The Song of the Summer: An Oral History of Wizkid's "Essence" - Rolling Stone
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‘You Don’t Need No Other Body’: An Oral History of Wizkid’s ‘Essence’

How Wizkid, Tems, and Justin Bieber teamed up to make the globe-trotting song of the summer

wizkid tems bieber essence oral history remixwizkid tems bieber essence oral history remix

Photographs used in illustration by Roderick Ejuetami; Rob Rusling; Rory Kramer

Afrobeats heavyweight Wizkid just dropped the deluxe edition of his fourth album, Made in Lagos, imbuing the final days of summer with more tropical grooves. The original version of the album arrived last fall, earning adoration from critics and fans alike. That appreciation only grew with time. For many, the record’s breakthrough single “Essence” became the soundtrack to an optimistic reemergence after a dark and isolated winter. The track, replete with rhythm and longing, offered an exciting alliance between Afrobeats veteran Wizkid and the promising up-and-comer Tems; the pair’s chemistry captivated listeners far beyond the bounds of their native Nigeria. Last month, in a rare moment for Afropop, “Essence” broke onto elusive American charts, debuting at Number 82 on the Hot 100 and Number 84 on the RS 100. Thanks to a recent remix featuring Justin Bieber, the song is now barreling to the top of both. 

Many have wondered how such a commercially powerful collaboration came to be, and what it will mean for the genre moving forward. Here, the people who crafted “Essence” and its remix answer those questions. 

The Players (in order of appearance)

  • Jada Pollock: Wizkid’s manager of six years
  • Mutay Oniko: One half of the Nigerian production duo Legendury Beatz, who created the original instrumental that would become “Essence”
  • Wizkid: Over the past decade, Nigerian singer Wizkid has risen to the top of African music. His name is synonymous with Afrobeats, a popular moniker for the polyrhythmic pop from the continent’s western area
  • Tems: A newcomer but standout in the Afrobeats and Afro-R&B scene, whose major breakthrough has come from her appearance on “Essence”
  • Uzezi Oniko: Mutay’s brother and partner in Legendury Beatz
  • P2J: The Nigerian producer who helmed or co-produced most of Made in Lagos. He provided co-production to Legendury Beatz’s “Essence” instrumental 
  • Tay James: A DJ and Justin Bieber’s personal A&R. He helps Bieber connect to producers, songwriters, and sounds
  • Mike G: Wizkid’s North American agent, helping him book tours, festivals, and other entertainment opportunities

I. The Origins of “Essence”

In January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the globe and changed the way we work and play, a collective of African talent communed around Wizkid at the Lagos Oriental Hotel in Nigeria. 

Jada Pollock: ​​So the beat came from Legendury Beatz and then [later] P2J added additional production onto it. Legendury Beatz and Wiz are like family, they’ve basically worked together since the start of Wizkid’s career. They definitely understand what he wants and they just came up with a sound that hit the world.

Mutay Oniko: With Wiz, we’ve had this working relationship from the jump because we came together and started Starboy (Wizkid’s music collective and eventual label imprint). We’ve always had recording camps. And we’ve always had a projection of where we want to be musically. We always had this thought of taking the sound to the world, so we always have this diverse nature of creating a fusion of R&B, EDM, whatever it is, because we always just wanted to take the sound to the next level. Wiz was working on Made in Lagos and we happened to be in Lagos. He’s been all over the place, so we never had a chance to just lock in. When he was in Lagos, we had a little camp. 

Wizkid: I remember that day. I had like six producers in the room. I was recording the last song on the album, and, yeah, Tems came in the room, we made [“Essence”] together. It was just easy, man. She’s got an amazing voice. Everything is special about Tems. Everything. 

Mutay: He had been saying he wanted to work with Tems, but he never just really had the chance to meet up. I think they spoke, but they never just got in. 

Tems: I performed at [a Wizkid] show earlier on and we met at least twice before this session, but this was the first time we were linking up for the purpose of creating music. I think I had a show at one of the most popular hotels in Lagos, Eko Hotel. It’s where everybody does concerts. Wiz had a penthouse there, and he actually called my manager up, and he was just like, “Come with me, let’s go upstairs to see Wiz.” And I went upstairs. That was the first time I met him. He’s a cool guy. I just went upstairs to say a quick “Hi.”

