Lucid is Asa’s most emotionally robust record yet – Logan February

“Tomorrow I will wake from this dream,” Aṣa sings softly on “My Dear,” toward the end of her fourth studio album—a simultaneous hope and dread that will be recognizable to anyone who has weathered the highs and lows of difficult love.

There is a threshold between being in love and falling out of it, where desire mingles with grief to create an intensity that hurts the senses. In that haze, one’s world is made spectral, beautiful in an impossible way—because tomorrow has not arrived yet. The dream goes on; we are at its mercy.

On Lucid, Aṣa leans deeper into love than she ever did before. The result is her most emotionally robust record yet: an elegant collection of songs characterized by vulnerability, obstructed desire, carefree—and then cautious—romanticism, clarity and self-love, all handsomely adorned with the chanteuse’s trademark optimism.  And though close attention to her discography and sonic evolution will have prepared some for it, what makes this album even more remarkable will likely come as a surprise to many: Aṣa has, subtly, become a popstar.

In an age where pop music has lost most of its traditional rigidity, experimental cross-genre fusions have become the order of the day, Aṣa’s stylistic shift is welcome, even timely. Yet, it feels like an organic direction that her art has taken, not a product of some industry formula. In fact, there is less of a stylistic shift, and more of a horizontal expansion of the Franco-Nigerian’s re-existing sounds. The core elements from her 2007 self-titled debut (jazz, reggae, neo-soul) are all present in the new work. Twelve years later, Lucid additionally incorporates stronger chill-funk elements and hints of folk rock, but comes across as a sleek indie-pop record.

During the five-year hiatus between this and 2014’s Bed of Stone, Aṣa spent her time away from the spotlight in a quiet life, attempting to “live normal” (as she put it in a summer interview with France 24) after several years of touring. She’s learned a few things: about love, about carpentry, about motorcycle riding. It is a challenge not to attribute the freshness of her sound to these adventures—the undeniable structural integrity of the songs on Lucid, the effortless melodies that sound like they were just in the air waiting to be strung together by the songstress, the deconstructed-rock-style guitars and generally stellar strings on the album; all akin to the craftsmanship of a modern, newly-varnished furniture set. Smoky, languorous vocalizations on tracks like “The Beginning” and “Don’t Let Me Go” project a self-assured artistic agency, and the palpable confidence on “Good Thing” paints the picture of a badass woman.

The album opens with “Murder in the USA,” a dark and instantly unforgettable track which reminds one of the Bed of Stone opener, “Dead Again” in its sheer boldness  (“No more your freaking bullshit / No more you talking lies”) and its use of homicide as a metaphor for the resolution of a doomed romance. On “Murder” however, Aṣa has not been left for dead. This time, she confesses: “I shot my lover and I ran away / Committed murder in the USA / Who’s gonna save me now?” Undeniably, the track is at first confusing—the references to police and murder in America will lead most listeners to an erroneous assumption of its subject matter—but the twist is ultimately successful, in that it establishes intrigue and curiosity for what is to come, and lays a melodramatic groundwork that the record is built upon. Inspired by Piers Morgan’s Killer Women documentary, Aṣa’s songwriting leads us into the abnormal psychology of crimes of passion: “We’d just made love and it was so pure / And then my phone started ringing / You saw a name and got crazy / Nothing I said was true, you chose I didn’t love you.”

“The Beginning” furthers Lucid‘s narrative undertones, in the general tradition of pop albums that undertake a study of love. Here, we are brought closer to a more realistic impression of the affair. We see its fault lines, derive a sense of the toxicity that haunts the lovers in question. (“Words like dagger / We try to hurt each other.”) On a chorus that blooms over swooning violins and piano, Aṣa’s vocals are reminiscent of Victoria Legrand, a fellow Frenchwoman and lead singer of the psychedelic rock band, Beach House. Despite the prolonged conflicts and the cycle of leaving and returning, Aṣa longs to try again, implores her lover to restart with her. When she sings: “Even though we’re near / Like we’re far away / Far from far away,” it is the yearning in her voice that sells it.

Lucid is most convincingly situated within such ambivalence. This is not unprecedented; love, especially unrequited, often refuses resolution. It troubles the mind, divides it along the lines of longing and rage, sweetness and bitterness. On “Torn,” a guitar ballad unlike anything Aṣa has previously offered, all her defences are stripped away as she contends with harsh truths (“I am torn between evil and hurting you / No refund for a broken heart / And I’m feeling such a fool”) and hard-earned lessons (“Next time I’ll choose better who I open my heart to.”)

Similarly, “Makes No Sense” earns its place on the record by providing a dose of necessary self-awareness amidst the disenchantment and pitiful hanging on to a sinking ship. One is inclined to wonder why Aṣa lingers in such a doomed affair; why she constantly plays the depleted giver; what there is to idealize about the love interest who hurts, neglects and rejects at various turns. So, when she sings: “I cooked for you, I lived for you / I gave it all up for you / No it doesn’t make sense,” it is a reassuring lyric—because it truly doesn’t make much sense. Thus, she appears to be in control of the story, aware of her place in it. The listeners’ confidence in her narrative is fortified, and we are able to take the song as a conduit into our own instances of being foolish in the name of love.

