By Dennis Peter
Praise indicates positive reception. Deafening praise was the reaction to M.I Abaga‘s debut album Talk About It, upon gracing the ears of the public, proof of overwhelmingly positive reception. From fans to critics, the acclaim was clear. Now hailed as a seminal body of work, Talk About It immediately entered rarefied territory, often mentioned in the same conversation as contemporary Nigerian debut albums with a similar mix of critical acclaim and stupefying commercial impact—the combo for the undisputed seal of approval—from 9ice‘s Gongo Aso and 2Face‘s Grass 2 Grace, to Wande Coal‘s Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits and Asa‘s Asa.
The raucous, if slightly unprecedented, acceptance of Talk About It sure was, and is still, impressive, but with the gift of hindsight, it has grown into a moment of utmost significance for both artist and genre, showcasing Mr. Abaga as the type of bonafide superstar who could, and would continue to, dwell at the confluence of critical acclaim and commercial viability, while setting the standard for what future debut hip-hop releases would be marked against in its 10years of existence, as well as the (unfair) bar for subsequent projects from Mr. Abaga himself.
Till date, Talk About It embodies a powerful mythos, as daunting as the unverified claim that the album sold 30,000copies within 30minutes of liberation, which, as extraordinary or bizarre as those stats may seem, is quite believable for one tangible reason: “Safe.” Where “Crowd Mentality,” the first single and final song off Talk About It, built a steady buzz around Mr. Abaga, “Safe” was the rapper’s triumphant entry into the hearts and minds of millions nationwide. With a simple, tempo providing, piano loop for a beat, and an apparent slickness with words, “Safe” was the antithesis of what dominated, or even usually dominates, radio.
Although “Safe” was quite unique, the record did not shy off the Nigerian music zeitgeist. Rather, Mr. Abaga embraced it in a full-bodied hug, interpolating overtly familiar pop culture references, some of which doubled as catchphrases from popular hit songs at the time, as frequent bar setups. Mr. Abaga’s crib and retool approach was quite gimmicky, there’s a high probability he knew that at the time, but with his technical abilities as a rapper acting as the element of elevation, he took a couple of hot lines and blended them on the way to creating one really hot song. Add the impact of its then revolutionary, special effects reliant visuals, the same one that went to sit atop the famed Soundcity Music Video Chart for over 10weeks, it is safe to say “Safe” was an undeniable, scale breaking scorcher of epic proportions.
As much as it was a litany of self-mythologizing boasts, notably anointing himself “Naija’s rap messiah,” M.I used “Safe” as a nifty display for how he would approach and conquer Nigeria’s hip-hop game. His winning strategy: merge quotable lyricism with entertaining songwriting into wide-appealing but authentic music, which was clearly Mr Abaga’s mode of operation while working on his debut album, as well as his next couple of studio albums as well.
Going into Talk About It, Mr. Abaga was riding on equal amounts of goodwill and expectations, a combo that informs the opening skit “An Outrageous Intro Starring The President,” where M.I asks an uncannily cheery impersonator of Nigeria’s president at the time of the album’s release, Umaru Musa Yar’adua (R.I.P), if the public would “feel this.” In those opening seconds of goofy banter where he’s assured “dem go feel am,” Mr. Abaga’s sky high level of confidence is noticeable, grounded by a modesty that doesn’t cross the line into arrogance, a defining and winning quality for Talk About It.
Conceptually, Talk About It is Mr. Abaga’s least imaginative album till date, which is quite understandable for an introductory body of work, but the execution was consistent, enjoyable without ever feeling inorganic. Whether he was rapping about rapping/displaying skill level, with an apparent chip on his shoulder, like he did quite often on the album (“Short Black Boy” “Blaze”), or addressing a universal topic like the slow influx and quick egress of “Money,” there was an appealing level of self-awareness that made his quotable-filled raps as personable as they were impressionable in the hour-plus runtime of Talk About It.
Featuring production from Mr. Abaga himself and his younger sibling, and fellow polymath, Jesse Jagz, the ebullience of the raps on display was perfectly accentuated by an eclectic batch of beats, often rhythmic, colourful, and highly percussive—in other words, Nigerian enough for a rap album. Matching the highly integral sonic choices with his collaborative nous, which saw appearances from mostly little to fairly known artists at the time, including Wizkid, General Pype and YQ at the nascent stages of their career, and leading to some of the most memorable hooks and perennial crowd pleasers of his career (“Anoti” “Area” “Fast Money Fast Cars”), Mr. Abaga wasn’t just rapping, he was making rap songs, some of them potent, Nigerians could gravitate to with ease.
