Could Janet Jackson and the 1975 Help Break Afrobeats in the U.S.?
Between 2015 and 2017, it seemed as if the the Nigerian genre afrobeats was ready to storm the American mainstream. Drake released a remix of Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba”; Jay-Z’s Roc Nation picked up Tiwa Savage; Wizkid signed in turn to RCA; Columbia put its weight behind Tekno’s great single “Pana.” But despite these endorsements, American listeners’ interest in afrobeats largely failed to materialize.
On Friday, however, two established acts both put out tracks bearing the genre’s influence, suggesting that afrobeats may still capture the international imagination. Janet Jackson served up “Made for Now,” a slithering single made up of lancing guitars and springy bass that would play easily after a Nigerian hit like Burna Boy’s “Rock Your Body.” The same day, the English rock band the 1975 smoothly swiped afrobeats’ streamlined pulse — simple bassline, steady kick drum, syncopated pitter-patter — for their new release, “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME.”
For Jackson, “Made for Now” could be an inflection point. No star travelled as far stylistically as she did between 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and 2008’s Discipline. Watching her stick yet another landing following a series of brazen jumps — into New Jack Swing, Quiet Storm R&B, electronica, dancehall, hip-hop, house, disco and more — was exhilarating. But 2015’s Unbreakable, Jackson’s first album after a seven-year hiatus, was less adventurous and more muted. It suffered accordingly.
So “Made for Now” suggests a potential return to form, a renewed willingness to engage with the outside world — even if the inclusion of Daddy Yankee on the track, in the midst of Latin music’s ongoing explosion, also seems like a ploy for YouTube clicks. The live-for-the-moment sentiment in “Made for Now” is trite, but the words are just placeholders. The instrumental does the the heavy lifting here, and it moves swiftly and decisively.
“Made for Now” is produced by Harmony Samuels, an English son of Nigerian immigrants. Over in the U.K., afrobeats is already making the sort of impact people hoped it would make here, as seen in the success of both Nigerian stars like Mr. Eazi, who appeared on two top 20 singles in the past year, and in the way that British musicians with ties to West Africa — such as J Hus, Kojo Funds and Maleek Berry, who have family roots in Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria, respectively — have started launching songs onto the U.K. singles chart with increasing frequency.
Maybe those U.K. radio broadcasts are where the 1975 caught on to afrobeats. Though the band’s taste for ridiculous titles remains unchanged, “TOOTIME” is a world away from the music on 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It and recent singles “Love It If We Made It” (yearning rock) and “Give Yourself a Try” (a speedy Strokes imitation). On “TOOTIME,” the drums are submerged, and lead singer Matthew Healy reins in the drama that makes him a reliably absorbing frontman, insteady pitching his voice so it tightly hugs Ross MacDonald’s two-note bassline.
It’s unlikely that either of these songs will become major hits in the U.S. “Made for Now” has already picked up more than 15 million views on YouTube, but that has to be attributed in part to the Daddy Yankee effect. (In comparison, Jackson’s 2015 single “No Sleep” has amassed only 20 million YouTube views in three years.) At radio, Jackson’s core format — R&B stations — quickly added “Made for Now” into rotation, but pop and rhythmic stations paid it little mind. The 1975 have earned a pair of Gold singles in the U.S., however, both were more in line with traditional conceptions of rock than “TOOTIME.” It’s hard to imagine that American rock radio will be open-minded enough to embrace the track; after all, programmers have to find songs that will segue easily into 21 Pilots and Weezer’s cover of “Africa.”
But “Made for Now” and “TOOTIME” don’t necessarily need to become hits to boost the profile of afrobeats here. In a competitive pop marketplace, producers and labels keep a close eye on the competition, and they don’t want to be outflanked. Even if “Made for Now” only gets played on R&B radio, R&B singers will take note.
At the very least, this might provide relief from the deluge of trap-influenced productions that dominate nearly every strain of pop right now. In an ideal world, a new level of interest in afrobeats in America would also trickle back to Nigerian acts, helping artists like Wizkid and Tiwa Savage. In the meantime, afrobeats remains uneasily poised on the edge of a possible breakthrough.