ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Month: July, 2014

ALBUM REVIEW: BANKY, WIZKID & CO’S EMPIRE MATES STATE OF MIND

STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

It is fitting that the first voice you hear on Banky W’s EME compilation album, Empire Mates State of Mind, is Wizkid’s.

He is one-fifth of the group—not that you will know from listening to the album. On an album comprising nineteen songs and three skits, the man is on eleven tracks; three of these are solos. That tells a story: EME’s Empire Mates State of Mind could pass for Wizkid’s sophomore.

EME- Empire State of Mind

As with all of Wizkid’s output till date, the album is blissful, brainless, and undeniably melodious. It also comes with another signature of Wizkid: replete as it is with the man’s limited lyrical vocabulary, consisting almost entirely of banal nouns; feminine pronouns; and ready-made ubiquitous monosyllabic verbs: women are implored to shake, move, roll, grind and wind.

Considering the amount of physical activity these unnamed women are implored to undertake, it is to Empire Mates’ credit that the album features unarguably the most consistently impressive array of beats in an album of such length.  That is down to the selection of mostly rising producers—save for Cobhams on a single track.

These producers, especially Sarz and Spellz, whose better cuts feature a background chanting, are on more tracks than a few of the members of the group and arguably perform well in supplying these frivolous-singing, often freestyling warblers with catchy beats.

The prominent members of the group, Wizkid and Banky W, show subtle shifts in their concerns. On album standout, the irresistible Roll It, both artists urge a lady to do the eponymous act, but while Wizkid restricts it to the dance floor, Banky W assumes the cocky Lothario persona—”she says she has a boyfriend- cool story!”—and before long the scene has shifted to the back of his car. Banky regurgitates this persona throughout.

EME Crew

As they were. L-R, Shaydee, Wizkid, Niyola, Skales, Banky W

The other members of the group, Skales, Shaydee, Niyola and the idle DJ Exclusive—it is hard to tell if the mysterious XO Senavoe is really a member—get chances to shine but these are brief and mostly swept away by the bubblegum majesty of Wizkid’s hooks.

Skales does his best to hold on—show me another rapper who can rap and who can sing, he queries. But multitasking isn’t an advantage when the competition is Wizkid. Again, he mentions the other man on Wetin I Want, inevitably drawing attention to who he is not.

The other members don’t try wrestling with the magnificence of Wizkid’s easy charm: if Wizkid is heir to Wande Coal’s Yoruba pop throne, then Shaydee is his latter-day kin and clone. Niyola, is an original; her solo track Don’t Go There is the unconventional of the lot what with its euro pop sound and feathery caressing of both Yoruba and English syllables. It is a loss she is not on more songs. For now it is hard to tell what DJ Exclusive does for the group to warrant his name on the letterhead. Banky W, as everyone knows, is overseer.

The deluge of unserious lyrics calls for breaks and ‘balancing’. Breaks on Empire Mates come in form of a funny storyline in three episodes featuring comedian Basketmouth and the balancing is just the one song, Change—a title more ironic than they must have realized. Change shows the less confident Wizkid who is never comfortable singing seriously. The song is the musical equivalent of a corporate social responsibility campaign by an immoral corporation.

The prominent features here—dance-ready beats; infectious hooks and choruses; slack songwriting, “I dey sing any song- do re mi fa so la ti do”; light, often crude, explorations of the carnal—go beyond this album and are mainly symptoms of the times.

In fact, the Empire Mates’ state of mind is the music industry’s current state of mind. EME has only managed to use the prevailing paradigm to their benefit, so that whatever vituperations flung at the album should be directed at a culture that has made an album with no great musical, aesthetic or moral ambition a highlight of the year in music. And while we wait for better times, when perhaps conscious music will receive its due, it may be prudent or at least practical to spend the time dancing to this album. No one else has made a better album of the situation than EME.

You decide if that’s a good thing.

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RAPID REVIEWS: MAY D’S CHAPTER ONE

The Song is the Thing.

May D's Chapter One

Sometimes the best pop music is frivolous fun, a song, an album of danceable melodies without much thought given to lyrics. The trick is not to try too hard: can the artist make the thoughtless effortless?

For Mr MayD, the answer is a resounding yes. Song after song on “Chapter One” is packed with sweet and senseless singing.

Save for a funny French line on “So Many Tinz,” the language of “Chapter One” is unpretentious; Pidgin, Yoruba and Yoruba-accented English find place. And the music is rooted in the rhythms of Nigerian music from the 1990s. A lot of time has passed for the appeal of his music to depend on nostalgia of a certain kind.

Yet Chapter One is not without novelty—the most noteworthy being an album arrangement that has a song flow into another without a stretched pause. He hasn’t come to preach or lecture, Mr. MayD just wants you to dance.

Chapter One doesn’t announce the arrival of a good songwriter or a great voice. But as The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones has noted: “Pop…as a primarily recorded form… doesn’t reward the most gifted players.

“The song is the thing.”

