Even at the age of four, the parents of budding south London crooner Odeal knew that their boy was gunning to be a star. Despite moving between Germany and Spain before finally settling in England aged six, one thing was constant for the youngster: playing with his McDonald’s’ Happy Meal jukebox toys and echoing mics every chance he got. By the time Odeal got his hands on the real stuff around the end of secondary school, he was addicted.
A year spent living in Nigeria was just as revolutionary for his musical outlook, he tells NME. Making music there, as opposed to the UK, felt “more free”. At the time Odeal was creating what one might consider to be R&B, but he quickly found that he still needed to stand out musically. He began fusing the Afroswing of his heritage with the pop and R&B he grew up with, tapping into Nigeria’s burgeoning Alté scene in the process. You can hear that unique swagger in his most recent collection ‘OVMBR: Roses’, released back in November, amid the fluttering melodies and woozy psychedelia. An underground hit single in the shape of ‘Vicious Cycle (Policeman)’ and a collaboration on Nines’ number one album ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ has seen Odeal gather a cult fanbase, with more and more people locking into the Alté sound.
Alté, which is short for alternative in the African music scene, encapsulates the young rebellion against the more traditional stylings of Afrobeat. Alté stars like Santi and 21-year-old Odunsi (The Engine) embrace their musical heritage, but have grown tired of the standardised sound heard in the mainstream. Like all great young creatives, they forged fresh takes on it by adding elements of R&B, dancehall and rap. Odeal calls Alté an example of “the young generation’s idea of versatility as, for many, all they’ve heard is Afrobeats or commercial music”.
He credits his best pal Marzi and fellow south Londoner Gabzy as two of the UK’s emerging young stars who are straying the furthest away from mainstream Afroswing. “The music Marzi and I make together is sometimes dancehall-infused,” Odeal explains. “But we’re not even thinking of that. And when we make music separately, he has his own thing and I have mine. Our minds aren’t in the UK. You can’t identify us.”
Alté is a genre that rewards creative freedom and joy. But why, then, is this alternative sound not being picked up as quickly as other sub-genres like Afroswing or drill? Odeal reasons that it’s not for everyone. “Not many people know about Alté, even over in Africa, and it’ll take a while for the UK to catch up. But long-lasting music has to withstand the test of time”, he says. “The music [of] now doesn’t stay around for a long time, but our music will because as you mature, you’ll find a song that’ll resonate with you at some point. If you’re genuine, you’re good”.
Honesty has been Odeal’s calling card for some time now. November’s ‘OVMBR: Roses’ is a multi-faceted eight-track EP where buttery vocals and relatable lyrics are laced with romance, deceit and self-liberation. ‘Drain Me’, for example, is all about the latter, penned by Odeal after ending his infatuation with a toxic ex and written on the brink of his rise as he mixes reality with fantasy. “I lost my job at a warehouse and, prior to that, cut ties with a girl I was in a relationship with. I didn’t know what to do and it was quite a low point in my life, so I made ‘Drain Me’ to talk about all of the negativity in my life and how I was going to change my life for the better.”
A proud Nigerian, Odeal’s music encompasses his British-Nigerian identity by mixing the quintessential cockiness of British grime with the Afrobeats he loves. His ear, he believes, isn’t like many others. He feels, though, that he has been misrepresented as a new R&B star. “I’ve been screaming out for the longest that I’m not straight R&B: I don’t live in R&B, I just come and visit,” he argues. “It might hinder me a bit, but once you listen to the music, that narrative will start to change. I’m definitely not trying to become this R&B golden child”.
Aiming to immortalise his pioneering sound by becoming one of the UK’s first breakout Alté stars, what does the future hold for Odeal? His answer is blunt: “Make good music – scratch that – great music. We’re taking it out of the UK. We’re going worldwide with it.”
Having started off in his bedroom asking producers for beats before eventually making music himself that sounds worldly, Odeal understands that “it doesn’t matter where you start – as long as you get to that end goal”. He’s still making music in his bedroom today, attempting to redefine what Afroswing, or Afro-fusion, sounds like in the UK. With the help of his friends and collaborators, Odeal could finally move the needle.