Mr. Abaga’s format for his debut wasn’t in any way new, previous Nigerian hip-hop artists had used this mode of alchemy to huge success. In fact, one of the most essential recordings in Nigerian contemporary music, 1999’s L.A.G Style, Vol. 1 by the Trybesmen, a seminal Nigerian group comprising the trio of eLDee, KB and Freestyle, remarkably contextualized hip-hop to fit the Nigerian experience, mixing lyrics in Ebonics-styled English and pidgin with apt musical aesthetics to match, turning out a classic hip-hop album that spawned impactful single (“Shake Body”) and influential song alike (“Asiko Laye.”) With his Uber-successful first entry, Mr. Abaga became the latest in a line of rappers, which notably included Ruggedman just before him and Naeto C right beside him, making hip-hop with a wide appeal base in mind, specifically Nigerians. And it also helped that M.I had a genuine love and respect for Nigerian music at the time, made plain by “Safe” and further bolstered by “Random Guy Buying Blaze from a Dodgy Guy,” a good-humoured skit on Talk About It.
While the majority of the country couldn’t get enough of Mr. Abaga after Talk About It, there was a sect, mainly made of his earlier fans from his hometown of Jos, who weren’t as enamoured with the rapper’s direction. Apparently, their expectations from Mr. Abaga was a debut in a similar vein as Malcolm IX, Modenine’s classic 2001 mixtape, principally “bars” over concrete beats, mirroring 90’s East Coast hip-hop. Had he acquiesced to those requests, there’s the possibility Mr. Abaga would have become a highly revered rap artist in hip-hop circles and not the national Phenom he would go on to become after “Safe,” and subsequently, his debut LP.
Probably as a means to sate those dissatisfied fans, or just out of artistic curiosity, the now concluded Illegal Music series existed as the sonic antithesis to Mr. Abaga’s solo album. On those mixtapes, or free albums if you will, the music leaned on an eclectic choice of ready-made songs as its musical foundation, most of them from foreign artists, whose sample rights acquisition would be a financial nightmare for a Nigerian-based rapper. While it still showcased his abilities as a song maker, Mr. Abaga often came across as battle ready, with more emphasis on his wordplay and overall technique as a lyricist, which scratched the itch of those fiending for “real hip-hop” from the rapper. This album-mixtape dichotomy formed a two thronged approach that ensured Mr. Abaga’s releases echoed each time he struck with a new project.
Doubling back, Mr. Abaga’s day 1’s aren’t the only ones who don’t place Talk About It on the same high pedestal most fans place the album. Last year, during a heated conversation on the Loose Talk Podcast, one that subsequently went viral, Mr. Abaga plainly named his debut as his worst (better read: least good) album yet. It was a statement that confounded fans, and visibly, those in that room as well. In the same breath, Mr. Abaga named his 2014 album The Chairman, as his best, while explaining his few gripes and the subpar parts of Talk About It. If the initial statement confounded fans, the follow-up had them outrightly puzzled—many would say inverse should be the case with ranking Mr. Abaga’s albums.
Mr. Abaga is obviously very fond of The Chairman, often citing the creative process involved as a calling card in its defence. As noble or slightly ludicrous as that reason might sound, a far more compelling conceit is that The Chairman is the album Mr. Abaga always wanted to make.
“From Lagos to J-Town they call me the chairman,” Mr. Abaga giddily rapped on “Rize,” a posse cut with Jesse Jagz, Ice Prince and Kahli Abdul, and also the final track of the first Illegal Music. At the time when it was uttered, that quoted line landed in the cache of brags that made up a majority of IM. In 2009, Mr. Abaga didn’t quite inspire the exacting image of a “Chairman;” although he found and headed the Loopy Music imprint under Chocolate City, he was ultimately still a rapper with a storied accent who was yet to cement his place—that happened on his next album-mixtape cycle. Half a decade later, though, he was a far more imposing figure by the time The Chairman dropped; now a constant fixture in GOAT conversations and an executive at one of the biggest music labels out of Nigeria.
Revisiting “Rize” with the trajectory of Mr. Abaga’s career in mind, it moves from simply being a boast to something more prescient, a manifestation of a status he had internalised all along. From the overly celebratory, maximalist musical bent, to its conceptual arch, and the sheer number of featured A-list artists, The Chairman was undoubtedly conceived and crafted as an apex project, a document of the rapper’s now godlike status. The album is obviously imperfect—silly lines and a few duds—but it’s not difficult to see why it holds so much value for Mr. Abaga.
In terms of the big picture, The Chairman was the end game for Mr. Abaga, maybe not definitely, but at least for the first arc of his career. While they say it’s best to leave on high, what happens when you reach the utmost pinnacle and it’s not yet time to leave?
