the ego my only disease?” On ‘Billion Naira Dream’ he gives the mission statement of his music: to tell stories.

Brymo’s music has already begun a slow but assured spread outside Nigeria. In 2014 undergraduates of Southern Illinois University studied ‘Down’, a single on his MDS album. And in 2015, he released Trance, a compilation album for listeners in the US.

The journey of an indie artist is a slow and arduous one, but Brymo is prepared to make a reality of his billion naira dream.