Tuesday, 23 April 2024

Nonso Amadi Creates A Grand Cinematic Experience On ‘When It Blooms’ [Album Review]

The art of making great albums isn’t a dying art, but it’s one that requires great skill, vision and intentionality. It’s one thing to curate an LP with great songs and it’s another to curate an LP with great songs that coalesce and form an exhilarating experience, reminiscent of the same wholesome feeling of a theatrical experience.

Nonso Amadi "When it Blooms" cover art.
Nonso Amadi “When it Blooms” cover art.

When you come out of seeing a great movie at the cinema, you’re overwhelmed by the whole thing. The screenplay, the cinematography, the pacing, the continuity, the characters dynamism and development, the emotional payoffs and of course the climax. You’re blown away by all aspects of the movie, that your mind perceived as one sole, singular product. The movie.

You do not recount the movie for its different aspects, as independent of each other. You recall its greatness for how all those different elements blended together to be a great movie. The only scenario where you think of a screenplay or cinematography independently—when you’re not analyzing each aspect critically—is when the movie wasn’t that great as a whole, and you’re admiring only the great parts. Hence, statements like “hey, the character development was a bit wonky but the camera work was great!”

The same thing applies to music. A great album should never leave you feeling like it wasn’t a wholesome experience. It shouldn’t have you singling out particular elements as stellar to justify the whole thing. All the right ingredients are supposed to fuse to blow you away. Sonic cohesion, expansive production, seamless transitions, songwriting and optimal track sequencing. A fantastic album has all of that and When It Blooms belong to said fantastic category. On sheer quality alone, it is easily the best album out this year and if received well, could go on to become one of the greatest Afro-RnB albums of all time.

The album opens with morose violin riffs, grating against each other, all fighting to a crescendo of the beat drop. The lyrics are assertive and self-reflective, as Nonso reflects on his past with his motivations being his anchor and how it has factored into him embarking on his current journey to bloom and succeed. Here For It is ideal as the song title because it aptly conveys Nonso’s grit and determination in not backing down. He is ready for all the smoke and that sentiment is conveyed well.

The song closes out with even more somber piano keys, as a backdrop underneath a philosophical, bleak poem that muses on the concept of existence, belonging and purpose. “You think you’re the first person to try and bloom where nothing grows?” is such a chilly, harrowing question that paints the ugly, mind boggling picture of reality where many who aspire to thrive automatically fail. It’s a voice in Nonso’s head, perhaps an intrusive thought or just his fears and anxiety that’s questioning his audacity. With this, Nonso Amadi challenges not just himself in his quest to discover purpose, but the listener also. What better way to start an album?

I’m just a guy, who’s getting high like NASA” Nonso sings on NASA and many would be quick to misinterpret the line as a metaphor drawing a parallel to the high and gratification gotten from drugs, but that couldn’t be more wrong. “I’m moving fast like Nascar” provides even more context and alludes to him meaning that he’s talking about breaking new heights and unearthing success instead. Matter of fact, later in the song after the beat switches, he sings “you know that I don’t smoke and don’t drink, when I say I’m high like I’m NASA” thus hitting the nail on the head. The highness is simply describing the gravity of his status and how high he is revered.

His delivery over the trap beat is immaculate and he constantly switches his flows. Initially, it’s the signature R&B/Soul delivery over a trap beat but he starts melodic rapping towards the end when the beat flips itself, before shedding its skin to devolve into the beat of the next track. The transition is seamless and so well done, it just heightens the experience and makes you love Lock Up even more, when it eventually comes around. Somehow, Nonso and his genius team made an Afro-centric record tinged with log drums, sound cohesive alongside a deep R&B trap cut. It’s also a staple of great albums, when the previously released singles sound better on the album as a part of it.

The Afro-fusion continues on the heartfelt Kilimanjaro, where Nonso likens the highs of love to the heights of the famous mountain. “It’s too high, too low” he deftly sums up the bipolar feeling of love and its power in the simplest of lines. Beam brings a much needed edge with his dancehall roots and is arguably the best guest artist on an album with brilliant guest performances, all round.

Nonso continues treading the vices of love on the next song, Eye to Eye, this time talking about the intricacies of compromise. “We don’t always see eye to eye, but we know when it’s the perfect time” he sings, admitting that love isn’t perfect but it’s the sacrifices and the will to keep fighting through the noise that makes it worthwhile. On the second verse, he also goes on a run where he confesses that his lover drives him mad with rage and soothes his pain at the same time, thus encapsulating the double edged nature of love.

Show me the doors to your heart, Baby I’m breaking in” he sings on Foreigner, underlining his zeal to not give up on his lover, no matter what despite them not being on the same page and not seeing Eye to Eye. It’s such a great topical progression and another subtle, underrated aspect of the album that isn’t so noticeable like the lush production, organic transitions and great writing.

