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B Side, Music

Essentials: Ayra Starr’s ‘The Year I Turned 21’ Proves She’s Better than She Ever Was

TYIT21  is a self-assured coronation, a portrait of a young artist in flux. Starr emerges with a sureness of her place in the world. 

  • Melony Akpoghene
  • 31st May 2024

The closing scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood where Mason, the protagonist, sits with his new college friends and reflects on life and the concept of living in the moment is a potent image of that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood. Ayra Starr, while holidaying poolside in Barbados, had a moment where she realized her dreams of being a superstar were materializing right before her eyes.



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She embraces this clarity — that she is forming into the age when dreams nurtured by a younger mind are coming true — and documents it perfectly on her sophomore album, a project that is richly layered and deeply personal. Here, Starr isn’t just an artist making music; she’s a young woman chronicling a pivotal year in her life, one filled with growth, the thrill of self-discovery and the intoxicating, rewarding nature of fame. The 15-track collection captures a snapshot of a young artist blossoming before our own ears. It’s a coming-of-age story fundamentally set to Afrobeats.


Following the phenomenal success of her debut, 19 & Dangerous, where Starr dons the skin of a fiery newcomer, she had a lot to live up to. She has proven herself a hitmaker, notched a GRAMMY nomination, performed on big global stages, won the hearts of many and shown that she really has a reach beyond continental confines. But The Year I Turned 21 isn’t simply an extension; it’s an evolution. Ayra Starr knows she’s better than she ever was. Her signature Afropop sound remains, but it’s now layered with spunky textures. From the first song, “Birds Sing of Money”, everything clicks and the confidence Ayra Starr seems to derive from fully harnessing her talent seeps from its pores. A praise singer heralds her entry: a star has arrived. On this album, a self-assured coronation, Starr shuffles from Afropop to R&B, house, amapiano, highlife. Each guest adds a new dimension to Starr’s sound, but she makes one thing very clear and undebatable, she’s an Afrobeats artist.


Ayra Starr is a great singer, her voice itself is its own instrument and on this project, her vocals glide across beats in places she fully intended. On “Goodbye (Warm Up),” featuring fellow Nigerian artist Asake, a dance track that injects the album with a dose of high-octane energy, the message is quite clear: Goodbye/To my/Ex/Hello/To my/Next. And Asake, the man with the carry your weight philosophy (because “I no get stamina”) readily agrees and takes a stance here, too: “You know say me I no like bad energy / Carry your load, joko sepe”.


“Commas,” the lead single, throws back to the braggadocio of “Rush”, but with a different edge. It’s a hit that has justified itself. 

Starr enlists streetpop rapper Seyi Vibez, in an unexpected collab, for “Bad Vibes”, a song about chasing good vibes and pretty much a middle finger raised to those who try to clip her wings. 


“Jazzy Song”, one of the album’s sparkling standouts, is an iridescent up-tempo rocker with beautiful, twisting melodies that nod deferentially to the Afrobeats anthem “You Bad” by Wande Coal and its producer Don Jazzy who is also Starr’s label’s boss. It’s a reinterpretation of a classic that satisfies the nostalgia it summons.



TYIT21 is a flattering portrait of a young artist in flux. Starr sheds the skin of the brash newcomer and emerges as a more self-assured artist, ready to experiment and explore.  Her ambition for global recognition is evident on tracks like the highlife-tinged “Orun,” where she declares, “I’m making history/ I don’t think there’s ever been any like me from these parts.” It’s a powerful statement of intent, a young artist staking her claim. And she has every right to.


Starr has an impressive foresight on how to sell herself. She is a powerful symbol of a burgeoning era in African music when women are demonstrably outracing the men in an industry that men have historically bullied their way into dominating. Crucially, Starr’s artistry and personality is predicated on building up young women. She is for the girls. This is glaring in her persona, her music, even her online presence. Last month, in a conversation with Sally on the Oui Oui Baguette show, she tells Black girls “Show up and let heads turn wherever you enter and be the best. You’re already the best so why not be proud of it?



The Sabi Girl reaffirms this in her album, wrapping it in a bop, “Woman Commando”. Joined by Latin singer Anitta and America’s Coco Jones, she sings: “Nobody’s gon’ be left behind/As a lioness I dey move with squad”.


Offsetting the album’s fire zingers are the sonically gentle, R&B-tinged tunes like “Last Heartbreak Song” where a fed-up Ayra takes a bow on love and Giveon, armed with the smooth melodies of his heart-melting baritone, perfectly plays the pharisaic, toxic loverboy. Their vocals entwine in a harmonious pas de deux to create an aurally ravishing song.


“21″ shares some thematic motifs with American singer SZA’s “20 Something”.  Both songs capture the lingering uncertainties wrought by a newfound sense of self.  Starr and SZA — kind of — share a lyrical kinship, pondering the weight of settling into their roaring 20s. However, where SZA leans on a smoky, almost world-weary soundscape, Starr retains some slivers of optimism. Of course. She’s “just twenty-one”.


The Year I Turned 21 arrives not just as a celebration of reaching a new age, but as a testament to the whirlwind journey that brought her there. It is fun and sweet; even when she addresses topics like loss and grief, the sweetness does not particularly sour. She goes around in zigs and zags, thriving on this push and pull between the fierce and the vulnerable. On “The Kids Are Alright”, she finds the soft center of a complex and lancinating emotion and presents it in the most direct and beautiful way possible. 


Ayra Starr’s The Year I Turned 21 is a solid sophomore effort, proof of Starr’s splendid talent. It brims with stunning amounts of character, style, and skill and places her — unequivocally, without a doubt — next in line for a complete takeover. Before  the closing track, “Santa”, even fades out, we’re left with a sense of awe and the distinct impression that we’ve witnessed the conquest of a major star.  The future stretches out before her, teeming with great possibilities. 

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