Hip-Hop

Five Burning Questions: Wizkid's 'Essence' With Tems and Justin Bieber Hits Hot 100's Top 10

Wizkid
Rob Rusling*

Wizkid

The path of Wizkid's "Essence" to the top 10 has been a long one, dating back to the song's original release on his Made in Lagos album nearly a full year ago -- and in ways, dating back far longer than that, to start of the long-cresting Afrobeats wave on stateside shores many years earlier.

This week, the song climbs 11-10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its 14th week on the chart, marking Wizkid's first appearance in the chart's top tier as a lead artist -- though he'd previously visited it as a guest on Drake's "One Dance," a 10-week Hot 100-topper in 2016. It's the first appearance of any kind for the song's original featured guest, fellow rising Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems, and the 25th for Canadian pop superstar Justin Bieber, a late addition for the song's remix.

Why was "Essence" the first Afropop song to cross over on this level? And which artist might make it back to the top 10 first? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. "Essence" finally reaching the Hot 100's top 10 in its 14th week in the chart feels like a big moment for not only the artists involved, but for Afrobeats as a global genre. On a scale from 1-10, how would you rate the musical and cultural importance of the song going top 10?  

Carl Lamarre: 9.5. I think people forget that Wiz's Made in Lagos album dropped October 2020. So, the fact that people were so late to the party on the album and "Essence" is beyond criminal. And in some respects, it's even more disrespectful that so many needed a Bieber appearance for people to appreciate the richness of "Essence." Either way, I think this record propelling into the national spotlight bodes well for a rising genre looking to makes waves on American soil. Even with the rapid success of CKay's "Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)," the timing seems just about right for the genre. With the dominance of Burna and Wizkid, along with the growing popularity of Tems, Elaine, and Amaraee, best believe that Afrobeats is here to stay.

Jason Lipshutz: An 8. Right now, it feels like we can only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how influential Afrobeats is going to be on North American pop music over the next few years. Multiple Afrobeats artists have found sizable U.S. fan bases, but this is the first time a crossover hit has brought the sound to the mainstream this overtly and powerfully. “Essence” stands on its own as a top-notch single, but it also feels like the start of something much bigger.

Heran Mamo: This is 10-level monumental. Two singer-songwriters from Lagos, Nigeria are putting Afrobeats on the map after the song’s year-long global expedition to the top 10 region of the all-genre tally. And with “Essence” containing Yoruba and Nigerian pidgin lyrics, it exposes casual listeners to the sheer essence (pun intended) of Afropop and its intimate moments that are similar to what’s heard in R&B. “Essence” has persuaded fans into catching a vibe with a genre and language they don’t listen to or understand because they’re already familiar with its sensual theme and potentially its lead artist Wizkid by way of Drake’s “One Dance.”

Neena Rouhani: I’d give it an 8. I think it’s extremely important and speaks to people’s growing affinity for the genre on a mainstream level. If we see this happen again for an Afrobeats song in the near future, that would be even more significant because it would mark a trend, especially if it happens upon a song’s initial release. “Essence” first dropped as a deep cut from Wizkid’s album almost a year ago exactly. It took a lot for it to arrive where it’s at on the charts. I’m hoping to see an Afrobeats song debut in the top 10 and maybe it’ll come from Tems or Wiz.

Andrew Unterberger: I'd say at least a 9. It feels like one of those exciting dam-bursting moments you get in pop music every couple of years, the kind of hit drawn from years of built-up pressure, and whose massive success will invariably lead to a flood of similar hits of varying sizes to follow. Put it this way: If Billboard does another Songs That Defined the Decade project at the end of the 2020s, it's almost impossible to imagine "Essence" not finding its way onto it.

2. Both Wizkid and Afrobeats in general have been sizable presences in the U.S. for some time now, without ever launching a crossover hit on this scale. What is it about "Essence" that allowed it to reach heights that no other Afropop single has in this country? 

Carl Lamarre: The production and the summery "essence" of the track helped propel the song into mainstream territory. The sing-songy elements were also a crucial ingredient, I think. People might not know the lyrics, but the melody is so infectious that it's hard to ignore.

Heran Mamo: The chemistry between Wizkid and Tems on the track, which has a sensual, feel-good vibe to it that found its light during the summertime, will catch any pop and R&B lover who’s a sucker for a romantic duet. Down to the core of “Essence,” the song’s structure of a man and woman intimately singing about longing to be with one another is a song we’ve all heard before, regardless of how it sounds or what dialect it’s sung in. When speaking with Tunji Balogun, executive vp of A&R at RCA (and incoming CEO of Def Jam), about the song’s growing popularity, he pointed out how rare and paramount it is to see more women and women’s perspectives heard in Afrobeats music -- compared to the Burna Boys, the Davidos and the Mr. Eazi’s we’re more accustomed to hearing solo, with each other or alongside American male rappers. But with “Essence,” there’s a different sonic texture to it than the average love song, from Tems’ rich, alto vocals to Wizkid’s pidgin slang, and that might be the most attractive part of it.

