ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

ALBUM REVIEW: MI RETURNS AS THE CHAIRMAN

One evening early October, I spent a few hours with MI. Africa’s rapper #1—as he called himself on his sophomore—played his then unreleased album for the benefit of outsiders for perhaps the first time.

The Chairman cover I

Clad in ripped jeans and an X on white Rorschach patterned t-shirt, the rapper known by his high school teacher as Jude Abaga described how much of a collaborative effort The Chairman is. To be sure, when I asked about specific producers on certain songs, MI recited a few names—L-3, Sarz, Pheelz, himself—trailed off, and said simply: the team. A team certainly makes it unto the album. Over on twitter, MI released a list of acknowledgments.

The Chairman is a concept album with every song polar paired. At 17 tracks all told, one song is inevitably unpaired. MI solves this by having this lonely song literally titled The Middle. The back cover lists a song on the left and its opposite on the right: so you have Monkey and Human Being, Mine and Yours, Brothers and Enemies, etc. The Middle lies at the centre as does MI’s digitally touched face:

The Chairman tracklisting

The idea of a thing and its opposite runs from cover art through track titles to MI’s verses. You, however, do not need to know this to enjoy the album. As MI offered by way of introduction, “for the cerebral, every song is a mirror image.”

Brilliant but doomed to be uneven as albums generally are, The Chairman is a remarkable piece of crowd pleasing music, aiming to please with its variousness. What follows are my initial thoughts on the 15 tracks MI played during those hours.

The Chairman alt cover

1) Intro: The Chairman begins with a galvanic sigh. A teacher speaks to pupils: “All of you students are poor. You have nothing and you know it.” The response? “Okay sir, thank you sir.” 3 dissenting students are summoned and forced to recant their ambitions after hot slaps. One of them named Jude refuses. “I’m going to be the biggest star.” Another slap and then, “the idiocy of you is amazing to me.”

Acted intros are tricky. The novelty dies off and the intros become a staple for the skip button. Plus the enactment isn’t quite as funny as on Prelude, the introductory skit on MI2—and even that one got tiresome.

2) Monkey: Comedian Chigurl anchors this comic sequel to Flavor’s Number 1. Based on Igbo praise songs, and with lines like “Madam na only me waka come” and “My foundation is not Mary Kay,” MI is a long way from his elite English speaking days on Talk About It. In the studio MI tapped his feet—as will you.

3) Rich: A disco tune starts and then breaks off leading into a Yoruba chorus. When MI sings “we will all be rich” on the chorus, it is neither optimism nor wishful thinking—it is epiphany. After the song ends with a Pentecostal rant, Toni Kan asked, for this song did you miss Brymo?

The response? He laughed briefly and said, “Next song.” He played track 8. As you’d see he wasn’t evading. Here’s something he said:

“This celebrity-ship shit is not worth it because they give you things that you can’t keep for things that you shouldn’t lose.”

 

4) Mine: Back when Wizkid really was a kid, MI featured him on Fast Money Fast Cars—he returns home here. A good song but less effective than Wizkid’s turn on Jesse Jagz’ Bad Girl, Mine emphasises that it has been a while since Wizkid has been good on his own. MI drops a clichéd line: “We need a referee, let’s make this official.” On Fast Money Fast Cars, MI gave a hand to an unknown singer, On Mine, he is arguably cashing off that formerly unknown singer’s fame.

5) Shekpe: Untouched by populism at the time, this is the kind of song that could never make it into Talk About It. With the working class revolution propagated by Olamide and Reminisce, MI has had to unlearn his elite stance. He aptly gets Reminisce to contribute a verse and Sarz to produce—the chemistry between these two powers the song.

An ode to the pleasures of cheap alcohol, the ‘10 green bottles standing on a wall’ rhyme receives a slurry, slangy update. Expect to hear the new version of that ancient rhyme in beer parlours around the country.

6) Another Man: When MI talks politics, he gives it a human face. On My Belle My Head he discussed the plight of the poor via mimicry; on Wild Wild West, he personified Jos, the town of his youth. On Another Man he extends empathy to soldiers. MI proves to be a rapper of his time.

Read full review here.

