The first two albums released by singer Omawumi are essentially the same record. Mirroring each other not just in the choice of album art,- close up shot of her face and big hair,- but also in the strategic choice of material.
Carefully curated with singles that could easily be serviced to Top 10 radio as well as dance club DJs, 2010’s Wonder Woman experimented with Kwaito, highlife and dancehall resulting in gems such as Into the Music and Serious Love Nwantinti. Lasso of Truth released three years later remains thoroughly enjoyable but even at its finest moments, a strong thread of cynicism runs through, suggesting it was made by committee, to repeat the success of the first record.
For her third merry go round, Omawumi could not have taken a more divergent approach. Signed to new management and with an eye on the international market, Omawumi has carefully downplayed her considerable hit making abilities and embraced a richer, fuller, jazzier sound. One that mixes Fela Kuti and the throbbing pull of Afrobeat with the vivacious scatting of jazz songstresses gone by. It is still early days yet but the results are mixed.
Signs of this transition were manifest in the album’s two promotional singles. Play na Play which features a supporting turn by the Grammy winning Beninese diva, Angelique Kidjo and adopts a cautioning tone, is set to a haunting beat that plays like a fever dream.
The follow up, Butterflies is a straight up evocative ballad that showcases Omawumi’s range and vocal power. It is the kind of single that the old Omawumi would follow up with another dance ready scorcher like Somori, or Bottom Belle. There is no such obvious crowd pleasing fare on Timeless and the closest she comes to hitting the clubs is with the 80’s pop disco/funk throwback, Somtin. She hits the high notes, singing a joyfully familiar tune on the chorus, Somtin no fine/ em mama like am/ em papa like am/everybody like am.
What the record lacks in disposable pop tunes, it makes up for in strong vocal performances and swirling percussive and horn sessions that demand to be performed live. Dolapo is Omawumi warning a lover to beware of the wiles of the title character, slinking in the background and waiting to sink her clutches in at the moment of least resistance. Omawumi may be worried but she delivers the material with a cocksure swagger that listeners begin to worry for Dolapo instead. Obviously, the wonder woman can hold her own against any Dolapo, or Uche, or Yewande for that matter.
The disc is never more interesting than when Omawumi enters with jazz standards like I No Sure, a delicate yet fiery kiss off to a feckless paramour, or a superb, anglicized cover of Fela’s love song, Ololufe, complete with sax solo and stretches of pure, divine mix of instrumentation, uninterrupted by any vocal support. The subtle, swirly E Don Do Me rounds out the disc’s first and strongest half.
There is still a bit of repetition embedded within the record. If Lasso of Truth had the superb I Go Go, then Timeless bows with the less than effective E Don Loss as Omawumi’s compulsory nod to the reggae genre.
With urging from the South African producing super group, Uhuru, Omawumi reworks Salif Keita’s classic ode to the motherland, Africa, lifting the tempo and dulling the emotional intensity. It is clearly a song better left untouched.
It is a brave thing Omawumi is doing and while the result produces some of the finest and most interesting work of her career, she still risks alienating core audiences who are used to the friendly afropop sounds of albums past. Already, the promotional singles have not made much of a dent on the pop landscape.
She calls this album Timeless and a couple of songs may live up to the title entire record is still far from. At only eleven records and a 49 minutes running time, the margin for error has to remain as slim as possible. Timeless works when it does but only about half of the songs are keepers.
Think of Timeless not as Omawumi’s definitive record, even though she would like you to, but as a primer for greatness still unbirthed. Should she stay the course, it shouldn’t be long before she comes full circle.