‘The Year I Turned 21’: Ayra Starr’s manifesto of growth and power – Patrick Ezema

Ayra Starr’s arrival was swift and captivating.

A self-titled EP released in January 2021 was her entree, and only seven months later, she rolled out a debut album, 19 And Dangerous, that underlined just what she would be bringing to the soundscape: sharp wit, deep feeling and the glitter of girl power. Since then we’ve watched her grow, as she sharpened her music and matured into the woman and artist she promised.

In 2024, The Year I Turned 21 arrives as a definitive testament of her growth.

Her sophomore is very brazen and unapologetic about Ayra’s global ambitions, and with the pace set by Tems and Tyla in the last couple of years, a path to mainstream global stardom for African women has never been clearer.

Asake and Seyi Vibez, two of Nigeria’s and Fuji’s biggest stars, are, on paper, not the greatest fit to Ayra’s iridescent glow, so it is to her credit and theirs that the final products arrive with cohesion.

Bad Vibes featuring Vibez, an armour against vibe-dampening detractors, is well blended, especially when the duo harmonise for the chorus. Goodbye has Asake providing decent backup to Ayra over P2J’s Dancehall-leaning production, but he would have been better utilised elsewhere—Ayra’s discourteous middle finger to her disappointing ex could have gone without a male perspective.

Through it all, Ayra Starr is fully aware of the progress she is making, in not just status but wealth. For a woman who didn’t grow up under particularly affluent circumstances, money is freeing and elevating. It’s why her intro track has her listening to Birds Sing Of Money, or aggressively counting zeros on Commas, her hit from two months ago, and why she’s speaking of how “Money singing off the phone, that shit works for me” on the exquisite coming-of-age, 21.

Becoming her own woman means settling for nothing but the best in every aspect, and that extends in a special way to her love life. She is quick to discard unresponsive, underperforming partners. On Last Heartbreak Song, she is joined by a comforting Giveon as she muses on the end of a relationship: “It feels good to love somebody and somebody loves you back/ But it feels one-sided now”, painting a scene that will be all-too-familiar to anyone who has watched a relationship go awry, or anyone, for that matter, who heard Ayra’s plea for affection on the Ckay-assisted Beggie Beggie from her debut album.

This time around, Ayra is quick to not only accept, but even preempt the finality of parting: “This is my last heartbreak song/ I’ll be good all on my own”. Her development between the projects shines in side-by-side comparisons like these, but sonically much of Ayra is grounded in a similar realm as 19 And Dangerous, allowing her revel in a space that is decidedly pop and effervescent and yet seamlessly evocative of African percussion. It helps that much of the producers behind her album’s sound have been retained, with Loudaaa and London once more appearing in multiple production credits and Mavin stable mate, Johnny Drille behind the mix.

But it is the newcomers that provide some of the album’s sharpest sonic touch points. P.Priime works in a brilliant interpolation of Wande Coal’s You Bad for Jazzy’s Song, as Ayra revels in a night spent grooving inebriated in a club: Emi ti mo ti jogoor/ Ti mo ti mu panasharp/ Mo ti nọ nọ”.

Ragee directs proceedings on Woman Commando, the feministic, fun anthem where Ayra is joined over big Afropop drums by an adept Coco Jones and the Brazilian singer, Anitta.

These songs push the boundaries for the world that Ayra has fashioned out of fifteen tracks. A world where she can begin in euphoria on Birds Sing Of Money and end with the tear-inducing The Kids Are Alright; where she can weave in verses from Latin American artists and Neo-Fuji heroes with equal fluidity; and where she can choose to reveal her emotions in moments of vulnerability or boisterous strength. Growing up means discovering not just the world but yourself, and The Year I Turned 21 sees Ayra Starr come closer to understanding her strengths and how best to deploy them.

**Patrick Ezema is a music and culture journalist whose work has appeared in The Culture Custodian, NATIVE Mag, The Republic and Afrocritik.  Follow him on twitter @EzemaPatrick


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