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Album Review: Tyla Is The African Pop Star We Have Been Waiting For

“They never had a pretty girl from Joburg, See me now, and that's what they prefer”, says South-African superstar Tyla on “Jump” — track 9 of her debut, self-titled album. She isn’t exaggerating. The 22-year old singer-songwriter, who has been dubbed the princess of Popiano (a hybrid between Pop and Amapino) is single handedly, putting Johannesburg, and South Africa, on the map of Pop music. 

In the past year alone, Tyla has already changed the trajectory of African music history with her worldwide phenomenon “Water”. The song, released in November 2023, initially went viral on TikTok, thanks to the infectious South-African Bacardi choreography, that had everyone and their mama, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, twerking in an attempt to replicate the dance. Water eventually earned Tyla the award for “Best African Music Performance” at the 66th Annual Grammy Award, making her the youngest African artist to win an award. She is also the first South African soloist in over 55 years to chart in the Billboard 100, and highest-charting African female soloist ever on the chart.

It may seem as though her crossover into Pop music is due to the virality of Water on TikTok. Yet a close inspection of her musical journey, from her debut “Getting Late” in 2019, to present day, reveals that Tyla’s success is not simply luck. It’s the payoff of a well-oiled Pop machine, with all the necessary components to ensure her artistic development and subsequent success. This includes the backing of major label Epic Records, as well as a team consisting of her managers, choreographer, stylist and dedicated producers and songwriters. In Tyla’s own words, “she always knew that things were going to work out eventually”.

The album is a three year project in the making, and this effort speaks volumes as soon you hit play. The tracks were handpicked from a legion of 130 songs, which she recorded during this period, before the 14 tracks made the final cut. Each song is so well-written, produced, and vocally delivered, that it’s difficult to choose a standout performance. With the songs “Safer’, to “No.1” featuring Tems, “Butterflies”, and “Priorities”, the album majorly contains positive messaging about self-love, which is both timely and necessary, considering how modern dating is rife with toxic standards, mostly at women’s expense. This is particularly endearing and affirming for her audience that majorly consists of young girls and women; a reminder to decenter men and prioritise their needs and goals.

The conceptual song “ART” captures why songwriting is one of the album’s strengths and thereby deserves special recognition. Tyla teamed up with songwriters AriPen Smith, Imani Lewis etc, who also co-wrote “Water”. With poetic lyrics, enhanced by metaphors like, “I’m your centrepiece, make the canvas speak”, the song crafts vivid imagery about being a lover’s muse. The song is a work of art in itself- it reads just as well as it sounds

The album's most innovative moment arrives with “Jump,” which is decorated by surprising features from Gunna and Skillibeng, and a refreshing blend of Afro Diasporic influences from Amapiano, to Dancehall and Rap. Here, she switches up her usually leisurely flow, to a rap inspired cadence that commands you to get off your feet and dance. With summer fast approaching, the song is sure to be the soundtrack to cookouts and braais, and could potentially be the albums next viral hit. 

Tyla's first full-length project is certainly a feat, but there is definitely room for improvement. It’s clear that the album’s features were strategic, rather than purely based on creative chemistry. To increase Tyla’s global outreach, and potentially tap into the Latin American music market, “On My Body” features Mexican American artist Becky G. The song is a solid effort of the formula of African musicians collaborating with Western acts for commercial interests. But this same formula was a clear misfire, in the “Water” remix featuring Travis Scott, who didn’t add any interesting contribution to an otherwise perfect track. 

Tyla’s album could have been more effective within the Amapiano, or South African music’s world-building potential, if she shared the stage with more South African acts. For instance, a Water remix by Amapiano legend DBN Gogo or an R&B duet featuring powerhouse vocalist Shekhinah. With Tyla’s postponed World Tour around the corner, it would surely be a missed opportunity if she does not elicit the support of another rising star in the global ranks like Uncle Waffles as an opening act, instead of a more established Western artist. 

Credit must be given to the legendary Afrobeats acts who paved the way for modern African artists like Tyla to break into the mainstream. Yet Tyla offers something different we have not seen from her seniors whose superiority complexes have seen them distancing themselves from their roots. For instance, Wizkid, who recently refuted being categorised as an Afrobeats artist saying, “I’m not afro anything bitch!”, while Burna Boy remarked that the genre “has no substance”. Instead, Tyla is eager to represent Amapiano, and make “her home proud” while also lending visibility to other African artists who she believes “need more attention”. She is charming, consistent, polished and determined, which will ensure a lasting legacy that cannot thrive on talent alone.


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