Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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King Sunny Ade

  • The Message [Sunny Alade, 1981] A
  • The Return of the Juju King [Mercury, 1987] B+
  • E Dide (Get Up) [Mesa, 1995] B+
  • Odù [Mesa/Atlantic, 1998] A-
  • Seven Degrees North [V2, 2000] **
  • King of Juju [Wrasse, 2002] A
  • The Best of the Classic Years [Shanachie, 2003] A+
  • Synchro Series [IndigeDisc, 2003] B+
  • Gems From the Classic Years 1967-1974 [Shanachie, 2007] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Message [Sunny Alade, 1981]
All I know about Adé is that he's the (or a) king of Nigerian juju. His voice is gentle, his rhythm insinuating and very poly, his guitar graceful and faintly Hawaiian. Also, he comes up with good hooks--"Ma J'Aiye Oni" was on my interior jukebox for weeks. I play this a lot, and even at that don't think it matches the one with the orange cover that I lost at Charing Cross six weeks ago. When I went back to buy a second copy at Stern's, 126 Tottenham Court Road, London WI, I was told I'd never see it again and advised to plunk down another six quid for this substitute. I'm glad I did, but anyone who knows where I can find the one with the orange cover please advise. A

The Return of the Juju King [Mercury, 1987]
Shortly after he split with Island, Adé also split with the African Beats, which may be why this fifty-five-minute compilation from three recent Nigerian LPs never generates that familiar aura. Could also be the weakness of digital remixers for percussion. Talking drum fans'll love it. B+

E Dide (Get Up) [Mesa, 1995]
Can't claim this sustains the promise he had going for him on both sides of the Atlantic in the early '80s--that sense of limitless possibility betrayed by chaos in Nigeria, parochialism in Gaia, and the failure of Aura to move up the charts. But it's possible to applaud his development of Lagos's recording facilities and still be glad he's cut another studio album outside of Africa. A nickel short on both hook and flow, it nevertheless achieves an internationally suitable balance of detonation and quietude--and of voice, percussion, and guitar. B+

Odù [Mesa/Atlantic, 1998]
Ade is no longer a signifier of polyrhythmic African mystery--he's a lesson learned and absorbed. Recorded almost live in a Louisiana studio, this is a convincing statement by an individual titan who dominates juju the way Joseph Shabalala does mbube. Ade's slightly roughened pipes subtract less than Jonah Samuel's piano and organ add to an almost jazzlike synthesis of studio-imposed concision and party-time expandability. And the lyrics are translated and transliterated, situating the music in its culture for anyone who cares. A-

Seven Degrees North [V2, 2000]
"Birthdays are very important/Anyone who witness another year should celebrate" ("Samba," "Congratulations [Happy Birthday]"). **

King of Juju [Wrasse, 2002]
Of the '82-'83-'84 Island LPs that inspired Ade's dreams of international stardom, Juju Music was a fluently constructed ethnopop sampler, Synchro System a fully integrated Martin Meissonnier album. Here both are seamlessly patched together with two Nigeria-only tracks, a Manu Dibango curtain call, and the Stevie Wonder cameo from Ade's final and best Chris Blackwell project, Aura. Better Sunny's synths than Salif Keita's, and he's never made warmer or hotter records--loaded with fun sounds and Lagos themes, deeper on body bass than talky drum. Only those who own the originals on CD should pass up this recapitulation. A

The Best of the Classic Years [Shanachie, 2003]
I wonder if the guys who complained Sunny was one of them media hypes are still listening to their Dream Syndicate albums. Maybe they are, the saps. But two decades on the truth is clearly the opposite--though now slightly diminished, he was a titan, one of the great pop musicians of the 20th century. This first stateside attempt to cherry-pick his vinyl outpouring--Ade himself has compiled CDs for his Masterdisc label--mines 1967-74, well before he crowned himself juju king, and although I own many of his African LPs, I'd never heard a cut on it. It's less tuneful than my old favorite The Message and doesn't flow as smoothly as the '80s stuff Chris Blackwell tried to naturalize into the new reggae. Yet thanks in part to ace compiler Randall Grass, it's magnificent through and through: so polymorphous that themes trade off with variations, so light that its guitars seem barely touched by rock sonorities, so percussive that only Nigerians can dance to it. Sweeping a big, ethnically divided country, juju was one of the headiest pop crazes anywhere ever. It was also mother's milk. A+

Synchro Series [IndigeDisc, 2003]
Two vintage Nigeria-only albums back-to-back, both previously unknown to me: 1982's mild and sweet Gbe Kini Ohun De and 1983's Synchro Feelings, "a medley of remixes of earlier tracks, dub versions and outtakes from the Island [Synchro System] sessions." Not the ideal way to ease peak Ade into the American marketplace. I hope it's surpassed--may I mention Bobby, Ajoo, Check "E," and of course The Message? But the American marketplace being what it is, I wouldn't count on it. B+

Gems From the Classic Years 1967-1974 [Shanachie, 2007]
A few downshifts too thoughtful for the non-Yoruba ("Sunny Spiral [four-song medley]"; "John Ali"). ***