Mutay: [In January, Tems] came around to the camp and wanted to listen to a lot of beats. So we played a couple of beats for them and [Wiz] loved that beat immediately. And he’s like, “This is the one. This is the one that has the magic.” 

Tems: There were like two beats, and they said, “Which one is your favorite?” And the beat that became “Essence” was my favorite. 

Mutay: [“Essence”] is a middle ground between the U.K. Afroswing and R&B.

Uzezi Oniko: It was a little bit Nineties and 2000 R&B, I think: Murder Inc., “I Need a Girl,” stuff like that. Afroswing is a bit more melancholic. It’s a bit darker. So we took the drums from Afroswing and then took the Nineties R&B melodies.

Tems: Once I heard it, I was like, “Yeah, this is it.” Because I could already feel melodies coming in my head, I was like, “Don’t even play it. Don’t play it. Just hold on, put me on the mic first before I forget all the things that I’m hearing in my mind.” I just did a freestyle, and that freestyle turned into the melody that “Essence” has. Then, later, I wrote it and rerecorded it. I didn’t even know it was called “Essence” until after. But “time is of the essence” was in the original freestyle.

Mutay: Tems had a whole idea on it. She did the whole hook. She did everything on it. And Wiz was like, “That’s all, you don’t even need to do anything [else]. This is literally what I need.” And that was it at the moment, because he had to travel back to London the next day. Maybe a couple of weeks later, he just sent it to me saying, “Yo, I just recorded this song. I really need this to work.” So we had to start working on the beat, going back and forth. I think he was recording with P2J at the time. We were on lockdown. So he just [asked if P2J could] just put the last little one or two touches, and it’s like, “Fine, cool. Just let us know.” Wiz wanted a little bit more percussion, just to signify it’s still Afrobeats. We are a percussion-driven industry. And [they added] an extra bass line just to add more dynamics. So they did that, sent it back to us. We rearranged it again, did what we had to do to make it work, and then sent it back. It was literally the whole lockdown period that “Essence” came about. Around July 2020, we had to round up because they had to finish up with the album.

P2J: [Wiz and I] were on the same path in terms of musicality when we met, in terms of merging different genres together, like merging reggae with the Afro, R&B with the Afro. He’s been trying to get towards that through SoundMan. We just eased into it with Made in Lagos. If you listen to the album, there’s like a specific bass line that I’ve done that’s quite memorable. I tried to use that same technique that I’ve used in those songs and bring it to “Essence.” The song was amazing already, the beat was already crazy, the chords, everything was nice. I just wanted it to just enhance it and make it hit. I want people in the States to understand it, I want people in Korea to understand it, you know what I’m saying? I want everyone to understand it, but still understand the essence of the music is from Africa. 

Pollock: [“Essence”] was definitely one of those songs that whenever you heard it, it made you feel good. As time went on, we really, really wanted to get a visual out, more so just because we knew how important that visual would be to Nigeria, because it had Tems and Wiz on it. It would be important to the culture. We pushed for it and we made it happen

II. Enter: The Biebs 

On August 12th, Wizkid teased an “Essence” remix featuring Justin Bieber with only a day’s notice. While some fans and critics online have posited that the “Essence” remix was an inorganic play for Western crossover, the players at hand insist it was born of mutual fandom and sincere happenstance. 

Tay James (Justin Bieber’s A&R): My mentor, DJ Alizay, a legendary D.C. DJ, actually put me on to “Essence.” He was like, “This is the song of the summer. This is what’s being played at all cookouts. Everyone loves this record.” I fell in love with the record right when I heard it. I’m already a Wizkid fan. [Justin and I] were headed to vacation for Allison Kaye, Bieber’s manager, and we were literally on the plane and I was playing music for Justin. I was just like, “Hey, this is one of the hottest songs, if not the hottest song out right now.” And once I played [“Essence”] for him, that became the song of the weekend. We played it nonstop throughout every event that we did. It was the birthday song. 

