Iyanya’s Once Upon A Cat serves up as a project that strives to remain in tune with contemporary sounds, boasting stellar production and collaborations with emerging acts to make it wholesome.
By Emmanuel Okoro
The pipeline from winning a West African music talent show to achieving mainstream success is a challenging one, with only a handful of vocalists managing to leap. Iyanya Onoyom Mbuk, widely known simply as Iyanya, stands prominently among these successful acts. Since his victorious journey from auditioning to winning the top prize at MTN’s inaugural Project Fame West Africa in 2008, Iyanya has been prominent, reigning over the Afro-Pop scene from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s.
His new project, Once Upon A Cat, somewhat draws its title from a statement made by Afrobeats superstar, Davido, who likened himself and other artistes like Wizkid, who rose to acclaim before the ‘Afrobeats to the World’ movement as “old cats”, and the new generation of superstars leading the global charge in the genre as “new cats”. Within this project, Iyanya unrolls his heydays, a period marked by chart-topping singles, such as 2012’s “Kukere”, 2013’s “Sexy Mama” featuring Wizkid, “Ur Waist” featuring Emma Nyra, 2015’s “Mr Oreo”, and “Gift”. On the new album, the singer heavily leans on the assistance of emerging talents, ensuring his thematic vision resonates with a diverse and modern audience.
On its mid-tempo opener, “On Me”, the singer set the stage for Once Upon A Cat, delivering a ballad of assurance, over lush piano chords, reverb bass, and staccato drum rolls. While he maintains an air of composure throughout the song, his lyrics touch on the importance of making a partner feel cherished. “How do I say I’m worth it if I don’t show you my love and deep affection?/ If I don’t make you feel loved and give attention? I’ll be fooling myself”. Vocalist, Derry Black, contributes to the lyrical narrative, which makes for an enjoyable record.
Iyanya is unassisted on the Vanilla CEO-produced “Attention”, as he builds on the previous track, echoing the sentiments of women across the world on the subject of attention. However, he offers little to back up the sentiment, making the track feel somewhat repetitive. The mood takes a turn with “Kiss Me”, a mid-tempo Afrobeats tune where he delves into a tryst with a lover. While cruising through the track with his familiar disposition, Moonlight Afriqa steals the spotlight with a measured flow, adding complexity to the lyrical depth of the song.
Derry Black makes a return on the subsequent track, “Survive”, an earworm characterised by busy basslines, mid-tempo kicks, and subtle synths. In this song, they express their struggles to stay afloat in the face of challenging circumstances. Lines like “Everyone say life is easy but truly living is not/ Time get hard, people struggle, and constantly on a spot/ So I’m tryna survive” inject a sense of realism and relatability into the track.
Once Upon A Cat dynamically shifts with the next song, “Call Me Baby” featuring fast-rising sensation, Dai Verse. On this groovy Afrobeats track, they dote on the subject of longing for a significant other, saying they would go to lengths for her, depending on what she desires. The catchy hook on the song interpolates Ja Rule’s 2002 classic hit “Mesmerise”, injecting nostalgia into the mix. One of the album’s standout offerings presents itself in “Strong” featuring Myron and produced by TheWeirdOne and Vanilla CEO. Centred around the theme of longing, both artistes, well-acquainted with the theme, navigate it seamlessly, accompanied by finely executed production to boot.
The thematic exploration of longing continues in “Catching Cold”, where Iyanya collaborates with Soundz. Over a backdrop marked by mild log drums and chords, they delve into the complexities of longing and loneliness. Lines like “I’m catching cold, my heart is froze when you nor dey close/ How I wan take sing my song wey be say na you dey make me compose?” stand out, resonating with those who have experienced the pangs of love.
T. Dollar appears on “Ope”, a track that fuses Afrobeats with elements of Amapiano. T. Dollar takes the first watch, sharing a glimpse into his humble beginnings and how much success he has attained now. Iyanya joins in, taking a swipe at perceived detractors hating on his success. Shifting gears to “Miracle”, he takes a step back, allowing the spotlight to be claimed by the incredible duo of Pawzz and Ashidapo. With excellent production from Kenzy Beats, the song seamlessly blends traditional and modern sonic elements on this progressive track.
Once Upon A Cat continues its exploration with “WDO”, an abbreviation for “we dey outside”, a Nigerian pidgin phrase synonymous with hanging out with friends or partying. In this track, the “Kukere” crooner partners with Afro-R&B sensation, Qing Madi. Together, they deliver an ode celebrating their commercial successes while noting that there’s more work to be accomplished. “WDO” captures joy and camaraderie, and acknowledges their achievements in the journey to greater heights.
“Slowly”, another hidden gem on the project, slides next, with the singer describing an intimate encounter with a love interest. Lola Rae and XenaVonn join in, providing brief but poignant verses that enrich the narrative of the song. This collaborative effort creates a melodic and engaging track that adds depth to the album. The penultimate track, “Running”, takes a more introspective turn as Iyanya smoothly navigates the bumpy track, confronting his inner demons and expressing the need to recollect his thoughts. M3lon contributes insights into his journey in the second verse, creating a layered and reflective piece.
The album concludes with “Sweet Life”, featuring Young Duu and Tolibian, with production by TheWeirdOne. This Afrobeats tune carries hints of Caribbean sonic elements as the overarching lyricism revolves around seeking a life associated with indulgence in debauchery and guilty pleasures.
Iyanya’s Once Upon A Cat serves up as a project that strives to remain in tune with contemporary sounds, boasting stellar production and collaborations with emerging acts to make it wholesome. Despite these strengths, the album, spanning 33 minutes, presents a notable imbalance where Iyanya appears to assume a secondary role – like a guest in his project – with the featured young talents often outshining him on various turns. On the only standalone track, “Attention”, the singer encounters challenges in breaking through and asserting his vocal presence.
While stylistic collaboration is not inherently negative, as it injects diversity into the album and its listening experience, it simultaneously raises questions about the missed opportunity for Iyanya to showcase his vocal and songwriting prowess and solidify his established status in the music industry. On further peering, Once Upon A Cat may be deemed as a project that faintly brushes the potential of an artiste that once ruled our airwaves.
Lyricism – 1.3
Tracklisting – 1.4
Sound Engineering – 1.5
Vocalisation – 1.3
Listening Experience – 1.5
Rating – 7/10
Emmanuel ‘Waziri’ Okoro is a content writer and journo with an insatiable knack for music and pop culture. When he’s not writing, you will find him arguing why Arsenal FC is the best football club in the multiverse. Connect with him on X, Instagram, and Threads: @BughiLorde.