This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.
Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.
The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.
Aya has a challenging act to follow; it seems nearly unfathomable to eclipse the cultural phenomenon of “Djadja.” The Aulnay-sous-Bois-raised chanteuse rose to the occasion, however, masterfully employing l’argot, or French slang, as she shifts through her various modalities of defiance, softness, and matters of the heart to create a cohesive, intimate experience. Aya is the sound of a young woman and mother who has found the love she deserves and is embracing it unreservedly.
The most explicit Afrobeats flair takes center stage with the tracks “La Machine” and “Doudou” (an kreyòl term for honey/boo). In the former, it is the crisp and commanding lyricism that makes the track so enjoyable, layered over production that harkens back to the spellbinding era early 2010s Wizkid; the latter reunites Aya with Parisian producers Le Side (“Djadja”, “Pookie”) for a sensual and forthright single that seems tailor-made for a Burna Boy remix. The notion of him doing a romantic French verse in response to the enticingly delivered “parle en français, sois clair” would seemingly do wonders for accelerating a bridge to a frequently misunderstood market of the French urban music scene. But as Nakamura has stated repeatedly, anglophone acknowledgment is not her concern. As it stands, the two English features on the album—Stormzy and Ms. Banks—are used sparingly and judiciously, with the latter providing the greater punch on the sweetly delivered “Mon Lossa.”
As in her previous projects, Aya flexes her melodic muscle in other genres. “Fly,” while in need of some refinement in execution around the hook, contains the same spirited airiness of a Dangerous Woman-era Ariana Grande ballad; “Plus jamais” (Never Again), despite Stormzy’s muted presence, is an R&B track at its core, the English version of which would find a perfect home in a Kehlani project. She shares the fear and intensity of falling in love, likening the pleasure of succumbing to it to a religious experience in “Nirvana”; the liberal use of Mashallah in a time when France is being challenged on the world stage for Islamophobic and racially heightened social contexts does not go unnoticed.
Just two tracks later, she partners with Franco-Malagasy rapper Oboy for the erotic “Préféré”—and therein lies the magic of Aya, or La Nakamurance. She will juxtapose her faith with a sexual liaison, dismiss wastemen while fantasizing about the traditional weddings that she had seen growing up in her West African community, and revive and transform a beloved mid-aughts zouk certified hood classic from a Franco-Comorian songwriter (“Sentiments Grandissants”) without hesitation. The efforts may not always land, but she approaches each layer with sincerity—and the successful conjugations are transcendent experiences, greater than their individual parts.
While some members of the French establishment may look askance at her heavy use of argot, she remains dominant, with a cultural penetration that hasn’t emerged from a woman in France since the days of Edith Piaf. Nakamura may be a self-designation, but she is indeed a superhero of sorts; informed by the line of griottes in her maternal Malian heritage, fearlessly genre-bending, shunning the unspoken limitations of genre labels. Like Piaf, Aya “ne regrette rien”—her musical fingerprint is an intimate portrait not just of her life, but the interplay of dominant sounds from the African and West Indian communities in France and how well she can slide between them, both in lingo and melody.
These compositions are what make her music most successful to her longtime fans—a zouk percussion line throbs under refrains that seamlessly flow between R&B and more potent Afropop intonations, as is the case with the deliciously sharp “Tchop” (Whip), and may even inject a classic kompa synth beat for some gouyad (as on the waning moments of “Préféré”). The young woman from 93eme is exposing the world to the France that she knows and hears, in prose and tempo, with every new stream. That is a level of cultural currency that far outweighs a new Times Square billboard—although it would be well served for the rest of the Western musical vanguard to come along for the ride.