Jason Lipshutz: The combination of the toasty production, inviting hook and pitch-perfect interplay between Wizkid and Tems on the track turn “Essence” into the type of song that’s difficult to dislike, or play once and let drift out of memory. I’ve played “Essence” driving around in the daytime, before falling asleep, in a party playlist and during dinner with my wife -- it works everywhere. That’s usually a good sign for a slow-growing hit to keep climbing.

Neena Rouhani: This may be oversimplifying but I think “Essence” is just a universally great, sing-along song. It is absolutely the standout track on Made in Lagos and anyone who dabbles in Afrobeats music was aware of it since at least last winter. Then, I’d say it’s timing. After the music video dropped in April 2021, the track was renewed just in time for the summer, where it was heard in basically every hip-hop-adjacent club and event in New York City (I was probably there).

Andrew Unterberger: Some songs just hit the right way, right away, every single time out. Months into its run, I've still yet to hear "Essence" once on the radio or in the wild where its opening shuffle didn't feel like cracking the windows in a hot and stuffy car, like hearing the sound of whiskey crackling over ice at the end of a long work week. There's no faking that feeling, but when you capture it, there might not be a single more powerful force in all of pop music.

3. Wizkid has visited the charts' top tier before -- as a guest on Drake's 2016 Hot 100-conquering smash "One Dance" -- but this is a first for Tems. Which of the two artists do you think is more likely to return to the top 10 in the near future?

Carl Lamarre: I'm slightly going to give the edge to Tems. I think Wizkid's wizardry is so underrated, despite proving to make earworms with H.E.R. and Ella Mai, that it's hard to discount his abilities. The thing with Tems is her voice and mystique make her such an exciting draw. I think that's why she's been able to lock in co-signs from Drake and Rihanna. I believe the right feature could help vault her back into the promised land.

Jason Lipshutz: Tems is a star, and should have -- at the very least -- a solid run of U.S. success in the near future after signing to RCA Records. Yet Wizkid already has an album packed with hits ripe for the plucking: last year’s Made in Lagos is front-to-back stellar, and after “Essence” wrap its run, I could see “Ginger” with Burna Boy, “Smile” with H.E.R. or the solo gem “No Stress” taking off.

Heran Mamo: With Wizkid now securing stateside smash hits with the help of two Canadian superstars, his music moving forward will enter more global territories and higher chart positions, including a highly likely return to the top 10. But I’m still betting on Tems: Although her guest feature on Drake’s “Fountains” from Certified Lover Boy wasn’t an automatic No. 1 hit record like “One Dance” was, it still broke into the top 40 of the Hot 100, peaking at No. 26. Like Ty Dolla $ign or Don Toliver, she’s about to be R&B and hip-hop's next highly sought-out featured artist because of her distinct and graceful tone, having recently worked with Brent Faiyaz on “Found” (which peaked in the top 20 of Hot R&B Songs) from her latest EP If Orange Was a Place.

Neena Rouhani: I think they’re neck and neck. Obviously Wizkid has been around far longer than Tems and is a superstar in his own right, but Tems has been doing her thing, too. It’s clear the industry is well-aware of her collaborative impact, considering how well “Essence” is doing and her subsequent feature on Certified Lover Boy and later, a Brent Faiyaz feature on her own EP,  If Orange Was a Place. When it comes to Wizkid, we’ve seen him perform on the charts before. It’s just a matter of who gets the right collab first.

Andrew Unterberger: Tems seems to have all the positive buzz and forward momentum in the world right now -- and rightly so, giving not only her star-marking turn on the "Essence" hook, but the delectable vibes of the whole Orange EP. I could very easily see her bounding up the charts again shortly, either on her own or as a guest -- Drake might've been the first star North American rapper to enlist her services, but guaranteed he won't be the last.

4. "Essence" isn't the only breakout hit by a Nigerian singer-songwriter currently scaling the Hot 100 -- CKay's "Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)" also bounds into the top 40 this week for the first time, in just its fourth week on the chart. Do you see it ultimately joining "Essence" in the chart's top tier?

Carl Lamarre: Just based on the trajectory and velocity, I would think so. Social media helped the record resurface after initially coming out 2019. I'm sure once Atlantic Records begins to shell out money on the radio front, that CKay will start to see the true fruits of his labor.

Jason Lipshutz: Top 10 may be tough, but if CKay’s breakthrough hit makes the same leap off of streaming and onto radio that “Essence” has made, the top tier of the chart is a possibility. “Love Nwantiti” has already morphed from a viral success to a streaming juggernaut, and if it’s going to keep growing, the song needs to cross over to even more listeners; we’ll know more about its chance to do so in the next few weeks, I’d imagine.

