[REVIEW] Empire — Where We Come From

Patrick Ezema
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EMPIRE, the premier music record label, has spent the last few years establishing a foothold in Africa. Being the global entity it is, this did not prove especially difficult, and they were able to assemble a contingent of Africa’s biggest and most promising acts without much fuss. On this collaborative album, the label gets to show off the extent of its stockpiled roster. 

From a Nigerian perspective, this is a celebration of Nigerian music, for it has come in the last half decade to become the face of African popular music, and this not least because of its nickname, Afrobeats. Fireboy DML, Asake, Tiwa Savage, BNXN, Olamide, Wande Coal, Kizz Daniel, Bad Boy Timz, Cheque and L.A.X all star on this project, a staggering amount and number of talent even if they weren’t joined by contemporaries from all over the continent. Group projects like these often stagger under the weight of expectation, and sometimes fail to live up to the billing of its cast, but Empire’s album skips along nicely, though it admittedly has to carry a few disappointing passengers. 

Being the transcontinental project it is, Where We Come From was always going to have diversity as its ace card, as it draws from the nooks of Africa for sonic inspiration. It is no surprise that the album kicks off with Amapiano, for in the last few years it has grown from being the soundtrack of Johannesburg’s burgeoning nightlife to the toast of all of Africa. Nigeria in particular has embraced the genre, repurposing its log drums to insert seamlessly into Fuji, to create the current fad in street pop. The Amapiano track, “I Feel Nice”, is also the opener, and clear evidence of a decision to lead with the best foot. Ghanaian singer Kwami Eugene makes a fantastic return to the log drums since his appearance on “I Need A Boo” on Eugy’s invitation in 2021. 

His feature on “I Feel Nice” is an improvement, and he straddles the beat expertly on the explosive pre-chorus that doesn’t quite blend with the chorus that comes after, which gives the track a bit of disjunction that thankfully does not diminish its quality. Kwami is joined by Group Chat (the trio of Nolo M, Ney and Fatso), a newly formed girl group looking to capture the Johannesburg scene with music that is equal parts danceable and sexy. Their higher pitched delivery counters nicely to Kwami’s, and since it is in Zulu, it helps add a layer of South African authenticity to the Amapiano track. 

The genre makes a return on the album’s closer, but this time in the Fuji inflected form that has propelled Asake through an amazing 2022. His partner in crime, Magicsticks, is behind the production once more, so you can expect more of the same from the duo. The X-Factor is therefore left to Tiwa Savage to provide, and she does it with all the glitter we should expect from the Nigerian pop queen. 

She addresses her sex tape from last year with all the brashness it deserves, borrowing and reworking the words of label mate, Black Sherif: “Who never fuck, hands in the air”, and hopefully putting the end to an absurd “controversy” that was a reminder of Nigeria’s double standards across gender lines on the topic of sexuality – and that is for those who forgot. Altogether, her turning out in such an abrasive spirit ebbs perfectly with Asake’s natural energies, ensuring he can not only tick off his first female collaboration as a success, but also lay claim as YBNL’s best performer on an album that also features label mates Fireboy DML and Olamide. 

Sandwiched between these Amapiano tracks, however, Where We Come From reverts to conventional afropop, which is somewhat a disappointment for an album that could have been an opportunity to spotlight niche sounds from Africa. It aims to whet appetites you already had and not create new ones, playing safe with familiar sounds and subjects. The acts are drawn in pairs for each track or assigned one to take solo, and some artists get to appear on more than one song. Across these tracks there are crests and troughs, and performances here sometimes do not relate to an artist’s star power. 

Wande Coal delivery varies between his two contributions. Umbrella, the second single released in anticipation of the album, is the better effort here. He bounds on music that can be enjoyed anywhere, but with its heart striking lyrics and delicate piano work, was intended to be the soundtrack to many couple’s first dances at weddings – and the video concurs. It flaunts basic writing – Wande Coal rhymes Umbrella, Mandela and Vanilla on the chorus – but love itself can be an uncomplicated emotion and these words will suffice to convey it. 

His second track features Tolani, and the UK singer, and half-sister to DJ Cuppy, is here to provide a romantic foil to his delivery. Their combination, however, does not make a perfect mix, and cannot compensate for the simple strawberry tinged goodness of his earlier effort. Another artist given two opportunities to leave a mark is BNXN. On “In The Middle”, he is in the driver’s seat. Leil joins in the second verse, and adds Arabic spice to the track. For his second contribution, BNXN is paired with Ghana’s Kidi, and this time he concedes the chorus to insert some of his signature pseudo-rap to the verses. The song’s premise is simple: “So would you dance for me/ I need you to dance for me”, but in the hands of the West African vocalists, it is afforded a lavish delivery. 

L.A.X. is the last act with multiple appearances, and his first effort, Bank Alert is plagued with a weak chorus – “Bank Alert, 1, 2, 3 milli/ Bank Alert, 3, 4, 5 billi” – that is only just saved by a much better second verse. His other feature, “Thing For You” with June Freedom, does not possess such a saving grace, and it never really sparks to life. Kizz Daniel’s “Cough”, and Bad Boy Timz’s “Faya” are solo entries, and they’re about what you’d expect from their artists. 

Cheque too, sticks to what he knows best, and his trap song, “Off White” is one of the few that goes against the Afropop grain and offers something different in its stead, particularly appreciated when two first-rate Ghanaian rappers, Yaw Tog and Black Sherif do not lean into the characteristic Ghanaian Drill they are best known for on the tracks, “Run” and “Ring My Phone” respectively.  

EMPIRE’S collaborative effort is intended to spotlight the artists and music from Africa, and it delivers on the former than the latter – there is a variety of artists, but they mostly tie themselves to conventional pop. Thankfully, it is delivered with the quality to be expected of Africa’s finest acts, save for a few underperforming stars, and EMPIRE will pat themselves for having planned an album of this magnitude, and brought it to fine fruition.

Patrick Ezema

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