As far as Nigerian hip-hop is concerned, there’s very few rappers who’ve been able sustain the level of Mr. Abaga’s relevance for so long, the closest being eLDee Tha Don, whose run started with the Tyrbesmen in 1999 until his solo venture ended in 2011, and Modenine, who has being on the scene since the wee hours of this millennium. There’s a reason why he namechecks both influential rappers on the oversized-ego driven “NotJustOk/Savage,” off 2016’s Illegal Music 3. But while eLDee has since moved out of the country and pivoted into other highly successful ventures, including Play Data and his podcast Nigerian American, and Modenine has mostly remained the king of the underground that he’s always been, Mr. Abaga seems headed for even more years of prominence in Nigerian music.
Over time, Mr. Abaga has shown that music is not trivial to him; he doesn’t quite release music without feeling like he has something to say, it’s why people miss him up to the point of writing scathing, if largely misguided, open letters to call out long absences, and even more reason why he will be here for a long minute barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Earlier this year, Mr Abaga returned with Rendezvous, his first project in two years. Branded and pushed as a playlist project, even if it was clearly helmed together as an album, Rendezvous was Mr. Abaga’s pivot to the present, bridging generations through a bevvy of numerous collaborations—there’s 21(!) guests—many of them younger, experimental artists. Taken in the context of the first arch of his career, with Illegal Music 3 acting as the transition, Mr. Abaga’s approach to Rendezvous is a reupholstering of the usual approach to his studio albums, taking into cognizance current trends in rap music and also colouring outside the boundaries to create a project meant for wide appeal. This time, the intended audience is the young people or people who young at heart and pliable enough to accept this pivot.
Rendezvous came out to largely positive reviews, but there were critiques that Mr. Abaga was clout chasing, brazenly following trends to cater to the cool kids. But, to be fair, clout chasing is only a problem if the older artist isn’t adaptable or, worse, not adept at making music based on current trends, something no one can accuse Mr. Abaga of after listening to the “playlist.” Staying relevant can often hinge on reinvention, and besides, familiar is just a more palatable word for stagnant, which is not exactly synonymous with Mr. Abaga.
At this point in his already illustrious career, Mr. Abaga’s status as one of the greats in Nigerian hip-hop history is sealed, he is more or less a legacy act. But, in the same breadth, there’s no legacy in Nigerian hip-hop that is as frequently combed through as that of the Short Black Boy, the curse of being a transcendent, larger than life figure in an oft limited genre in these parts. Also, reaching the heights he dreamed of, as evidenced by The Chairman, meant a ceiling had been hit. These restrictions, though, offer an avenue for Mr. Abaga to recalibrate and gracefully continue to build on his legacy, which he is currently doing.
Beyond all the clout chasing and jolliness, the actual conceit of Rendezvous is that Mr. Abaga cherishes making music, tapping into current musical stylings is mainly a pointer to his ambitions. Ever one for balance, A Study On Self Evaluation: Yxng Dxnzxl, Mr. Abaga’s second project of the year which was released as a part of the LAMBaugust series, spins the outward candour of the preceding playlist inward, literally.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Abaga has never been one to steer off making music inspired from, and that reflects, his life and perspectives: his selling point right from the off was a persona many could understand and connect to. But there’s a heightened candidness on Yxng Dxnzxl that makes the album, his eight project/fourth studio album, his most personal body of work till date. Instead of throwing in a substantial number of introspective tracks, partly as a measure of balance, as is customary to his official studio albums, Yxng Dxnzxl is a set list of exploratory and revelatory deep cuts, an impressive self-dissertation, and Mr. Abaga’s first album without a potential crossover single.
Beyond its uniqueness from his storied discography, and its importance in the second act of Mr. Abaga’s career, one of the takeaways from Yxng Dxnzxl is that the man still has fuel in tank, probably for another decade, which, for an artist of his skill level, is a good thing for Nigerian hip-hop—not too many rap artists have grown before our eyes, while making music that reflects it. At the moment Yxng Dxnzxl is reportedly a three-part album, with two more instalments to come, it is apparent that the big picture of Mr. Abaga’s next few years is unfolding before our eyes.
In combining all the tangible qualities that sets Mr. Abaga apart from nearly all his contemporaries and predecessors—foresight, consistency, longevity, commercial success and prominence—deafening applause is the only feasible response when the curtain eventually comes down on Mr. Abaga’s rap career, the same reaction when he fully got started ten years ago.
The post A Decade After: On M.I Abaga’s ‘Talk About It’ And The Path To Legend Status appeared first on Nigerian Entertainment Today.