For her much-awaited and heartfelt debut album, This Is Me, Niniola had applied herself to granting media interviews that took her from Ghana to the Beat FM London and even to BBC Radio 1Xtra. Her Instagram became a small portal into these burnished, hallowed spaces, filled with goodwill messages and apropos emojis from her fans. Though the album was initially scheduled to be out on November 3, its prerelease ostensibly pivots towards shock effects, especially now that we think of how Falz surprisingly airdropped his album 27 late last month.
Since emerging as third runner-up on MTN Project Fame in 2013, Niniola’s peculiar sound of afrohouse has seamlessly marinated into our consumption of pop music, and on This Is Me, a patiently constructed body of work, she clearly indicates that she’s much rooted in the genre. Existing on the 13-track album are Dola and Gbohun, two songs spliced into lush, synthetic environments and tailored to absolute perfection. Both songs, also, operate like sonic mirror images, a mixed bag of sequencers, programming, guitars, sekere and talking drums. They feel experimental, on the surface. At a point on Dola, a subterranean vocal plunge finds Niniola feeling stranded and vulnerable and helpless: “Hold me, kiss me / don’t turn your back on me.” What follows next is a blissful contradiction, qualified by a spectral electronic tone: “Don’t believe me / come there to me.”
“Music started from my home, listening to my parent’s records,” Niniola told Premium Times three years ago. “My dad was a music lover with an amazing collection.” She’s influenced by Angélique Kidjo, Beyoncé, Celine Dion, Dolly Parton. At the time, she had been listening to Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know and adjusting to life after her music reality TV show stint, working in the studio on some singles. In an industry where artistes sound nearly the same and, in her words, doing crap music, Niniola has fashioned herself away from the gilded temptation of bastardized afropop and its consumerist tendencies. Her first single Ibadi still owes its moderate success to Sarz, the 28-year-old producer who had built a sturdy portfolio since producing Da Grin’s Kondo and Jah Bless’ Joor Oh.
But that hasn’t been the only way Niniola has been exceptional. She dances with a sexualized oomph, forged a kind of pop cultural iconography with it. She’s much of a dancer as she’s a singer, weaponizing her femininity as a self-liberating aesthetic. And while she’s quick to jump into a song and dance, as she did in the studio of the Beat FM London when Sicker came on, she’s equally hyper-aware that she’s in charge of her own body and dictates how she wants to enjoy it. On Magun, Niniola sings about sex and being in control of her sexual agency. The track’s inspiration is from the patriarchy-driven, Yoruba charm used on promiscuous women, more often on women having extramarital affairs. But in Niniola’s hands, it becomes a culturally clever metaphorical twist, its power defused and used against the same patriarchy. It’s an interesting shift in the power structure. In the current cultural discourse on rape and sexual assaults on women, Magun feels like a woke song. “Magun le leyi, don’t touch,” Niniola warns in her native Yoruba, making the track all the more barbed and effective. In the second verse, she reasonably comes down to a compromise when she tells a guy: “Only foreplay is allowed for you.”
Lead singles Maradona and Sicker are two afrohouse bangers produced by the prolific Sarz. Sicker is perhaps the strongest statement of the genre, bubbling with tropical house drum beats and sustained synth washes. Out of the four collaborations on the album, only Patoranking’s bombastic verse on the dancehall track Hold Me scores good points, perhaps because Niniola’s mostly abandons traditional singing for vague Jamaican patois. On the whole, the album is a complex artistic work rendered simply, with a lean, laser-focused production. It’s not completely unheard of to have a debut album at 31. Niniola doesn’t seem to care though. She sings in calm, unfussy lyrics, preserving the zeitgeist of her native culture with as much transcendental wisdom. At its core, This is Me is Niniola only trying to be herself.