Like the other singles preceding this album, Foreigner sounds better as part of the album. On the interlude, How Love Works, Nonso buttresses the unrelenting quality of love, professing that he will be there no matter what. In a way, it feeds into the overall narrative of his quest on the album and his zeal to discover purpose and bloom no matter what. It’s really profound how the different aspects of the album interact to give a great experience.

Pieces continues on that note and adds an extra layer of vulnerability, as Tay Iwar delivers the most emotionally vulnerable moment of the album on the chorus, claiming that he “picked up the pieces, instead of judging you for your actions.” Nonso is equally emotionally distraught on his verses, as he clamors that they find a middle ground, where she fights for them also or risk crashing and burning. The bass of the kick and its rhythm packs such a punch, as if to resonate the gravity of the topic and the emotional blows that both artists have been dealt in the process. The song ends with an electric guitar going off and adds an extra layer of angst, that can only be found on a metal record.

I pray for peace, but I’m ready for war” Nonso sings on Maryland, showing the astuteness of a wise King that’s always prepared for adversities, but is more willing to take pragmatic ways to solve conflict. This statement is directed at his detractors and the vultures the industry is known for that might intend to take advantage of him. He admits that he is indeed calm, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t wise and should be taken for a fool. On the second verse, he indulges in some healthy braggadocio and hypes himself up in respect to his status and superstar reality.

Nonso, your very existence is a rebellion my brother.” He gets hyped up on the outro of the song, before he’s egged on to bloom. At this point, it’s clear Nonso is the seed about to bloom because he is greatness personified. The feels and ambience of the album is ramped up to the highest on Shivers, which is arguably the most emotive and soulful song on the record. Nonso is simply affirming the potency of his lover’s touch on him and how lost he’ll be without her.

Tamera assumes the role of his love interest and warns him not to “Trade a diamond for a rhinestone.” The reverbs in the background help to simulate the ‘shivering’ pathos and both artists nail it with their vocal performances, conveying emotions that can only be expressed in vocal inflections. It’s such a beautiful composition overall and arguably the best song on a record that has so many peaks, that it’s so hard to pick a song that’s objectively the best.

The segue from Shivers, an emotive RnB record to Paper, an hybrid Amapiano fusion record that blends elements of German techno and EDM is quite bonkers honestly. The title of the song is self-explanatory and Nonso is basically declaring that money, not only acclaim, also fuels his quest for success. Different and Ease Up are the last set of previously released singles that fit like a glove, as a result of their optimal placement on the album.

The former is a groovy pop-leaning R&B record, featuring another impressive guest performance from Majid Jordan, where they croon alongside Nonso—about how special their lover is. The latter on the other hand is somewhat of a wake up call, rather than a politically conscious record that’s on-the-nose like most Afrobeats songs in that category. It’s a good song with competent writing, but it’s one that sounds the most out of place and because it’s not as emotive as the other songs and isn’t thematically as complimentary, it’s probably the weakest song on the album despite being a good song.

When Cali Was The Mission rolls around, Nonso is still exploring themes of purpose, but now laced with stronger hints of a rebellious spirit and an arrogance born out of success. “Took two years came right back, please ask your fave to try that” he boasts about his hiatus not diminishing or impeding his success after returning. But he remains grounded and humble, realizing the need to give gratitude on album closer Gratitude. The song is stacked with highlife synthesizers and cultural drums, that gives the feel of a Juls-produced record in that very grounded African way.

The album and its overarching themes come to a full circle on the emotional eulogy that his mother gives in the closing seconds of Thankful, where she showers praise on him and urges him to “Bloom like a Palm Tree.” It’s such a great emotional pay off that ties into the themes of the album and makes the title even more impactful. Nonso has indeed bloomed on an album that’s brilliant and what better way to commemorate that, than with a mother’s praise.

Albums like these are the benchmarks of brilliance and they come once in a while. In this highly saturated market space of Afrobeats that’s gotten a bit one dimensional with an Amapiano infused pop sound and a strategy that prioritizes marketing over quality music, it’s a good thing to see an album that ticks all the boxes and gives you an experience that overwhelms you when you’re done. Kudos to Nonso for taking his time, because all the hiatus in the world is worth a masterpiece like this one.


Sonic Cohesion: 1.8/2
Seamless Transitions: 2/2
Expansive Production: 1.7/2
Songwriting: 2/2
Optimal Track Sequencing/Topical Progression: 2/2

Total: 9.5/10

This review is written by T.J. Martins, an Album Talks writer.

Listen to ‘When It Blooms’ here:

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