Celia is a promise kept and a glimpse of a bright future for Afrobeats and R&B.Music Review
In Celia, Tiwa Savage returns with growth and the promise of a vibrant, genre breaking career ahead.
Tiwa Savage’s latest album Celia kicks off with a stripped-down Afrobeats tempo followed by joyful, high-pitched horns. Then come the lyrics and vocals “high up, high up in the sky”, propelling us into the crux of this album: the singer has returned strong, sure, and solidifying her stake in the ranks of musical artistry.
Previously, Tiwa excelled at the intersection of Afrobeats and pop, but on Celia, her third studio album, she invents a new sound. Combining the unmistakable vibrance of Afrobeats with masterful vocal runs, instrumentation, harmonies, and intentional lyrics, she gives a nod to that soulful sound of the nineties and noughties which defined millennials’ many firsts – dates, loves, and heartbreaks. For this feat on Celia, Tiwa Savage shows that she is the queen of Afro R&B.
‘Save My Life’ is Celia’s sultry opening track. Here, the singer delightfully switches between equally crisp Yoruba and English, holding nothing back on the explicit-rated track as she gives enthusiastic praise for her partner’s energy and offers meticulous instruction on how to love her right. The verve and sheer naughtiness of this fast-paced track make it an easy candidate for multiple replays.
Tiwa’s genius is not new to her fans, but on Celia we see that she has matured in her awareness of her strengths and her place on the global music timeline. In ‘Dangerous Love’ and ‘Park Well’, she pulls listeners into an arena where she is well-versed, classic love songs that explode with feeling. We can relate to the lyrics of ‘Dangerous Love’ which is themed around the scars from an old relationship causing trepidation in a new one. ‘Park Well’ is a duet with Davido, a certified love crooner in his own right, and together they sing about a love that has stood the test of time and hardship.
Since her introduction to the music scene in 2013, as a newbie signed to Mavin Records, Tiwa has been known as a woman of intersections and contradictions. On one hand she is respected for her talent and work ethic, known to have taken on scores of performances while heavily pregnant with her first child. On the other hand, she has been beleaguered by a messy public divorce, gaffes that show a partiality to the patriarchy, and a tendency to whine about women’s lack of support for her music.
On Celia, Tiwa boldly straddles and owns her multiple facets. She is commander, lover girl, mournful ex-wife, sexy showoff, and prayerful child of her mother.
Celia also shines in its collaborations. Rather than grab for default big names, she sought artists to underscore the message and elevate the energy of each collaboration. Bringing Sam Smith, Stefflon Don, Davido, and others onto her album, Tiwa shows an intuition about her music.
She partnered with Sam Smith in ‘Temptation’, another love song that speaks to its name, and though both singers are well versed in pop, R&B, and soul, it is a unique joy to hear the British singer bring all his skill to an Afrobeats track. ‘Bombay’ is pure, sexy provocation, and Tiwa rightly brings in Stefflon Don to assert the virtues of a “bom-bom bigger than Bombay” that will make her love interest “fall like leaves inna autumn”. Dice Ailes is the cherry on top, as he drops witty Yoruba rhymes on this dancehall-influenced track that epitomize just how flexible the boundaries of musical genres can be. On ‘Pakalamisi’ Tiwa again gives us the soulful runs and harmonies that she stands out for, and brings on Hamzaa, East London-bred alt-soul singer.
The beats on ‘Ole’ and ‘Koroba’ are ones Afrobeats lovers know and have heard many times, but still Tiwa serves them hot. In ‘Ole’ she partners with Naira Marley, which post-album promotion suggests as a strategic play for support from Marley’s fans, who bring rabid enthusiasm to anything he does. The song rightly ends with a skit from popular culture that is a poignant and hilarious nod to how Nigerians have learned to cope with political leaders who often act shamelessly and senselessly. In ‘Koroba’, Tiwa challenges the way society judges young women who date older wealthy men. In these songs rather than just serve us the beats we know, she also tries to pass a deeper message to society.
In spite of these strengths, Celia has a few lackluster offerings, including ‘FWMM (F*CK With My Mind)’ whose length and abrupt end make the song sound like it was cut short sound incomplete and ‘Us’, a mournful interlude that sounds out of sync with the Afrobeat vibe of the album, where she reflects on her divorce from her long-term business partner and promoter, TeeBillz. However, very little about this power-packed album doesn’t work, so we can hardly begrudge Tiwa her five minutes of navel gazing.
The album closes with the eponymous ‘Celia’s Song’, guaranteed to tug at heart strings and have listeners replaying it over and over. In the album notes, Tiwa calls it a prayer, and dedicates it to her mother, whom the album is named after. If you repeat the album, you will hear how well the closing track rounds things off and leads you right back into ‘Save My Life’.
Nigerian music is in a great moment where we have international influence, reach, and capacity for collaboration. Within this space, it is even greater to see artists like Tiwa Savage going beyond the zeitgeist towards longevity, full bodies of work, and corner pieces which will be relevant in decades to come.
On Sugarcane, Tiwa’s last EP, we sensed a pause, a contemplation between creating for the moment and for the future. Then in 2019, the singer announced her bittersweet departure from Mavin Records and her signing with Universal Music Group. With the release of Celia, it's clear she made the right career choice. We get to hear intentional songwriting and full instrumentation with saxophones, bass guitars, drums, horns, and even synths working overtime. We get collaborations that elevate the songs, where everyone plays their part to perfection. And ultimately there is an emotional honesty in Celia that speaks directly to our humanity.
It is clear that Tiwa Savage figured out herself in this moment and how to share that musically, and this is what elevates the album to art that will live on decades and centuries after its creators are gone.
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