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Album of the Month: Rema ‘Rave & Roses’

Bangers are the order of the day on young Nigerian pop star Rema’s debut album, ‘Rave & Roses’

Rema has won the race for the perfect audio signature. Forget “Cardo got wings”, forget “I love Chris Rich”, forget “Mustard on the beat, hoe”; Rema’s calling card is simple and delightful: “another banger”. In an age when even memes bear watermarks, you may as well embrace the production stamp as a two-second expression space that’s here to stay. Rema’s impish trademark is so effortlessly rhythmic, so memorable and so often a precursor of imminent joy that if your lips don’t move after hearing its first three syllables, it’s probably because your jaw has been wired shut.

Bangers are the order of the day on Rema’s debut album, ‘Rave & Roses’, which follows three years of buildup; in which the Benin City boy wonder has appeared on Barack Obama’s yearly playlist, signed to African powerhouse Mavin Records and worked with everyone from Virgil Abloh to Skepta to FKA twigs.

When he emerged, some were sceptical of Rema, too at odds with the Afrobeats sound du jour. “I learned that if I want to impress someone I have to do what they like plus what I like,” Rema told Pitchfork in 2019. It’s probably a stretch to say he has an eye on impressing club heads, but a similar attitude might explain his coining of a new genre to describe his first album. He’s calling it Afrorave; emphasising the danceability of not just his music, but a range of pop sounds coming out of Nigeria.

Like his compatriots WizKid and Burna Boy, Rema covets the attention of British listeners, perhaps even more than American ones. On the album’s biggest single ‘Soundgasm’ (no more applications for song title of the decade please), before “another banger”, there’s another tag: “London”, the name of the English-born, Nigerian-raised producer who made the beat. That particular choice of John Hancock can’t have done him any harm in attracting collaborators from the Afrobeats scene, but London’s production is excellent, bearing the possible influence of both Timbaland and Crazy Cousinz. It’s easy to imagine Rema growing up to the UK funky canon; songs like ‘Do You Mind’ (or at least ‘Once Dance’) which share with Rema a disregard for critical deepness, preferring instead the functional ecstasy of a party.

It’s perhaps this that makes Rema’s music not just danceable but raveable: he makes catchy music of almost insolent simplicity. On ‘Runaway’, nothing like the epic Kanye dirge of the same name, Rema half-sings, half-hums a love song like he’s in the shower. With ‘Bounce’, another single, he flirts with a shamelessly bombastic instrumental, dodging between brass parps that at times are positively Strictly. He knows when to let the production do the singing too, like the guitar and sax pairing on ‘Dirty’ or the acapella coos of French vocalist Yseult on ‘Wine’.

There’s then a sojourn into electropop on ‘Addicted’ — perhaps not quite a left turn, but at least an unexpected veer towards the hard shoulder. You might guess that The Weeknd inspired him, an artist whose recent pop domination might offer something of a career goal for Rema, and a not unrealistic one at that. Unlike the Canadian though, Rema talks in interviews about not drinking, not smoking and not using his fame to get girls. He’s now 21, but his boyishness is a key part of his appeal. And like your first time in the rave, listening to Rema might even make you feel young again.