Ayra Starr’s “19 & Dangerous” as manual for dealing with Gen Z and Millennial angst – Otimkpu Achalla
Ayra Starr’s 19 & Dangerous will go down as one of the top albums of 2021, straddling, as it does, a range of influences from RnB to neo-soul and afro beats.
Released on the Mavin Records label with frequent collaborator Louddaaa as well as Don Jazzy, London , and Andre Vibez handling production, the album of 11 songs is a rollicking ride through a sonic landscape that brings into sharp relief the mind of a young woman staking her claim musically and otherwise.
The songs are unapologetic and yet not; they are confident and yet not, self-affirming and yet not quite so.
This review was triggered by an Instagram post by Don Jazzy, aka Michael Ajereh, head honcho at Mavin Records, and musical godfather and the mastermind behind Ayra Starr’s rise to the top of Nigeria’s afrobeat scene.
In the Instagram post, Mr. Ajereh wrote – “Una never see anything. We groomed a sexy beast. #Mavin.”
It was a well-intentioned promotional post for a new discovery taking over the scene, but it set off alarm signals. Two key words stood out – “groomed” and “sexy beast.”
In a fraught world where we parse every sentence and comment for Freudian slips, Don Jazzy’s post could end up as an indictment if things were to go awry with his young protégé.
One, she is female. Two, she began this musical journey as a teenager. Three, now when we hear the word “groom’, we no longer think of the male half of a couple getting married or the process of getting your swag on. But today, in the #MeToo era, when we hear “groom” or “groomed” we think of R. Kelly.
Viewed from this perspective, an almost 40-year-old saying they groomed a teenager to become a sexy beast becomes problematic and could become doubly so if the musical alliance goes south.
As I noted earlier, a consideration of the clearly un-intended sub-text was the trigger for this psychological analysis of Ms. Starr’s album. What does it say and how does it say what it says? And in considering those questions, one must then look at the subject, her age and the epoch in which she is plying her trade.
The album opens with “Cast (Gen Z anthem)” and in the song, Ayra sings “I am gonna live my life/ If I cast then I cast, yeah/Anything dem wan talk dem talk…/Be who I wanna be/Live my life the way I wanna live/ With no shame with no haste”
She says don’t dull because they don’t care about you. Live your life the way you want.
That’s pure Gen Z speak, one taken straight out of the “Invictus” playbook and I do not mean Invictus Obi, just the poem – “I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul.”
As you go through the album, song after song reveals flashes of insights into the mind of a Gen Z and Millennial. While it may be foolhardy to assume that Ayra Starr is speaking for every Gen Z, it is instructive to pay attention to the sentiments she expresses.
A close listen will reveal some insights about the Gen Z and Millennial which often leaves the album sounding like a manual on how to deal with Gen Z and Millennial angst. To paraphrase the song from Sound of Music, how do we deal with a problem like Gen Z?
To gain a handle, let us put out a few notations. The Gen Z and Millennial clearly have a fraught relationship with alcohol. They love “Drinking and burning the flowers” and “drowning their sorrows in the bottle”. They love to drink and smoke and fuck but to paraphrase The Notorious BIG, “they don’t know how to behave” when the booze goes down below.
And so Ayra Starr sings in “Snitch” on which she features Foushee – “We connect pass Magneto/ But you keep me locked up, incognito/Now three glasses of mohito/I’m ranting on the bird app/Telling on you.”
Take a trip to twitterville and you will find it littered with casualties spawned by weed and alcohol induced rants because on Gen Z street, if it’s not discussed publicly then it hasn’t happened. Nothing is sacred and to paraphrase Toni Morrison – Gen Z is spiteful! They do “their “dirt outta spite” and will make you cry.
Gen Zs and Millennials believe that weed is just a herb and mental health is a big part of the equation but the assumption seems to be that these are existential issues that affect only those in this demographic. They seem unaware of the counterculture scene of the 60s of free love and drugs and mad couplings. The Gen Z and Millennial often labour under the mistaken assumption that they invented casual sex and hook-ups. Then there is a conflation of coupling as equating to love or romance.
