Album review: On Royal Niger Company, Jesse Jagz is King. Long may he reign

by Wilfred Okiche

Jesse Jagz is king.

Who else comes close? M.I is currently in a creative limbo, preferring to spend his days cutting one endorsement deal after the other. Mode 9 never did crawl out from that underground hole he dug himself into and Ice Prince wouldn’t exactly call himself a rapper these days. Phyno, Reminisce and Olamide are all hot property presently but who’s to say about tomorrow? Anybody else probably doesn’t matter yet.

When it comes to walking the tight line between artistic credibility and commercial achievement, no one treads it more finely than Jago himself. His first album, Jagz of all trades scored massive hits like Jargo, Pump it up and Wetin dey, garnering him some furious airplay and club ubiquity. As producer, his imprints were all over some of the biggest hits to come out of Chocolate City’s golden era but like a tortured artist, he abandoned the bright lights and big studio domination to follow his own muse. This muse birthed the thrilling Jagz Nation Vol 1: Thy nation come, last year’s most ambitious disc. A year later, and he is out with volume 2 of the Jagz Nation chronicles, titled Royal Niger Company.

On Thy Nation Come, Jesse Jagz embraced the dancehall/ragga lifestyle, coming up with substance influenced gems like Burning bush, Sativa and Selassie, standards that played like they were recorded in the wake of a beatific substance induced haze. This allbum was split evenly between the ragga stuff and the hard hitting, hip hop stuff with a subtle nod towards Top 20 radio occasionally.

On Royal Niger Company, Mr Abaga however goes a different route. It is titled volume 2 but it couldn’t be more different in tone than the first volume; less a sequel than a stand-alone property. RNC is an all-out rap album with barely a glance at the commercial side. Mainstream audiences may find it too toxic to take in but for the hip hop heads, it is solid gold.

Jesse Jagz has been taking history lessons and he is angry enough to demand change. On the instant favourite Louis, named after the famous boxer Joe Louis, he rants about dishing out technical knock outs, sings about freedom and ends with the iconic ‘I am mad as hell’ speech delivered by actor Peter Finch in the Oscar winning 1976 film, Network. A fine repository of pop culture, Jesse Jagz generously references the zeitgeist in his work; from famous lines in films like Scarface to recorded clips of Tupac Shakur. He is at home dishing out lines that name check actors Antonio Banderas and Vin Diesel with their different film titles.

He samples the Rufus and Chaka Khan classic Ain’t nobody on the third track he has recorded titled Jargo and Fela Kuti on the brilliant, Sunshine. Tupac’s voice is the welcome intro on How we do, an old school style rappers delight that has him bragging, And I rep the green red yellow/ these sesame streets niggas snitching on Elmo/ hello Jagz wrote the memo/whole albums can’t step to my demo. Sometimes his brilliance appears for no other reason than to show off just how at ease he is with the wordplay; this  is on full display on The Case, the battle with hip hop heavyweights Show Dem Camp. These guys do not go on easy but in Mr Jagz, they find a worthy if not superior adversary.

Every guest on Royal Niger Company knows to bring their A-game and matched with the uncommon vision of Jesse Jagz, the result is an album that is as fully realised and relevant as any you will hear this year. It stands out easily, more so for its cohesiveness and deserves to be saved in a time capsule, to be brought up years later when someone tries to suggest great records weren’t made in 2014.

The only song that seems out of place on this project is the same one that has the chance of becoming a hit single if promoted wisely. Featuring singer Rex, High life upends the album’s laidback flow and delivers a groovy throwback melody that is sure to appeal to the Eastern folk.

A brilliant rapper and wordsmith, Jesse Jagz’s talent is so furious that his rhymes tend to run over themselves leaving his listeners struggling to catch up. On his solo standout Supply and demand, an old school rap show off if ever there was one, one second he is rhyming about the industry resisting change, the next he is on quite another trip, talking about making cripples walk again. Even when his delivery is mostly effortless and easy on the ear, he manages to make it clear that he is in a different zone than the rest of us mere mortals.

Ambitious, daring, cerebral and painfully beautiful, Royal Niger Company is Jesse Jagz at his height, bravely doing the kind of music he wants to do. A deserving companion piece to Thy nation come and a worthy successor, RNC Is possibly the best album Jesse Jagz has put out yet. It will pay the price for its unfriendliness to the pop charts. A lot of people will not get to listen to it even when it has been made available for free download and the future hit singles are scarce but those fortunate enough to drink from this cup will be richly rewarded.

Jesse Jagz is king.

Long live Jesse Jagz.

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