RAPID REVIEW: PHYNO’S NO GUTS NO GLORY

Originality is Overrated.

No Guts No Glory cover

Should an artist’s influences be so concealed as to be imperceptible?

Not according to Phyno, on whose debut No Guts No Glory, his heroes, mostly out of American hip-hop culture, are on display. The album even opens with a line from Eminem’s Without Me: “Real name, no gimmicks.”

Later, there’s Alobam, rhythm taken from Drake’s Worst Behaviour; and on standout track Good Die Young not only is the rap from Kanye West but the use of a Marvin Gaye sample harks back to the American’s work on Jay-z’s 2001 work, Blueprint.

Yet Guts is a triumph because of Phyno’s delivery. As expected, Igbo listeners get more mileage, but fortunately hip-hop is also about delivery as it is about lyrics; and Phyno’s delivery is remarkable. His more successful songs—including Man of the Year, Parcel— have verses riding beats so intimately one feels inseparable from the other.

Igbo rappers are not a novelty: Mr Raw (the artist formerly known as Nigga Raw) revived interest in the region for the mainstream; Ill Bliss was never really an Igbo rapper, neither was Ikechukwu. Phyno has updated Mr Raw’s flow, and if Ill Bliss and Ikechukwu sprinkled their verses with Igbo, Phyno floods his with the language.

On Icholia, MI offers:

“Ice got the north

Phyno got the east

Olamide, the west

So what’s left for you to eat baby?

I guess you gotta go down south baby

with that mouth baby

And I’m out baby.”

As characteristic of brilliantly perverse rappers, it is a double entendre—yet MI, very self-consciously, stops short of saying any of his collaborators (and rivals) transcends a region.

Well, Phyno makes a case on Man of the Year: he is, after all, the “East Coast nigga now…banging in the West.” And should his rich form on No Guts No Glory continues, he won’t have to say it himself: We’ll chant it, regions be damned.

COMMENTS ON HOLLYWOOD: RE: AMADEUS AND LIBERAL ARTS

At the end of Amadeus I sat still in my chair, dumbfounded.

I asked myself, what is the appropriate length of time for existential meditation? How long are we allowed to contemplate the meaning of life? How can a film possibly examine the gamut of humanity in ninety minutes? An hour? Two hours? Three hours?… Then there is Amadeus.

Amadeus

 

That in three hours this film compresses millennia of the human condition without missing a beat is extraordinary. There is nothing like a work of art or artistes at the height of their powers. Milos Forman’s direction of this film is sublime. The scenes are masterstrokes of realism; the pacing, the staging. And F. Murray Abraham – dynamite! Not since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood have I seen a character so fully formed. He inhabits the bitter old man (in make up!)  just as brilliantly as he plays the pious musician with the grace and trajectory of a fallen angel. But I feel (and I say this with some bias) that you credit, too, must go to Peter Shaffer. That Amadeus is his magnum opus. That (and this is strictly my personal opinion) to write this film required something of his life force because genius can only be drawn from an eternally unknowable place.

 
Genius is the film’s primary subject. What does it mean to desire genius, to possess genius, to behold genius, to appreciate genius, to covert genius and to destroy genius? What is genius to the world? What is genius worth? How far can genius, alone, go? Amadeus benefits from being a work of art from three sphere of genius: music, literary and cinematic. It is a testament to Shaffer’s ability, or genius, that every scene of this film feels entirely necessary, utterly indispensable, like Mozart said, if he were to remove one sound the entire piece would fall apart. We should advocate the creation of a Writer’s Cut.

 

Strangely, it comes full circle with Liberal Arts. The music. That the music, first, then the letters connect the dots between the two characters. Music, I am afraid, is, on some level, the most superior because of its primeval and sensory accessibility.

 

Liberal Arts posterI was moved and saddened that I didn’t watch Liberal Arts when it came out, couldn’t write a review or something.

Liberal Arts is the rare film on the kind of men of selective morality. Men scorned by society? The world?  For being conflicted in the idealism and realism. Men who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, or should I say willingness of nubile teenagers, that certain things are scared. Men who will pursue fantasies only to see them disillusioned by reality.

 

It was a sweet film. It raises difficult questions. Liberal Arts and Amadeus are or, or may very well be the story of our lives: Are we geniuses? Or are we the chroniclers of geniuses? Are we advanced? Or are we stunted?

 

Whatever the case maybe there are still wonders in cinema and I am glad we can share them—via email, perhaps, like the characters in Liberal Arts—and in euphoric agony.

 

Osang Abang

WHAT WOULD JESSE DO?

After making Jagz of All Trade, easily one of the best albums in a decade that saw good albums you could count on one hand, Jesse Jagz disappeared, only showing up as a featured artist and producing songs on a handle of albums.