Living life on your own terms can be liberating but every action has consequences and here lies the rub; the Gen Z and Millennial’s seeming reluctance to accept responsibility or should I say a certain tendency among Gen Z’s and Millennials to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They talk about gaslighting but, in truth, they invented the process. In “Toxic”, Ayra Starr harangues a past lover with questions over what sounds almost like an elegiac beat.
“Why did you make me to do it?/Why did you make me lose it?/Why did you give me the drugs that I took?/Why did you force me to take it?”
In asking these questions, she is laying the blame for the toxic relationship at the door steps of this unnamed lover but it takes two to tango and how in heaven does one “force you take the drug you too took”. In this song, Ms. Starr betrays that Gen Z and Millennial propensity to play adult games without understanding the rules which becomes glaring when she sings “I thought what we had was love.”
No darling Gen Z and Millennial, fucking and coupling is not to be conflated with love!
On “Lonely”, Ayra Starr betrays some vulnerability over thumping beats and a horn sequence. She also drops ones of the best verses on the album – Do you believe in us/See as we blend like gin and juice”
Sounding like a young woman learning to navigate the forbidding geography of romance she sings – Every night I dey cry o/Just dey blame myself for loving you like I did/You like I did/Cause it’s been four weeks of calling you no dey pick.”
There are also flashes of that vulnerability on “Beggie Beggie” where she references a casual sexual relationship that morphs into romance. She sings “See the way I dey beg you, se bambi allah mo je ni…Normally I no dey do like this.”
At the beginning of this piece, the point was made that Ayra Starr’s songs seem unapologetic and yet not, they are confident and yet not, self-affirming and yet not quite so. That point is buttressed in the following lines of “Toxic” where she sings “And I’ll apologise no more, no more” but the words are hardly out of her mouth before she follows with “But I’m sorry that I loved somebody that would hurt me.”
The slow tempo “In Between” with its Sade Adu-esque flow does Ayra Starr no favours as a singer showing that she is at her best when singing mid-tempo. It opens with that same hint of vulnerability where she says “je sui fatigue” which is French for “I am tired”. It is a tacit admission of the fact that she is just a young adult literally punching above her weight and treading water. Adulting is hard
“I forgot that I can’t swim/How did I get myself into this mess/Cause I am drowning.” Then segueing to Yoruba she allows, to summarise, that time will tell as all things will come to pass eventually.
From “Karma” to the madly popular lead-off single, “Bloody Samaritan”, Ayra Starr evinces growth and maturity. On these songs the artiste embraces equanimity and philosophical stoicism. Her lyrics point to a mind learning to take things in her stride and letting Karma and the universe be the final arbiter.
In “Karma” she sings “Broken inside, left me for another/Surrendered my truth but that didn’t tend to stop him/Karma where you at, just give him what I gave him/Love with no stress, love to the end../But he still left me for Dana…”
While on “Bloody Samaritan” we hear her sing “Dem not fit kill my vibes…/A wise man said/Follow the stars/There you shall find a piece of advice/If you hate your enemies, your enemies shine.”
This is no longer the Gen Z running to twitter to rant and make those who have wronged her cry.
On “Bridgertn”, the most confident and sassy song as well as my favorite on the album with its faint echoes of Lorde’s “Royals” and yodelling, Ayra Starr taps into the zeitgeist by borrowing from popular culture. The Netflix TV series gets an assimilated makeover and gives us the gem “Melodies swing like Tarzan.”
Someone has made the point that Gen Zs and Millennials, in their single-minded dedication to righting the perceived wrongs of the older generation, labour under the mistaken belief that they are forerunners of liberalism and independent thinking. They also believe that they invented no-strings-attached sex but they forget those oft whispered stories of aunties who birthed children outside wedlock or the uncle who is believed to have run mad because he smoked weed.
Uninhibited sex, wild drinking and weed smoking have been with us for millennia and are not recent phenomena. What is new is the lack of tact and propensity to put everything out under public glare. Their belief that women, especially, need to be protected from sex crazed men is at best an infantilisation of womanhood while their reference to men as scum is, to borrow from newspaper columnist, Reuben Abati, a rabid attack on “the penis and erection industrial complex”.
The older generation, men and the penis are not the enemies. The way to progress is an understanding that with time everything good will come and as the wise woman called Ayra Starr sang you will – “find your solace.”