Afrobeats Superstar Ayra Starr Gets Personal About ‘The Year I Turned 21,’ Meeting Rihanna and Growing Up in Public


Ayra Starr’s evolution from teen star to a fully-fledged musician has been fast and furious.

In the three short years since her debut EP was released, the singer has become a household name within the African music community and is making moves beyond it.

Since Variety spoke with Starr last year, she’s gone on to headline her debut world tour, hit a billion streams on Spotify, and scored a Grammy nomination for best African music performance with her smash hit “Rush.”

The Beninese-Nigerian singer-songwriter’s sophomore album dropped today (May 31) via the recently announced Mavin-Republic Records partnership (as a part of a larger deal with Universal Music Group) and features labelmate Anitta, Afrobeat star Asake and R&B singer Giveon, among others.

A lot of Starr’s signature swagger and determination – via her popular “sabi girl” catchphrase and the daring title of her debut album “19 & Dangerous” – was the mark of a young artist still defining who she was. “I feel like I was a very confident human being, but I was never a confident musician because I was shy to say my thoughts in a studio session,” she says. “I would make everybody leave before I could even record myself. But with this album, I became a more confident musician and a better vocalist. I would have my vocal coach in the studio with me and they would tell me how to hit certain notes better. It’s also about vulnerability and removing my ego.” The singer was instrumental in crafting the project as she co-wrote every song on the album, with several contributions from singer-songwriter Mason “Maesu” Tanner (“Angels in Tibet” by Amaarae, “No.1” by Tyla & Tems) and top producer London (“Calm Down” by Mavin labelmate Rema with Selena Gomez, “Bloody Samaritan” by Ayra Starr).

As its title signals, “The Year I Turned 21” is a coming of age story. Sonically, the album floats between genres but is rooted in Afrobeats. The opening “Birds Sing of Money” is a midtempo track with snare and brass drums that give it a R&B and light hip-hop vibe; later Starr leads a formidable female trio on “Woman Commando” with Coco Jones and Anitta; the song “21” is easily Starr’s most pop-leaning effort to date, a ballad that reflects on each year of her life.

In the months leading up to her new album, Starr has become a magnet for collaborations, from “Stamina” with Nigerian heavyweights Young Jonn and Tiwa Savage to reconnecting with the latter on “Gara” from the “Water and Garri” soundtrack; she joined joined forces with buzzing French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura for “Hypé” and superstar DJ-producer David Guetta on “Big FU,” also featuring rapper Lil Durk. And just earlier this year, Starr delved into the Latin music with the scorching single “Santa” alongside Rvssian and Rauw Alejandro, propelling to No. 8 on the Hot Latin Songs chart in the US and racking up 160 million Spotify streams in under two months (the song is a bonus track on “The Year I Turned 21”).

My people, my team wanted the album out last year – we had the artwork by September and I already had most of the songs. But I felt like something was missing – it didn’t feel complete to me. I felt like I was kind of rushing. On the business side, it [might have been] the right thing to do, and I saw what they were trying to do, but I didn’t feel prepared. I wanted to take my time with it, and everything fell into place. I didn’t have to argue – we had features coming out, and I felt like it would be too much to have an album with all these features out already. Even [“Santa”] was supposed to come out last year.

I had a lot of stuff happen personally and in my work life that made me grow up so much, maybe from having to tour alone and be away from my family for so long. I feel like I grew up so much in the last six months -sonically also, because I’ve always loved making music but I wasn’t sure of my sound yet. I didn’t see my superpowers as superpowers. But now I see that it’s a superpower to be able to go into any, any genre and still be Ayra Starr.


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