By Ferdinand Ekechukwu
That Tiwa Savage had priority album globally slated for this year was already established shortly after inking a deal with Universal Music Group and its affiliates Motown Records on a seven years publishing deal. The afrobeats superstar and former Mavin first lady (eternal Mavin affiliate by soul) was in for beats and business with the biggest music corporation in the world. It paved the way for “Celia”, her fourth body of work in the African continent but Tiwa’s debut album in America soundscape, where the Nigerian singer is courting an audience beyond with her latest record.
Thus, the reckoning by Jon Parelese, in a recent New York Times’ piece that, “for a singer and songwriter just making her American album debut, Tiwa Savage is wildly overqualified.”
“Celia,” released Aug. 28, is actually her fourth full-length album in Nigeria, where she was born and has been hailed in recent years as the “Queen of Afrobeats,” with the West African pop finding its way to a growing worldwide audience.
For Tiwa, the narrative is probably one of her most in-depth conversations with Parelese, a musician and The New York Times chief pop music critic since 1988.
Parelese notes furtherthat the 13-tracks “Celia” is an album of sleekly-insinuating Afrobeats grooves that carry love songs and understated but purposeful messages of empowerment. The lyrics switch between English and Yoruba, as Savage glides through her melodies, rarely raising her airy, unflappable voice. Her latest single, “Temptation,” is a duet with the English pop singer Sam Smith, who was “flattered” to join her, Smith said via Zoom from London, because “I think she’s sensational.”
Smith added, “Tiwa has this natural tone in her voice that makes you feel like you’re listening to a friend. It feels comfortable and feels wholesome and homey. And she sounds kind when she sings. My favorite singers have softness to their voice that doesn’t, you know, smash you in the face. It just sits with you and talks to you in a kind and soft way. That’s how I hear her voice.” To which Tiwa acknowledged “Love you @samsmith” via an Instagram post.
Before she started her solo career in Nigeria a decade ago, Savage worked behind the scenes in the American and British music business. She has songwriting credits on albums by Fantasia, Kat DeLuna and Monica, and she sang backup on tour with Mary J. Blige, in the studio on Whitney Houston’s final album and onstage at Wembley Stadium with George Michael. Now Savage is treating “Celia” as both a culmination and a new beginning. “When I first started out as an artiste, I was seen a certain way, and I’ve grown since then,” she said.
“I’ve experienced a divorce, being a single mom and seeing backlash for being sometimes too sexy in a male-dominated industry,” the article further tells. “Celia” is named after Savage’s mother, and the album ends with “Celia’s Song,” praising her with churchy hallelujahs. “If you tell my mom, ‘Oh, this is impossible,’ she’ll say to you, ‘OK.’ And she’ll walk away, and she’ll just silently get it done. She’s timid and reserved, but she’s powerful,” Savage said, noting that she’s similar. “Offstage, I’m very reserved, very quiet.”
Still on Parelese’ account, “Her first album, “Once Upon a Time,” was released in 2013, drawing nearly as much on American R&B as it did on Afrobeats. Her second, “R.E.D,” in 2015, was exuberantly pan-African, taking in rhythms from all around the continent and dipping into Jamaican reggae. She performed extensively, even when she was visibly pregnant. But as her popularity rose, her marriage deteriorated. By spring 2016, she and her husband were separated and publicly at odds; eventually, they divorced.
Near the midpoint of “Celia,” Savage sings “Us (Interlude),” which directly addresses the breakup: “I wasn’t enough/You weren’t enough/Love wasn’t enough,” she laments.
“It’s definitely the first time I’m being vulnerable,” she said, adding that it had taken years to come to terms with the breakup: “When we first started, it was just like, ‘Me and you, we’re going to conquer the world.’ And then it got to a point where the brand was getting big, and when I had to make a decision, it wasn’t just me and you,” she said. Savage wrote and recorded “Celia” the way many Western pop stars make albums: She convened a songwriting camp. She booked eight rooms for 15 days at the Oriental Hotel in Lagos, where producers and musicians could come and go, and bouncing ideas off one another as Savage supervised, selected tracks and came up with top lines. “Just put your heart into it, and let’s have fun,” she told them.
For all the programming, planning, brand management and careful messaging that go into her music, Savage is determined to loosen up. She is trading pinpoint choreography for more spontaneous moves; she’s revealing her tomboy side as well as her glamorous one; she’s leaving bits of noise and imperfection in her songs. Her next album, which may arrive sometime next year, might dip into Brazilian music or other styles that have caught her ear. “I’m never going to stop experimenting,” she said. “That’s just who I am. Get used to it.”