Mike G (Wizkid’s agent): We went to Cabo to celebrate Alison Kaye’s 40th birthday. She’s the president of SB Projects. Good crew, good friends, obviously a lot of people in the business, but not too many. Tay and I had known about each other, but we actually met on that trip. He knew I represented Wizkid. I was telling him about the [upcoming Wizkid] tour, and he was like, “Hey, we got to get Justin on this remix.”  I’m like, “Yo, I love this idea. Let’s put it together.” Then, I hit Jada and Jada sent me the files right away on text. I had reached out to Wiz. I tell him, “Hey, Justin really wants to do this record.” Wiz was excited. When we got back into the States, Tay and I were [like,] “Let’s just start a group chat with me, Tay, Wiz, Justin, and Josh [Gudwin],” who is Justin’s engineer. 

I go, “Wiz, my brother. I hope you’re well and healthy. We’ve been playing your record all weekend long in Mexico. I wanted to introduce you, as discussed, to Justin Bieber and his amazing music team Tay James, Justin’s A&R, Josh Gudwin, Justin’s engineer. Let’s work and make some magic. Let’s connect tonight. I’ll let you legends take it from here.”

Then Tay is like, “Wiz, we’re huge fans.” Then JB right away, “Hey guys, I did something on ‘Essence.’ We can send it to see what you guys think. I hope you like it.” Then he sent it.

Then Wiz was like, “Hey guys, I was on a flight. I appreciate your love. Please send the vocals and I’ll piece it and send back the arrangement.” And then Wiz put three fire [emojis]. “Fire my brudda.” This chat is like a love fest.

Jada Pollock: Mike’s been incredibly passionate about Wiz’s career in the U.S. and really, really wanting to build him to another level. We’ve spoken about having those collaborations that will get a radio attraction, [but] Wiz more so makes music authentically, so you can never really go in and have marketing conversations with Wiz in regards to, “Let’s set this up and set that up because that will equal this.” He doesn’t care about any of that, all he cares about is making real music. I think that the world can see that when it comes to Made in Lagos, he hasn’t gone for your typical kind of sound — what people probably expected. He stuck to his own vision and passion when it came to making the album, and I think that that’s why it resonated so well and it’s still being discovered. 

James: [Bieber] heard it on a Thursday, and by Monday it was cut. When we got back to the studio on Monday, me and Josh [Gudwin, Bieber’s engineer] got the instrumental from Wizkid’s people, and Bieber wrote his verse and cut it right then and there. It was just nice how it came together; when you hear something, and then you just see it connects with somebody. It inspired him to write the song himself. He went in there and knocked it out in a day. Less than a couple of hours, it was done.

Mike G: [Justin] sent it right away. 

Wizkid: When I heard it, I just felt it was amazing. His vocals sound great on [it]. That’s all I really care about. Big shout-out to Justin. Big shout-out to him, man.

Mutay Oniko: To be honest, we were a bit in the dark with the remix. I think we only got to know quite recently.

Uzezi Oniko: [Wiz] calls us saying, “Yo, you need to listen to this,” like a surprise. And that’s classic Wiz sometimes. We were all gassed. It was amazing.

Tems: I think [the remix] is dope. It’s a nice switch and it gives it a nice vibe.

James: When Justin hops on a record, he’ll take it from just being a hip-hop or an urban or an Afrobeats record. It’s going to bring other eyes; people who probably didn’t even know about the record. Now they hear it, and now they know who Wizkid is. So, that’s part of the reason why we want[ed] to hop on it, too, also just to shine light on these talented artists, which is what I think Justin is really good at.

Mike G: [“Essence”] was charting. It started really doing well on the charts. It’s not even peaked. Justin called it the song of the summer. And I remember Tay telling me, “We want to do this,” like exactly how they remixed “Despacito” and how massive that became.