And yet, the senseless acts of service are hardly a safety net. Love goes sour and no one can fight that; it ends in tears of its own accord. “Femi Mo,” arguably the album’s heaviest and most intimate moment, captures the severity of such heartbreak. In her lamentation, Aṣa opts for Yorùbá to tell a crushing story of the end of love, where the speaker is jilted over the phone, her lover calling it quits after ten years with her. The gravity of the track is mildly alleviated in the second verse, where her report is modified into the more melodramatic “Wón l’áwon ò fé wa mó / Wón l’áwon ò fé wa mó,” making this rejection an easier pill for the character to swallow. Even if one has never experienced heartache in such intensity, the sincerity of lines from the chorus, such as “Só wá dáa bái / Nkan t’o sé yi, ó dùn mí,” will resonate in the heart, and the soft, mournful saxophone that comes towards the end of the song completes its misery.

It is impossible to discern how much of this song (and the album as a whole) is comprised of autobiographical elements. Aṣa herself has stated that her songwriting draws inspiration from films, conversations with strangers, observations on the Paris Métro, and such, so it would be wiser to take the songs at face value, not as tidbits of the singer’s personal life. In any case, Lucid is far more complex than a mere record of miserable love songs. “You and Me,” for instance, is a catchy and light-hearted tune about wanting to explore the good things in life with one’s lover. The track channels the sweet-dreamy spirit and charm of early 2000s Sade, but sonically, it is purely Aṣa. Sounding like a belated Side-B to 2010’s “Be My Man,” off of Beautiful Imperfections, the thrill is amped up by a short sample of a woman speaking in French, promising the many wonderful things they could do together. “Tu dois juste me faire confiance”—you just have to trust me.

“Stay Tonight,” one of the most interesting tracks, finds her urging a lover to remain in her bed, despite whatever complications may be lurking in their future. She explains: “People just know how to hide what they don’t want you to see.” But all of that is secondary when we consider what really matters, which is the present moment and its myriad derivative possibilities: “Baby let’s not be foolish / If we waste this we’re losing / More than just one night / So just stay tonight.” The infectious pop tune shares its sentiments with “Until We Try (This Lo’),” another upbeat beseechment about what could be.  With its fast-paced, reggae-adjacent campiness and unabashed romantic tone, the track can easily be classified as Lovers Rock, as she implores sweetly: “Don’t let time fool you / It’s now or never / Now or never / You may never know / Until we try this lo’.”

Once again, as always with Aṣa, it is the earnestness that brings home the music. Lucid features some moments of stoicism and bravado, but they ultimately fail to convince, when considered in contrast to her more vulnerable, optimistic and playful moments. For instance, on “9 Lives,” the lines “I’m the one with nine lives / You only killed me three times” betray a kind of woundedness despite the implied indestructibility. She is not the heavyweight champion who effortlessly rises to her feet after being knocked down. Rather she is struggling to smile with a bleeding mouth. The track falls short as a formidable statement, but works as a humanistic representation of the damage endured even by the strong.  

Like every other album of hers, Lucid is a treat of bilingual lyricism. Her creative process has been self-described as divided between Paris—where she refines the musical product to make it “open and accessible” with understandable composition and instrumentation—and Lagos, where she says the majority of her stories come from. This is not hard to believe when one encounters tracks like “Happy People,” a jazz-infused ballad about friendship, celebratory aso ebi, and the search for revelry at one ówàmbè or another across the city of Lagos. On this song, Aṣa allows herself to forget her worries for a while as she prepares to hit the town with a dear friend, just as Nigerian Yorùbá folks—despite the country’s vicious cycle of tribulations—will learn of a wedding party on a Saturday, and swiftly announce: “Bàtà mí ti ready!”

The closing track, “My Dear,” serves as a melancholic counterpart to “Happy People.” The scene is a similar ówàmbè, but this time it is a party for the song’s persona. Friends and family have come to celebrate with her, there is much to eat and drink; it should be a perfect day. (“We’ve been excitedly telling everyone / Today is the best day of our lives.”) But, of course, her joy is denied completion, as her lover is conspicuously absent from what appears to be their wedding or engagement party. The violins are reintroduced on the track to redistribute the crushing weight of disappointment, the confused yearning: “Àbí go-slow mú won l’ónà Fálomo? / Oò dè gbé òkadà, k’óyá / Okàn mí wà l’ónà.”

The language, and the cognitions contained within it, are essential to the song, and to the album. Anyone who has heard a Yorùbá person express their worries over a loved one’s whereabouts will realize the accuracy of emotion held in her words. But Aṣa’s vision for an openness and accessibility to her music that transcends language, lends the song more power. An ache permeates it, making it easy to intuitively understand.

Here is the beauty and genius of Lucid—a familiarity that spans wider than any specific knowledge of the experience of desire. It equally honors the highs and lows of love, the desperate search for a single face in the crowd, and the journey of learning to be alone after the party ends.

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