Album Review: J. Martins’ Authentic & the Question of Authenticity by Echezonachukwu Nduka
Martins may well be one of the few Nigerian musicians who experiment with highlife. His choice of genre fusions which include sukous, makossa, highlife, hiplife, and afrobeats is a pointer. Since his undergraduate days in Enugu, the singer had worked in the industry mainly as a producer before branching into performance. However, the release of his fourth studio album of fifteen tracks begs for answers to a few critical questions. One is the question of authenticity. Another is the question of thematic choices, monotonous narratives and their relation to authenticity. Another could be the question of abrupt endings and what they mean or suggest, based on the broad theme of authenticity, which draws from the title of the album—Authentic.
Martins’ Authentic starts with a disconnection. What does it mean for a highlife musician to introduce an album of mainly highlife songs with a short soul work? Is J. Martins seeking to make an important statement? The sharp contrast and disconnection which follows after the introduction begs explanation. In my view, it has no place in the album, and in any case, it is what it is: an introduction which lacks connection with the works it seeks to introduce. In an album of fifteen songs, the first six songs have a monotonous theme where the act sings the praise of African women (and their bodies, of course) and invites them to dance. This is where the first problem lies. I question the essence of producing an oeuvre where more than half of the works say the same thing in almost the same way, leaving no room for diversity. The same theme is evident in the eleventh and twelfth tracks. J Martins perhaps argues for authenticity by striving to make an impression that his music is mainly about one thing. But how does this work effectively in an era of diversification where sameness is easily interpreted as absurdity and boringness? Does being authentic mean wearing an exclusive identity? What is the tendency of creating a true or real feeling with a monotonous narrative in an album? In his seminal essay on Authenticity in popular culture and music in particular, Michael Drew argues that the quest for authenticity shows that people care about what is real. The problem here is that “reality” is subjective and relative. There is no single parameter for measuring this. However, it is important to ask: What is real about J. Martins’ Authentic? The originality and diversity brought into the first six works are mainly related to beats, production techniques, and featured artistes whose artistic influences score reasonable points. The act follows a tradition of Nigerian pop musicians whose offerings are mainly about the body of a woman. The only difference is that while others pay more attention to beats than lyrics, J Martins has more to say about the same thing.
In Obioma, the saxophone recalls Celestine Ukwu’s Igede, a popular Igbo highlife tune of the 70s and 80s. The practice of mentioning names of (often) wealthy people while a band plays (which is an act associated with highlife music and has since become an insignia that is being appropriated by many contemporary afrobeat musicians) is reiterated here. Samuel Osax’s saxophone riffs in all the tracks he played scores a distinction in extemporization. The track itself is impressive highlife music—one of J. Martins’ best in the album. If the track, which is enriched by appropriation, is one of the act’s best, where then is the authenticity? In Alabekee, the zigma sound progenitor—Bright Chimezie makes a brilliant feature. If one is in doubt about J. Martins’ main genre, tracks two and nine will make bold statements. If there is one thing authentic about J Martins’ Authentic, it is the first grade performance of his highlife songs. His vocal texture is appropriate for the highlife genre, and that is his mark.
In Ten Ten, Skale’s signature melody in “Shake Body” finds its way into J. Martins’ verse. On this note, one is left to wonder if this is a case of influence, coincidence, or appropriation. Stupid comes as a relief of sorts in the sense that it deviates from the monotonous theme and genre that plagues the album. The rap song which features Vector and Zoro follows a tradition of vulgarism and self-assertion that trends in the rap genre. The triple appearance of one act in an album of fifteen tracks calls for attention. DJ Arafat is featured in Sarafina, Faro Faro, and Touching Body, making these works and the album lose the diversity which different acts would have brought. This is what happens when hit singles are forced into a line-up of tracks in an album.
On a final note, it is pertinent to ask: what do abrupt endings say about a musical work? Most of the tracks in J. Martins’ Authentic suffer from a lack of finality. On a broad perspective, abrupt endings are often used to achieve a surprise effect, leaving an audience or a listener in awe and crave. In the album, it is not clear what the act hopes to achieve with abrupt endings. If the intention is to create surprise, it clearly fails to achieve that. On a scale of ten, the album scores six and a half.