III. A Broader Palette for Afrobeats

With Justin Bieber’s assist, “Essence” has bounded up the charts, impressed fans, and opened ears, but not everyone welcomed the remix warmly. The specters of capitalism, colonization and appropriation hang over Africa and the Black diaspora, and some feared they reared their heads here. But the people who made “Essence” happen celebrate the song as a showcase of talent and a natural bridging of worlds. 

Tay James: I read some things online. People have their own opinion. It is what it is. I think what [Bieber] did is amazing. We just want to help come in and complement any record, and the fact that Wizkid gave his support is all we needed in our book. It’s not like we just hopped on a remix and just put it out on our own. It’s something that was a planned decision and all parties involved were happy. I feel like people are going to have some things to say right now, but in 10 years, when you look back and you see how big that record becomes, I think it will answer all questions after that.

Jada Pollock: Who else could have done it? What other artist could have jumped on the remix of that song and done it any better from a sonic perspective? It’s really hard. … I think Justin sounds great on it.

Uzezi Oniko: You can tell it wasn’t forced. You can see [Justin Bieber] being an amazing person, coming on that track and really being thankful, not culturally appropriating. He’s like, “I really love this.” The album was called Made in Lagos, right? When you hear something’s made in China, it can be sent to America or wherever, yeah? We’re exporting our ideas, our values and our culture. We are not, we as Africans, afraid of anyone. Afrobeats is so wide and so beautiful. It’s a culture. We’re not afraid of it losing its identity because the purpose of this sound, this music is to help people get through that day. If people across different cultures decide to come and amplify it a bit more, I don’t see any wrong in it. Whoever loves the culture, respects it, and is willing to spread the gospel of good music, we are really happy [about] that.

P2J: Justin killed it, he brought that authentic R&B, that real Justin Bieber. I feel like it extended the song. It gave the song more life. 

Mike G: I have managers that represent major artists reaching out to me to see if [Wiz] will get on their record. That’s always a sign when someone’s really hot. They want you to hop on their record. LiveNation wants to put up more dates. He’s on fire, and I think it’s a credit to Wiz, because he just didn’t get hot. He’s put in the work for a long time and he’s been a legend for a long time. I’m happy the U.S. gets to experience that now. They got a taste of it in 2016 when he collaborated with Drake on “One Dance.”

Wizkid: It’s a blessing. We can only do the hard work and expect people to love the work. It’s just amazing when you get a good response. I feel blessed, man. I feel so blessed.

Uzezi:  it just comes full circle to all the conversations we had from the Starboy era, us sitting down in those rooms, thinking about where we wanted the sound to go, what we thought would appeal, how this sound or product we’re creating would take over the world. “Ojuelegba” was the first taste of that. I think “Essence” is bigger than us. It’s bigger than anything else, because it serves a purpose for the whole genre. As brothers — us, Wiz — we always have these conversations about how we can keep this genre moving. With Bieber now on it, it’s taken the palette of Afrobeats way, way broader. People always don’t really understand Afrobeats — how big and how wide the palette of Afrobeats is. It’s pretty much like pop music, right? Pop music borrows or lends, takes from every other genre around it and just adds to its library, and Afrobeats, in that respect, is just like pop music. We take from the South African sound, the Kenyan sound, from our brothers, the Ghanaians. We put it together and create. I think the fusion will just keep getting more interesting. All of a sudden, from [being] Afrobeats producers we’re Top 10 Billboard R&B producers. I was like, “Whoa, OK. So we’re R&B now!” These are beautiful things.

James: The Afrobeats genre is so big. It’s just not in Africa. It’s clearly spread out. You know what I mean? It’s in Europe. Even in Canada it’s huge. It’s definitely expanding. That’s what it’s supposed to do. 

Wizkid: There’s so many, many, many, many amazing artists from Africa that the world needs to hear. I’m just so happy every time everyone gets their shine. It’s amazing to me.

Tems: Wiz has such a large platform just because of his own discography and everything that he’s done beforehand, so it was a huge platform [for me]. I think everybody in Nigeria was especially hype for his album. Lots of people got to hear me through that song. It’s a great change. My whole life has changed. I think God used that song to bless both of us, and I’m just incredibly grateful.


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