Heran Mamo: It’s possible, considering “Essence” is blazing the trail for more crossover Afrobeats hits to follow suit and TikTok has been an integral player in the growing success of “Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah).” What’s exciting to me about this song, in comparison to “Essence,” is that its notable remixes are helmed by other artists from the African continent: Fellow Nigerian singer Joeboy and Ghanaian singer Kuami Eugene are on the most notable version, while Moroccan rapper ElGrande Toto is featured on the official North African remix and Congolese French rapper Franglish takes over on the French remix. While “Essence” has experienced groundbreaking success following the addition of someone as major as Bieber, “Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)” stays true to the song and its artists’ African roots, and it’s paying off.

Neena Rouhani: I’m not sure, but my gut says it won’t get to where “Essence” is at. TikTok definitely contributed to the buzz of “Love Nwantiti,” but it doesn’t carry the starpower or cultural significance of “Essence.” I think overall, “Essence” is a stronger single, especially after the Bieber co-sign. Maybe CKay will come back with a new single that takes him to the top.

Andrew Unterberger: I think it will. It's already reached No. 2 on the Billboard Global 200, and it's been closing the gap between its global and stateside stature at an impressively accelerated weekly rate. Plus, we forget that No. 35 (where "Love Nwantiti" ranks this week) was also about where "Essence" was in its own chart trajectory before the Bieber remix arrived -- and while the song might ultimately steer clear of such a shortcut, you just know the trend-savvier North American stars are pushing and shoving right now to be first in line for the honors of appearing on one.

5. The obvious historic comparison that people will make with "Essence" is to "Despacito," another bilingual runaway hit that proved the stateside commercial power of a non-English-based genre (and, of course, was boosted along the way by a Justin Bieber remix). Do you find those comparisons to be fair, reductive, or somewhere in between?  

Carl Lamarre: In between. I admire the steady progression of "Essence." It was a slow burn (14 weeks) to crack the top-10, which is a very admirable win for the duo, but we must remember that "Despacito" ran the table for 16 weeks at the summit. If "Essence" can continue its crawl deeper into the top 10 before Adele season and then have a similar reign, maybe we can revisit this conversation.

Jason Lipshutz: Fair! Removing the happenstance presence of Bieber on both songs for a second, “Despacito” and “Essence” both succeeded on the U.S. charts as heralds of global movements that had been bubbling up, and trying to cross over, for years. Sure, the Bieber remixes brought more listeners along for the ride as the songs were enjoying their respective chart ascents, but the floodgates were opened in both instances. We’ll see if “Essence” brings an Afrobeats explosion with the same magnitude as the Latin pop boom in the late 2010s, but even if the movement is smaller or shorter, expect a movement nonetheless.

Heran Mamo: It’s somewhat fair, because if you weren’t previously exposed to Latin or Afrobeats music prior to “Despacito” and “Essence,” respectively, those songs acted as major jumping points to enter the rabbit holes of those genres. That being said, both songs were popular prior to Justin Bieber’s arrival, as the music video for the original “Despacito” remains one of the most-viewed YouTube videos of all time with now 7.5 billion views and “Essence” broke ground as the first song partially sung in Yoruba to debut on the Billboard Global 200. Considering the fact that Bieber is a longstanding global pop sensation, his ears are trained to recognize what’s a hit, and if it’s not his to begin with, he’ll finesse a way to claim a stake in it. He recognizes the power of both global genres and amplifies it with his remixes -- but for his Beliebers and other Western-based listeners, they’ll hail him as the one who helped them discover it.

Neena Rouhani: I’d say it’s somewhere in between. “Despacito” marked a second wave of Spanish-language, urban influenced music bursting into the U.S. scene. The first was marked by Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” back in 2004. When it comes to afrobeats, this is the first time the genre has had such a significant commercial influence in the U.S. Outside of that, "Despacito" and Spanish music is in an entirely different language, whereas the majority of “Essence” and many other afrobeats songs are understandable to English speakers. Although different, this also reminds me of Sean Paul’s influence and the emergence of dancehall into the mainstream back in 2004 (around the same time as Daddy Yankee and reggaetón).

Andrew Unterberger: It's mostly fair, though it probably oversells just how important Bieber was to "Essence." His arrival on the "Despacito" remix was a quarter-tank of gasoline on that song's fire, turning it from a huge U.S. hit to a seismic one essentially overnight. "Essence" already had a slightly greater foothold by the time the Bieb showed up to it, and while his additions obviously helped expand the song's reach, the song's trajectory would've likely gotten it close to where it is currently soon enough anyway. ("Essence" also just isn't quite "Despacito" big globally yet -- check the YouTube numbers, if nothing else.) Still, in terms of tipping-point songs in the history of global pop music, it's hard to find a much more obvious precedent for the kind of impact "Essence" already seems to be having than "Despacito."