Olawale Asimi is starting again. Tabula Rasa, a latin legal term which means, ‘clean slate‘ is his latest offering, after a tumultuous 2013 in which he released the critically acclaimed Merchants, Dealers & Slaves (MDS&S) and was subject to a “cease and desist” order from his former record company, Chocolate City.
He started his career as an independent act with the kind of naïveté one would expect from an artist who shuns the trappings of fame; contractual obligations unresolved, album released with barely any publicity, but he’s learnt some lessons. The phrase Tabula Rasawas uttered by the presiding judge during the court proceedings initiated by the aforementioned label, all old things have passed; he’s a new man, ready to embrace the legendary status that is surely there for his taking. He showed his hand with the utter musical brilliance that was MD&S, though fans were slow to catch on. Artists often speak of a desire for their music to go global. If anyone has a chance at that, it has to be this guy. The music is delivered so true, with street roughened vocals, talking drums, real tales, devoid of the shiny flourishes that mask the vacuity of a lot of the more commercial releases.
The album opens up with Back To Love. There’s no title track; every song is a chapter in his determination to start anew. The opening track, an ode to a ‘you’ one’s never sure of. Is it a person, a place or memory? In any case, it’s a nice bouncy track, guitars and strings that hint at a live band. His going back to love is continued on the next track, except here, his subject is decidedly female. Fe Mi (Love Me) is a tale of unquenched lust; it’s such a sensual track, explicit if one understands Yoruba but not in a sense that makes one recoil. It’s an adult passion. Fe Mi rolls in to the the excellent and overtly explicit Prick No Get Shoulder – On first listen, the song might appear to be about consequential sex, but it’s a warning against indulging in easy pleasures. There is no inherent brake; the strength to reject something so easily pleasurable has to come from within, ‘To say no na reason, to say yes na prison’. Some pleasures suck you in easily. It’s a song about repercussion and being better than instant gratification. His ode to caution is continued on, Dear Child. Here, he remembers the advice given to him by his grandmother on the ephemeral nature of life, the need to make time for things important. It’s slow, potent, evocative and so personal. In typical Brymo fashion, his personal history is turned into a high point on an album, as was in the case with 1986 on Son of A Kapenta, Grand Pa on Merchants, Dealers & Slaves.
The album is designed to be a tale; Je’le O Sinmi (give the house some peace) is a Yoruba name for kindergarten, where children are sent to during the day, to literally give the house some peace. It can also be journey young people are sent on for the same purpose. Brymo recollects his early childhood years of not having much to do but to be a child, much to the annoyance of the adults; a recollection wrapped in violins and Yoruba talking drums, it’s a look back at a time in his life that propelled his exploration into the wild world. He continues this in Never Look Back; he’s out in the world now and its lessons are shared here, ‘young and restless, lay down your fears and face it’; a young man on his Je’le O Sinmi sojourn will learn these things. The orchestra strings are again present here, interspersed with piano keys; it all serves to give a serious, thoughtful feel to this touching song. Next is Alone, a spoken word track speaking the tale of getting to know one’s self alone, losing things and love that seemed to matter momentarily.
How each song rolls into the next seamlessly is a thing of wonder. On Jungle Fever – a rock influence mid-tempo joint – he tackles the compromises that face a young man in his hustle to be free, to make a living and at its core is a need to keep true to oneself. He plays voyeur on the next joint, 1 pound (said as “kpoun kan” in Yoruba. This translates as 2 Naira, as was the exchange rate during the 70s oil boom) watching the daily hustle and bustle of his surroundings. The song feels like a tale, the colourful characters, a credible portrayal of a random street on Lagos Island. The horns and saxophone on this track give it an even more quintessential Lagos Island feel; this is really good work. Nothing’s Ever Promised Tomorrow, a delightful plea to give him a chance, he’ll be an ever present lover. It sounds almost like a metaphor for the kind of relationship he’d like to have with his audience, to take him as he is. The closing track on the album sums up this journey succinctly. Though the project is about starting over, he takes us through glimpses into his past, what has made him who is today, Again, slow, piano assisted suggests he’s ready to do it all again, his terms having been made clear in Nothing’s Ever Promised.
Freedom is a recurring theme in this project. He yearns to deliver the art in a way that requires no compromise and he has excelled here. Never superfluous, the art is well thought, it’s activism for the self, not in the “chop alone” sense, but for the freedom to be, to find one’s essence and making it work in a way that remains true to cause.
The album has so many high points, in English, Yoruba and Pidgin, the production matches the artist’s delivery, evocative, sensual and performed with real instrumentation. For the second year in a row, Brymo has the album of the year. This work is an instant classic. It needs no brewing for its excellence to become evident, and it gets no better than this.