Contrary to what the name suggests, Commas isn't a grammar fiend's ode to the ubiquitous punctuation mark. It's the upbeat, groovy lead single in Afrobeats singer Ayra Starr's latest album, The Year I Turned 21. Hailing from Benin and Nigeria, the artist has flown to meteoric heights — she boasts over 4 billion career streams and is the first African female singer to surpass 300 million YouTube song views. High-profile collabs and BET and Grammy nominations only serve to reinforce her indisputable star status.
But Starr is much more than flashy statistics. In The Year I Turned 21, range is the name of the game. While Rhythm & Blues is a classic homage to the Afrobeats genre, The Kids Are Alright ventures into acoustic piano territory and Bad Vibes (feat. Semi Vibez) has a snappier, techno-like sound. Even the video aesthetics change from countryside to punk club depending on the song. But despite the genre-bending nature of the album, Starr stays anchored in her signature polished sound and family- and faith-centred lyrics. She also focuses on her personal growth and discovery. In Commas, she describes that the way she chooses to spend her time has changed: "energy wrong, I log off." The entire album is a showcase of the artist's decidedly adult confidence, maturity, and versatility.
The singer has been dubbed "a new voice for Black girls." This title, coupled with her global stardom and cool-girl style, begs comparisons to Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Aaliyah. In talking to Starr, though, it's clear that her music is a unique blend of styles and sensibilities that could be no one's but her own — she's a potent firecracker who shows no sign of slowing down.
Hi Ayra! So your new album, The Year I Turned 21, just came out at the end of last month. How are you feeling? What has the response been so far?
I couldn’t be happier. I’m so grateful and excited because I’ve been working on it for so long. The response has been amazing — I feel so blessed. I’ve gained new fans from this album alone. The fact that everyone can relate to it and is calling it a masterpiece means the world to me.
Did you explore any new techniques or themes for this album?
Yes, I explored a lot of new techniques and themes for this album. I delved into vulnerability and mental health in Orun and the loss of a loved one in The Kids Are Alright. As I grow, I experience new things, and I wanted to share that with the world.
For new techniques, I tried rapping in some songs and recorded a few tracks myself. I usually prefer working with my brother, but this time I collaborated with amazing talents like Maesu and Mbryo. It was an incredible experience.
I notice that you have another album named after your age (19 & Dangerous). What are some differences between 19 and 21-year-old Ayra?
19 & Dangerous was a whole different era for me, more juvenile and fresh out of university. At 21, I’ve come of age, learned to be patient with myself, and discovered parts of myself I didn’t even know existed. It has been a journey of growth and self-discovery.
The lead single of the album is Commas, about your steady rise to fame, but also about God's protection. How do the melody and instrumentals reflect that message?
With Commas, I was very intentional about every detail, from the chords to the way I sang. I aimed to create a high-vibrational, feel-good song, similar to Rush. I made 15 different versions to ensure that by the end, listeners would feel a sense of euphoria. The final eight bars feature a specific guitar melody, which I kept because it adds that euphoric touch. I wanted listeners to feel like they received a special gift for sticking with the song.
What is the role of faith in your music overall?
Faith and God are central to me, so I always weave them into my lyrics and everything I do, focusing on high vibrations and positivity. Without God, who are we?
The beats are really powerful and prominent in the soundscape of this album. When you're writing a song, do you usually start working on the beat or the lyrics first?
When I’m writing a song, my process varies. Sometimes it starts with the beat. I love a great intro, like the ones in Bloody Samaritan or the violin in Rush and Away. I’m obsessed with unique intros, so when I hear a good beat, I can tell right away if it’s right for me. I avoid repetitive beats; I want each one to feel distinct. I have a keen ear for this and can often tell within seconds if a beat is a keeper. Other times, a lyric pops into my head while I’m in bed, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll find a beat on YouTube, write the song, record a demo on my phone, and then take it to the studio. My process is always evolving.
The music videos for The Year I Turned 21 are pretty wide-ranging: you're out in nature in Last Heartbreak Song and Rhythm & Blues, while Bad Vibes has more of a techno-punk look. How do you pair the visuals to the song?
To be honest, I just go with the vibe of each song when creating music videos. It’s hard to stick to one theme because each song has a different feeling. Rhythm & Blues feels like a kiss on the neck, while Last Heartbreak Song feels like wind in your face when everything seems hopeless, and I aimed to capture that in the videos. Bad Vibes has a strong, edgy feel, and the visuals reflect that quiet intensity.
How would you describe your personal style and aesthetic?
My personal style and aesthetics are a mix of everything I grew up watching and loving. It’s like a blend of all my influences, from Disney to Rihanna, Beyoncé, Afrobeats stars like 2Face, and everything I watched on MTV. One day, I’m rocking baggy clothes and looking like a tomboy, and the next, I’m in the shortest skirt you can imagine. I get bored easily, and I think that’s perfectly fine. At one point, I was obsessed with having just one look, but that became so boring. I’m very secure in myself, and I embrace my ever-changing style. If people are puzzled by my aesthetic, I see it as a reflection of my unique, eclectic influences.
You grew up between a beach town in Benin and the buzzing metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria. How does that come through in your music? Are those two influences more often at odds or in harmony with each other?
Growing up in Benin and Lagos meant that the influences from these two places were initially at odds when I started making music. However, I’ve learned to harmonise them. If you listen to my music and the album, you’ll hear different vibes. For example, Warm Up has a jazzy feel, while Last Heartbreak Song sounds like it belongs on a beach. Then there are songs like Jazzy Song that capture the essence of Lagos — the streets, the clubs. Anyone who’s been to Lagos knows that tracks like Jazzy Song and Woman Commando truly embody the city’s vibe. This blend of influences has shaped who I am. I can adapt to various sounds while staying true to my roots. My voice is my sound, and no matter the genre, you’ll always hear the African and Afrobeat influences in it.
Are you working on any other projects that you can share? What's next for you?
Right now, I’m focused on promoting my album. The more I listen to it, the more I understand it. I’ve learned that sometimes the messenger is the message, and that’s something I’ve discovered about myself. I made this music thinking I understood it all, but seeing the world’s reaction has given me a new perspective. Everything is making sense now, and the more time I spend with the album, the deeper my understanding becomes. I want to share that understanding with everyone. I’m also working on myself, my music, and becoming a better person. Just being that girl, ready to take over the world. Global domination—  Ayra Starr style!