Ayra Starr’s ‘The Year I Turned 21’ Is A Coming Of Age Story For A Star Who’s Already Arrived

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Ayra Starr was made to be a star. It’s a fact (and pun) too undeniable to avoid. The Nigerian Grammy-nominated singer, who is just a few weeks away from her 22nd birthday, not only embraces the spotlight but outshines the light that falls on her. Starr embodies this same spirit as we meet at Republic Records before a listening party for her sophomore album The Year I Turned 21. A big smile and her bubbly energy are hard to ignore as Starr and her team work on finishing touches for the night. “I’m blessed with being one of the most non-serious people on earth,” Starr tells me during a conversation before the party. “I try to have fun in every single experience. I’m blessed with that.” The reveling days of 19 & Dangerous are far from over for Starr, but The Year I Turned 21 proves that through the fun, she’s also grown up.

The Year I Turned 21 puts a stake in the ground as a time, place, and feeling to remember for Ayra Starr. The naivety is gone thanks to some new experiences in life and the industry, and in exchange for that comes added self-awareness as a career-sharpening tool. “I just wanted to be 19 & Dangerous,” Starr says, reflecting on her debut album. “With the sound, I was just trying different things. I’d never really worked on my sound, specifically. But I feel like with this album [The Year I Turned 21], I know exactly what I’m doing. I know my strengths and weaknesses.”

The album begins with the attention-grabbing quick strums of a violin on “Birds Sing Of Money” before equally quick strikes of a drum blare to welcome Ayra Starr to the stage. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever done,” Starr boasts of the song which she also called a “masterpiece in its own right.” She adds, “It’s such an iconic way to open an album [and] it’s definitely a genre I would like to try out more.” Records like these prove that Starr is more confident and comfortable than ever in herself and her artistry. “I don’t watch my tone ’cause I like how I sound, b*tch,” she quips on the song, before adding later, “I’m so careful with my energy, please never speak upon my name.”

The protection of peace and the promotion of enjoyment are the foundation of The Year I Turned 21, which supports a combative Ayra Starr ready to fight those that threaten her happiness. It’s the whole premise of “Commas,” a single from the album that grew to be one of Starr’s most popular records and one she says she’s “obsessed” with. “‘Commas’ is one of the most beautiful records I’ve made,” she adds. The sentiment was the same with fans who begged the singer to release the song after she posted a preview on social media. With lyrics like “Energy wrong, I log off” and “I carry God, so I fear nothing,” it’s no shock that an empowering Ayra Starr resonated with listeners. She manifested her inner strength and you can too.

These empowering moments are sprinkled throughout The Year I Turned 21 in different ways. “Goodbye (Warm Up)” with Asake, which has all the ingredients to be a surefire hit heading in the summer, is a celebratory departure from an inadequate lover with the comfort that better days are ahead. “Bad Vibes” with Seyi Vibez is a promise to only reap what her blessings have sowed her. It’s carried by a Yoruba proverb that reads, “Igi gogoro magun mi l’oju, mi o fọ” which loosely translates to “A tall tree does not poke me in the eye, so I don’t need to wash.” In other words, a big change or challenge doesn’t hurt me, so I don’t need to overreact to it. As she said earlier, Ayra Starr recognizes her strengths, and in putting them to action on The Year I Turned 21, she appears more free, more independent, and more of a force to reckon with.

This aura that so effortlessly wraps itself around Starr is one of the many reasons that collaborations like “Woman Commando” with Brazilian singer Anitta and American singer Coco Jones can happen. Starr, a self-described “girl’s girl,” aimed to create a record in the same vein of Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls),” and just like that, “Woman Commando” was born. When it came time to decide who would help make this feeling a reality, the decision of Anitta and Coco Jones was fairly easy for Starr. “I’ve [been] listening to Coco Jones since I was 11,” Starr said while recalling the time she begged her mother to let to watch the singer in her lead role on Disney’s 2012 movie Let It Shine. As for Anitta, that decision was a “no-brainer” thanks to a friendship already cemented between the singers.

“I love her, that woman is amazing,” Starr says of Anitta. “She’s my G, she’s the most hilarious person ever. We’ve just been chatting and sending each other memes. She’s so beautiful, her voice is stunning, and I feel like we kind of have the same background when it comes to music. She comes from and the favelas, and she wants to make it out. She’s already big in America, but she wants to be bigger and I respect it so much. Even having her on my album is just a blessing.”

Another feature Starr is proud of comes on “Last Heartbreak Song” with Giveon. The record, which grapples and eventually moves on from an unrequited love, was originally meant for 19 & Dangerous. However, after consulting with her team, Starr opted to save the song for another album. A couple of years and an additional Giveon verse later, “Last Heartbreak Song” takes space on the album it was “perfect” for. “I remember when I heard Giveon’s verse, I just started crying in the car because I felt like, ‘Thank God I waited,’” Starr says. “I called my A&R Rima and said this is perfect.” For Starr, this was undoubtedly another big moment in a career that has already produced so many, something she reflects on with “21.” It’s essentially the title track for The Year I Turned 21 as it documents the gravity of the years that prior and up to Starr turning 21. “I was at the house tryna figure out who the f*ck I am,” she sings about her first decade of life before noting the “big year” 18 was and the “big bag” she earned at 19 years old.

Mason “Maesu” Tanner, Starr’s friend and collaborator, is credited as the catalyst for this song as he gave her a demo of the record after hearing about Starr’s creative struggles. “I told him it’s so hard to write about my experiences I write about other people,” Starr explained. “It’s quite hard when it comes to me because I feel like I don’t see my experiences. I’m just living too much, there’s so much happening.” A month later, Tanner took everything Starr said and delivered the demo to her as a gift at her 21st birthday party. “I was like, this is perfect. I know what to do with this.”

The Year I Turned 21 is undoubtedly the start of a new era for Ayra Starr, one that will validate her as the growing global superstar we all know her to be. With future goals of learning how to produce her own records and how to dance, as well as getting more into her “fashion bag,” Ayra Starr’s star power is only going to increase by the second. Until then, Starr wants listeners to “feel inspired by the greatness” that is The Year I Turned 21. “I want them to feel very motivated because it is a coming of age story,” Starr says. “Through this album, they’re gonna know where I come from and where I’m trying to go.” She’s a star and it’s only a matter of time until everyone recognizes it and thinks the same, no matter where she goes next.

The Year I Turned 21 is out now via Mavins Records/Republic Records. Find out more information here.