by Wilfred Okiche
In December 2008, a certain short black boy who grew up in the city of Jos stunned the music loving community with his debut album, Talk about it. Blessed with effortless lyrical prowess, finger on the peoples pulse, a gift for the gab and powered by a fast rising record label, we watched approvingly as an unusual star was made.
By the time he released his sophomore album, the excellent M.I 2 in 2010, he has so hot, he could declare himself Africa’s number 1 rapper and get away with it.
But Africa’s number 1 rapper seemed to run into trouble following up M.I 2. Yes he released his second Illegal music mixtape in 2012 but another comprehensive body of work to highlight this hard to achieve mix of street credibility and commercial viability proved evasive.
Following a series of false starts and underwhelming warm up singles, MI finally drops The Chairman, 4 years after his last studio album.
King James, the throwback single released earlier in the year was a huge disappointment not because it wasn’t a fantastic record musically, but mostly because after 4 years away from the spotlight, no one told MI that he could no longer claim first digs on the numero uno title just because.
Even reigning kings have to fight battles to sit comfortably on their thrones so, when MI gloated gleefully that in the 4 years he had been away, nothing in the game was as hot as his easily dismissable new single, it was immediately laughable. Especially when his own brother, Jesse Jagz, finally free of his shackled contract at Chocolate City had released 2 wicked but radically different rap albums in the space of 1 year. And Olamide and Phyno were hard at work, making indigenous rap the lingua franca.
All clashing sounds, righteous fury and billowing hot air, the MI on King James seemed to have lost touch with the scene and wisely went back to re-strategize for the arrival of The Chairman, the would-be game changer that would establish his place in the rap order.
The jury is still out on The Chairman’s long term relevance and it would certainly take a retrospective look to watch how the record stacks up among MI’s career output, but as a record for the times, The Chairman makes for some compelling listening.
Exquisitely arranged (the tracks mirror each other as direct opposites) and finely produced, The Chairman with its cast of relentless guest stars, superstar producers and glossy finish, plays like the big studio effort that it is. The production is sharply detailed, and finely observed with touches of hip hopera, patois, reggae, R &B, and cookie cutter pop.
MI has always enjoyed the company of guest acts on his records but he takes it overboard on The Chairman and does not record a single track alone. As if scared of the lukewarm reception that greeted King James, he overcompensates by collaborating with some of the brightest stars of the day. Of course, his hard core fans would prefer to spin it as a grand Chairman move, where he tests his clout and summons as many colleagues as he can- both local and international.
The album opener, Monkey with comedian Chigurl is one of the cheesiest things MI has done. Chigurl does fine work with her Igbo-gospel flavoured chorus and the beat and instrumentals decidedly hearken to the glorious genre of eastern gospel but MI samples the popular culture and references quotes from Patience Jonathan’s famous meltdown over the still missing Chibok girls. But the truth is no one comes to MI for a rehash of lines like There is God oh. That is what we have every other artiste for. Folks come to MI to be inspired, and enthralled, and dazzled by breezy word play set to finely crafted music. He rallies on the third verse though and is able to bring back shades of interest to the song.
Millionaira champagne, a rapper’s delight is a showcase for the ferocious talents of everyone involved. Ice Prince is better than he has a right to be by far and definitely earns his place on the table. Ghanaian, Sarkodie does not know how not to go hard on any record and the same obtains here but it is MI that is the most pleasurable to listen to. Where Sarkodie appears to be obviously expending energy with his motor mouth flow and Ice Prince puts in more work than he is used to, MI takes a laid back but sublime approach and knocks it out of the park.
The problem with a lot of today’s pop music is a desperate lack of depth and artiste’s inability to mine from their own experiences while making music. But MI is cut from a different cloth. This album would certainly have rung false without him addressing the Choc boys split and he bares his soul to some extent on Brother, a raw edged personal ode to days gone past. He does not quite dish fresh insights on the cleavage of Jesse Jagz and Brymo from Choc City but opens up on his own present state of mind and reveals some vulnerability.
This vulnerability brings out some of the best work on Chairman and MI isn’t afraid to bare his scars. Yours, with Millie and Debbie is a love letter to his fans in which he gives them credit for taking him to unexpected heights. He reserves a few words for a manager he fell out with but instead of dwelling in bitterness, MI tries to be the bigger man and spreads the credit for his success around.
The middle song on the record is important in that it is a reconciliatory record that does not quite reconcile any differences, probably because there is nothing to reconcile in the first place. MI loses the huff and puff found on King James and makes a quiet case for why he is the greatest rapper of all, urging slyly that even if we cannot all agree on that, we could find a middle ground instead of stoking needless rivalries. In a sleight of hand, the song features Olamide, the rapper who has benefitted the most from MI’s absence but he is way out of his league on the record and MI easily underscores his point.
Human being is an album highlight that samples composer, Dhruva Aliman’s haunting Bottom of the sea and is produced by Pheelz and MI himself. Both acts seem to have spent some time immersed in the Kanye West playbook. Almost perfect, the song features for the first time this year, an interesting (and interested) 2face Idibia and Sound Sultan cameos as the icing on the cake. MI addresses the toll that fame takes on a person’s soul but insists on maintaining his humanity despite everything that has passed. He reminisces, painfully, Someone help me tell Mr Nomoreloss, when OJB was sick, it was hurting all of us/ but sometimes even atristes don’t have dough on us.
MI hit the peak of pop-highlife-rap collaboration in 2010 with Number 1 and it would be terribly remiss of him to attempt a remake. He tries anyway with the LR7-produced Bullion van and even though the song is nowhere near as fabulous as the Flavour assisted classic, he and Phyno manage to trade some playful riffs on the Igbo man’s outsize commercial sensibilities. But it is Stormrex who quietly steals the song from the 2 rappers and runs with it. Shekpe goes in hard with a humongous beat by Sarz and barbed verse from Reminisce but this effect is heavily diluted by the ill-fated nursery rhyme jacking chorus that accompanies the song.
MI’s The Chairman is prime stuff and represents a return to form for Jude Abaga. It respects the concept of the album and makes each track an experience to listen to without skip. Some tracks jump at you with their obviousness but it is the subtle ones that give the album its defining experience. Again MI goes to appease as many blocs as he possibly can but he still maintains his unique sensibility, proving that even after 4 years away, it is still Chairman season and we are all just living in it.
– The writer tweets from @drwill20