Jesse Jagz JAGZNATION

JAGZNATION cover

The man is back, now armed with a new sound and, er, a few wraps of a smoky intoxicant. It is a curious step: how do you make a great, if uneven, album, and then abandon it for something untested? But perhaps, it was always going to lead us here; here, being Redemption, a song so unusual, online commentators had to shop for western artists to compare him to. A perusal of relevant blogs and websites brings up two names: Snoop Lion (the artist formally known as Snoop Dogg) and Damian Marley.

The comparisons are clear. From the former: the Hip-hop to reggae turnaround; from the latter: the bluesy reggae flow, the intensity and consciousness; from both the appearance of the aforementioned intoxicant. Still, there are enough differences to render the comparisons a tad off. Calvin Broadus’ transformation to feline from canine has barely left the realm of the ridiculous. Damian Marley, whose career hit a purple patch with Welcome to Jamrock, did not embark on a path different from what appears to have been in his blood; his career is one straight path of reggae goodness.

It is not a matter of only finding the west worthy of emulation. Right now, Jesse Jagz’s makeover has no Nigerian model. No one has revamped his sound by so many degrees as the man has done. What we have is growth or well, unilateral increase in most Nigerian artists; Jesse’s is not so much growth as much as a superimposition. If that sounds like a function, primarily, of packaging, it is because it is so. In the video, the low cut hair from Jargo and Wetin Dey has been replaced with nappy dreads; the erstwhile designer clothed torso is bare; the chic classy models fit for runways have given way to chain-smoking girls fit for violence; even the colour of yore is muted for gray tones; his face, which he once referred to as scar-face, often filmed in shadow now confronts the camera— ladies and gentlemen, Jesse Jagz will now show scars.

But is this all a show?

His background has been researched thoroughly. His parents are still alive, his dad is a pastor. He grew up in Jos, hardly, at the time, a rugged place. His brother schooled overseas. Because of his brother, the rapper MI, he is overexposed and some people would not be buying this new change. At this point, unless someone uncovers a traumatic episode in his childhood, nothing can explain the man’s change of heart and music.

Some listeners are sceptical of the change and for good reason. It has long entered into Nigerian lore that pastors’ kids are never really paragons of Christian values. Yet no one starts chanting ‘Haile Selassie’ after years of praising Jesus without some encounter.

One may quickly discarded this as just another person seeking some thrill from a nominal change if the music did not quite speak for itself and for the man. When MI released Talk About It leading the charge for a new direction of hip hop, it would have been easy for his younger brother— a decent emcee as he proved on Blaze—to follow the beaten track, but what he produced was an album de-emphasizing his gifts as a rhymer, instead he experimented with singing, and showed his talent as a producer capable of handling several genres. It seems, in retrospect, that the man has always preferred the difficult path.

The singles from Jagz of All Trade, Wetin Dey and Jargo were significantly different and potent enough to deserve endless spins on radio, but anyone paying attention would aver it could easily have spawned more singles. Few people realise that Chocolate City’s Brymo best work is from that album singing the chorus of L.O.V.E, a song if released as a single would have made that man a star before Ice Prince’s more popular Oleku. Another act Eve, who appears to have disappeared from the scene, also missed the bus to fame when the incredibly underplayed, underrated My Brother didn’t make it to radio.

These were songs that might have made Jagz of All Trades a mainstream success rather than the much venerated but underplayed status it has today. The details of his departure from Chocolate City remain unexplained, but few would be surprised to learn it is connected to the relative lack of publicity his debut received.

Now the music, first heard on the uneven Murder Dem subsequently refined, and defined on Redemption once again speaks for itself and renders the packaging needless. The song starts with a brief reggae chant without beat where he affirms “all the news you hear about Jesse Jagz ah air it out”, but the song is not reportage, it is commentary. The second verse paints a dystopia, where politicians are mauled as in revolutions and he refers to his album as ‘revolutionary cd / get your own copy.’ In one line he has called himself a revolutionary and self advertised; who knew profit and revolutions go together?

It is this contradiction, the freedom of the music to speak for itself, the abrupt change and eclectic influences on his music that makes Kanye West the artist he ought to be compared to. (His Wikipedia page already makes this comparison.) The American has recently released his sixth album, Yeezus, an album as different from any in this day, as it is different from anything in the man’s own discography.

Mr West incorporates some reggae into his album, while it would, from the evidence so far, form the body of Jesse Jagz’, but like it would have been impossible to see Yeezus from College Dropout, so it would be difficult to predict Redemption, and perhaps Jagz Nation Vol 1: Thine Nation Come from the club ready tune of Wetin Dey from Jagz of All Trades.

Yet the progression sounds inevitable. Even then, for both artists, it is unclear if the audience would welcome the change.

***

In 2013, the packaging is different, seemingly irreconcilable with what we know about the man. But the music, the sound, the lyrics save him. Redemption rewards listening even without the video.

By the end of that video, he is stroking his beard as he faces the camera, looking like he knows something the rest of us do not. At this point who is to say he doesn’t?

Editor’s Note: Written before the release of Jesse Jagz’ JagzNation Vol 1, a version of this piece appears on the Dstv website.

Photo credit, tooexclusive, thenet, notjustok

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