The industry that the Project Fame winner met in 2008, isn’t the same one that he’s currently living in. Asides the numerous sound evolutions that the sonic identity of Afrobeats and pop music has experienced, the magnitude of African music has never been more immense than it is now.
Yes we’ve had our music penetrate specific music stratospheres in Europe. The UK in particular and even other countries like France. Acts like King Sunny Ade and Fela have had their respective impressive overseas streak in the 90’s. Asa charted on major French charts with her debut album, but now the playing field is way bigger. Afrobeats is one of the biggest music genres and cultures in the world, racking up hundreds of billions of streams.
Basically, any veteran artiste that fails to get with the times would most definitely feel alienated. At some point in the early 2010s, Iyanya had the biggest song in the country with Kukere and since then a lot has changed and happened. He’s not been part of the select few distinguished set of artistes that navigated the soundscape abruptly and evolved meaningfully with the times, despite having a good work ethic. In the past 3 years, he has dropped 2 EP’s and now an album.
On this new album though, Once Upon A Cat he has all the right ideas. Featuring up and coming new age acts with niche followings, that could help him appeal to newer audiences. Getting with the times and opting for production choices that prioritize mid-tempo pop (as opposed to the up-tempo one that dominated his era) and also learning stronger towards RnB influences. So the idea in itself is great, as it shows a willingness and awareness to adapt. The execution though leaves much to be desired.
Album opener, On Me ft. Derry Black is an Afro-Swing song with some lush production and pristine sound engineering. A quality that’s mostly maintained all through the album and one of its best attributes. However, it’s just an okay song. The vocal performances are just okay, there is also nothing stellar in the cadences and manner of which both artistes deliver on the song. However, it’s not a bad song and would definitely make for good background music.
Attention is more of the same, except the production is a bit more minimalist and stripped back which doesn’t help the record, because the prior one was mostly carried by it. The writing also leaves much to be desired, as it’s overly repetitive in some places and there are way too many pockets of spaces where nothing is being said. Afrobeats might not need the strongest of narratives in writing, but it does need strong, relatable arcs especially when it’s R&B being done.
Kiss Me ft. Moonlight Afriqa is more of the same Bashment/Dancehall spectrum that the album is treading. As stated earlier, Iyanya’s writing in verses leaves much to be desired. But that would have been salvaged with strong, memorable hooks that the album also seems to be lacking. Moonlight makes the most of what he can and turns in a decent performance. However, that’s not enough to let this song escape from the confines of ‘bang average.’
Survive ft. Derry Black is one of the stronger songs on the album and one of the purer R&B records. This is mostly down to the fact that Iyanya goes on the backburner and lets the featured artiste own the record, while turning in one of his best verses on the album. This strategy right here should have been taken on all the albums. After all, this was a conscious decision to give a platform to up and coming acts, and so letting them take the center stage shouldn’t have been an issue.
Dai Verse also delivers the goodies on Call Me Baby and Iyanya does too delivering a hook that’s one of the strongest on the LP and one that would easily get ingrained in the listener’s memory. This is a song with great potential to become a sleeper hit/deep R&B cut if serviced well. On Strong ft. Myrion, things threaten to get monotonous as a result of the tight rope of cohesion that this album is treading on, but the artistes exert their vocals and that brings some much needed dynamism to the song.
Soundz delivers arguably the best and most memorable hook on Catching Cold and re affirms the strategy, that the guest artistes should have had more agency on majority of the songs whilst Iyanya remains on the backburner. Iyanya excels again in this format, when he doesn’t do the heavy lifting and has just the task of turning in a good verse. This one is a potential hit record. A slow burn with a huge ceiling if pushed well, because of it’s strong sing-along attribute.
T. Dollar brings some much needed street edge and energy into the project on Ope and it deviates from its Swing/R&B territory for some much needed refreshment. The featured act does the most and this format once again excels and results in a song with a potential to become a street anthem. Miracle ft. Pawzz and Ashidapo, features very strong traditional percussive elements that makes for an Highlife song. The production and sound engineering is so good, the artistes only have to do the bare minimum for it to all pan out well. Although the record could have been elevated further with better performances.
The soundscape on WDO is tailor made for Qing Madi to make some magic, as it’s familiar BPM territory for her but the topical choice isn’t exactly the most attuned to her artistry, as she excels best on hopeless romantic records and not one of prayers/gratitude. An opportunity is missed here, although it’s still mostly an okay song.
Slowly ft. Lola Rae & XenaVonn doesn’t offer anything new or fresh on the album. Familiar lines of production threads have been treaded already on preceding songs, and the guest artistes don’t make much of a lasting impression. Running ft. M3LON is another song that doesn’t do much sonically, but offers a fresh perspective topically in the manner in which it addresses finding solace in chaos.
The album closes with Sweet Life ft. Young Duu & Tolibian, and it’s a strong moment to close with. Tolibian turns in one of the best verses of the album, both delivery wise and lyrically. Young Duu also brings his A-game and the record is simply elevated, that it doesn’t matter what Iyanya does on it. Overall, the album ends on a stronger note than it started on.
Once Upon A Cat is an intentional comeback from Iyanya. It has the right ideas and some commendable execution, although not on a great or phenomenal level. The opening songs are quite weak and could make one lose interest before getting to the stronger parts. Still it has enough great moments to generate something meaningful for the artiste and some of the featured acts. This writer wishes them the best.
Sonic Cohesion: 1.5/2
Unharried Transitions: 1.4/2
Expansive Production: 1.3/2
Songwriting & Delivery: 1.1/2
Optimal Track Sequencing: 1.2/2
—Reviewed by T.J. Martins, a music nerd.