Omah Lay: Boy Alone's Melancholy
On paper, music success promises an end to suffering for the beneficiary. But for Omah Lay, it brings new pain.
Omah Lay’s melancholy overpowers him. His helplessness in the face of his demons fuels his art. Surrender, turmoil, flawed humanity, and yearning for whatever lies on the other side of his pain. These feelings are real, and they come alive with each passing moment where he translates his turmoil into art, into singing, into his music.
It’s all in keeping with his origins in Marine Base, one of the many neighbourhoods in inner Port harcourt, with slum waterfronts (locally called a waterside). Down there, life gets uncertain, social entropy is a constant, the day is froth with casual and callous destruction. It was the home and haunting ground of controversial local militant and cult leader, late Soboma George (immortalised in Burna Boy’s “Last Last”). In the 3 years since he’s escaped that life in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, to the commercial creative hub of Lagos, he’s flourished with abandon. Two successful EPs, including 2020’s Get Layd, Nigeria’s definitive pandemic soundtrack. His recent history is littered with sprawling hit songs, and a Justin Bieber collaboration adding a cherry on top of it.
Omah, born Standley Omah Didia, was first a rapper, after gleaning early inspiration from a musical family history. With a percussionist grandfather who manned the guitars for Nigerian highlife great, Celestine Ukwu, and a father given to drumming, he embraced beat-making as a creative outlet. After 4 years of giving up his best creations to artists, he returned to the mic for another run. 2020’s revelatory “Get Layd,” brought immediate success, and 2021’s introspective follow-up, “What Have We Done,” moved him away from one-trick-pony land. A Headies Next-Rated Award win in the bag, tours in distant lands, and an enlarged fan base mark some of the trappings of his artistic potency.
But the good life isn’t enough. On paper, music success promises an end to suffering for the beneficiary. The highs are racy and picturesque, loaded with abundant wine, women and satiated desires. But it's not adequate for Omah. For the boy from Port Harcourt, seeing his dreams light up the sky, and the crowds screaming his name has alienated him from himself. Each win has brought personal losses, each good thing is paid for in some internal coin, moving him to the brink of insanity. And on his debut LP, “Boy Alone,” he takes himself seriously, emotionally dumping his mental woes on everyone, through 14 tracks. Yes, you’re supposed to dance to the music in front of you. The kicks come heavy, and the melody maintains a flow state, like a drunken bender on a night out in Lagos. And when you move to it, it does feel great. But should you find happiness in another’s pain? Is swinging your hips to a man desperately calling for help, some iteration of schadenfreude? You’re supposed to take mental health complaints seriously. Are we terrible people? Where is our collective moral centre?
It’s hard to not hit a jive when the confessional “i’m a mess” adds a Caribbean bounce to the artist’s despairing struggles with addiction and mental listlessness. The human condition is unstable. It’s a tragedy that isn’t unique to Omah. Whether climbing a peak, or free-falling through the cracks of life, volatility is constant. And when the cosmic twists and turns overrun your ability to stay sane, you spiral. “Sometimes, I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad,” Omah croons through his inexplicable depression, against a backdrop of personal material wealth and celebrated accomplishments. There’s substance reliance on alcohol and weed, where he laments, “I’ve been drinking, plenty cognac….I can never be sober.” Intoxicant consumption is a central sub-theme, showing a behavioural pattern of reliance on recreational mind alteration. His existence gathers internal heat, he lights one up, pours a shot and it powers him up until the next hit. On the inflective “i,” Omah says he “smokes up and free myself,” while “temptations,” a record about finding an anchor during another personal crisis, is a paean to the inclusive restorative qualities of marijuana. “My Rizla, when I dey down, I roll one up, to go back up,” the hook rises, in unison with the smoke.
You never really know what’s Omah Lay’s bane on “Boy Alone.” Is it a hangover from his past? Old lovers making a cameo? A forlorn sigh inspired by fame-induced isolation? A constant come down from the highs of living fast? A clash between man and the world's demands? Or just plain unresolved existential crisis, as he unloads rapidly on “Never Forget.” “Nobody get rank for this military, everybody will die. Die like ant, rot like millipede,” he rattles. Causation might remain ambivalent, but the existence of suffering stays in focus. It’s painful, overpowering, and unbearable.
But man shall not die by pain alone. When the flesh beckons, Omah Lay responds. On “bend you,” a perverted Tempoe-produced standout, Omah’s colourful vulgarity is again on display. Yes, he’s grappling with attendant demons of the fast life. His mental health is rooted in the pits. He’s languishing in the bottomless hell of personal darkness. But there’s always time for the rejuvenation of each new lay. He treats sex as he does his art; deliberate, exultant, physical motions create irreverent, internal highs, communicated via imaginative songwriting. “Soso” has surrender as its finest point, where he yearns for a lover to end his lingering suffering. Right here, his flailing mental health becomes irrevocably connected to a baddie’s waistline. By the time Tay Iwar assists his perversion on “tell everybody,” his lady this time boasts of a vagina with a million warranties. Optimised for dependable durability.
In his interviews, Omah Lay talks about finding inspiration in real life. Away from social media and digital spaces, he comes alive when the phones are down and unplugged. Boy Alone feels lived in. Like a house, decorated with a detailed internal compendium of navigating stardom and the aching loneliness of fame. Even at its most dramatic moments, the music never loses its grounded touch, making you choose between drowning in the lyrics or floating in the beauty of the music. It’s either one or the other. Seldom both.
Boy Alone is a man’s true existence. Stripped bare, cooked right, commodified and served up. While there are moments where Omah’s emotional generosity threatens to overshadow the brilliance of his sound, that vulnerability in lyrics is also present in delivery. It keeps the entire affair together. One pain, one song.