Aspirations, Appropriation, and the Power of Memory in Seyi Vibez’s Billion Dollar Baby – Adedayo Agarau

A graduate student is thinking about home in a small room in Iowa City. Memories of his childhood fill the room like a small lantern illuminating the long corridor leading to his parent’s face-me-I-face-you apartment on Ogunleye street in 1998. He opens Spotify and his ears process the warmth that accompanies Seyi Vibez’s new album, Billion Dollar Baby. One would think of the aspirations of this little child in 1998, the dusty street stretching before him in the afternoons after school—or his wish to one day sit by the window seat of an airplane as he catches a glimpse of the plane glossing silently in the sky. Like him, some dreamers live out their fantasies through the sort of music that reminds them of their beginnings.

Seyi Vibez’s Billion Dollar Baby is what you get when the street finds its language in melody.  Its sonic flow is similar to Barry Jhay’s Aiye   or Mohbad’s Peace, but it brings a  blend of melody and vernacular that reeks of Lagos verbiage. This Ketu-born, Ikorodu-bred griot’s songs reminds the listener of Olamide’s “Young Erikina”, where the YBNL frontman yells “Rappers still busy forming virtue /me I’m repping the streets.”  The origin of this distinct flavour of melody garbed with street vocabulary can be traced to the novel urgency of Olamide’s soft bellowing on his 2011 Rapsodi album.

Like the graduate student in Uncle Sam’s country thinking about his humble beginnings, Seyi Vibez, born Balogun Afolabi Oluwaseyi, gets this record off to a flyer with a grand combination of piano and saxophone. What follows is a story that recounts or suggests destitution, reaching for a distant memory of nothingness as he croons “Escapin’ route tan jabo / Sandal mi ja, I no fit enter store.”  We expect Seyi to stick to the script, but it seems like the struggle to stick to a coherent narrative is a plague that bedevils Afrobeats tracks.  Out of nowhere, Vibez invents enemies for himself in the next breath— “I no fit hear all the haters talk / ‘Cause I’m writing songs all night long.”  In the chorus and post-chorus, Seyi invokes two creatures— appropriating the panegyrics of Eko “aromi sa legbe legbe” and restyling Asake’s enthusiastic backing choir as he chants “Billion Dollar Baby”. At that moment, it appears that Seyi Vibez has lofty dreams  of glorifying Street hop, and while this is admirable, it is a big ask, judging from his (lack of) vocal dexterity.

As is common with most Afrobeats musicians, Seyi Vibez tilts the LP in the direction of romance.  After all, what is street without a love ballad or two? What is affection without tenderness? Somewhere, a student of the Yaba College of Technology struggling to make ends meet in a Lagos suburb sees himself as the hopeless romantic selling tall dreams  on the track “Darling”, with Simi’s sultry vocals aiding to register the emotions. Seyi—sounding like Alhaji Wasiu Pasuma or the ghost of Igwe Remi Aluko’s voice in “Awodi n fo loke laa la”, the evening he performed under the August rain in Oke-Ado—duets with Simi, whose delivery is magical.

We are introduced to the sequel of the street love story with “Ife”, an Amapiano-heavy cover of Shola Allyson’s breakout single, “Eji Owuro”. Although there is no correlation between the second verse–more a nouveau-riche’s self-appraisal than a lover’s note–and the first verse, it is arguably the best song on the album, on the strength of its understated melody.

The transition from “Saro” to “+234”, “Bullion Van”, “Bank of America”, “Gangsta”, and “Chance” sees the album’s narrative segue from spirituality into the conversation around being young and getting it. The latter, of course, is a reference to Lil Kesh’s “Semilore,” a street anthem about God’s blessings. The lack of depth in addressing the theme of divine orchestration is forgivable, since miracles drop the jaws of even the wise. But Seyi’s delivery on “Chance” is, to put it mildly, a let-down.  The song sounds similar to Asake’s “Organize”, but also sounded quite far from home. If “Chance” were intended as a cover of “Organize”, it fails spectacularly; Portable’s “Azaman” does a better job of paying homage in that regard.

In the end, Billion Dollar Baby is a street hop album abundant in melody. It is a body of work that will resonate with the working-class demographic in suburban Lagos seeking escape from their daily travails, latching on to anything that remotely resembles motivation. Seyi Vibez is still finding his voice, but he certainly has the ears of city dwellers in Oworonshoki, daytime grinders in Fadeyi, and ambitious hustlers in Bariga.

Subscribe to our Newsletter
Stay up-to-date