 

Editor’s Note: This review was written weeks before MI’s The Chairman dropped on October 30. Since the meeting described here the man has tweaked a few tracks. Thepingofpong shall revisit the album.

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LAGOS, LAGOS

I was unprepared for Lagos. Lokoja, town of my childhood, led me to believe the world was a gentle place where to enter a bus was to stand by the roadside, wave a lethargic arm and walk idly in, conductor, driver, passengers waiting, adjusting their schedules on the fly, according to the whims of this person, who, transformed into a passenger, took upon the qualities of the other passengers and did as they did, promoting the land’s endemic inertia. The cast of the Lagos bus—conductor, driver, passenger, and oddly, for a Lokoja boy, area boy—was in haste. Often it was hard to tell if these strangers were in haste to meet a schedule or merely to escape fuggy buses were accents and odours collide daily.

Lagos, created in ‘67, is the older state, and were these places personified, one might expect a genteel maturity, but Lagos has no time for self-respect. And by the time the nation’s capital was moved in ‘91 to Abuja from Lagos, its character was fixed and all hopes of a steady functioning state, without the hassle, without the hustle, was irreparably lost. The presence of a democracy and the diplomatic baggage that system of government carries may have imparted on the city an equanimity it now will never have.

This was the state I met the place all those years ago in 2001, two years after civilians were in power again, and the difference between the new capital and the old one could be seen and, only hours in, felt.

Abuja, the new capital, where I lived briefly before coming to Lagos, was serene, clean—two adjectives entirely unknown to good ‘ol Lagos. And when the Lagos government took to the streets, via posters, to tell its residents to clean up, stop littering the roads and sidewalks, it adopted a rhetoric that, save for its grammar, wasn’t far out of the vocabulary of the loathed and soon to be extinct area boy:

“YOU WILL NOT DEFACE YOURSELF. SO DO NOT DEFACE LAGOS.”

It seemed to me reading this poster at a bus stop under the Town Planning flyover, somewhere on the Mainland, that the Lagos state government wasn’t much different from the state’s violent miscreants. They were same as I came to see—a tropical re-creation of that scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where man turns to pig, pig to man, neither pig nor man distinguishable.

RETRO REVIEWS: ASA’S BEAUTIFUL IMPERFECTION

LIKE ASA? YES? YOU’LL LIKE THIS

Cover- Beautiful Imperfection

A curious thing happened when I heard Be My Man, first single off Asa’s sophomore. It was on radio and the OAP hadn’t mentioned the artist. I was so impressed that I wrote down some lines so I could google the artist. Halfway in I realized it was Asa singing.

I don’t blame me for the error. Asa has polished her vocals so that the Nigerian quality is beneath the surface- not that it would deceive anyone but the most distracted. Still, it is markedly different.

Again she’s lost her shyness, perhaps the exotic sensuality of Europe has gotten to her: the girl whose mother admonished, “be careful if anyone comes to say I love you,” is intent on breaking her mother’s rule tonight, ecstatically singing, she wants to be her man’s “woman every day.” It never gets to the voluptuous heights of say, Betty Wright’s Tonight is the Night, indeed it is performed with a delicate refinement (apologies to Prof Osofisan), still the message is obvious: this Asa is not scared of love and its carnal incarnations. In fact, the album’s first single ends with a question: “Why can’t we be lovers?”

Forget her fine orthoepy on Be My Man, the songs Bimpe, Ore and Brother Ole remove the exotic cover revealing the Nigerian. Not only does she sing almost entirely in Yoruba in these songs, she also communicates common scenes in the average Nigerian neighbourhood.

In the first she tells her lover’s sister- the eponymous character, she only tolerates her disrespect because of the love she has for the brother; the second sees a woman warning her “friend” to stop coming to her house as she has heard she seduced her husband. In the latter, a mother confronts a man in the neighbourhood telling him to stop teaching her son to steal, scorning him and insisting it is not a laughing matter; she warns him on behalf of what appears to be the neighbourhood. (This song continues from Awe, the inclusion of names that are funny to hear in her kind of music: Iya Sidi, Iya Mulika etc.)

There are more differences on the album, most noticeably mood. The album is more diverse and upbeat; she trades the delicious melancholy of the debut for a wider range: there’s the mocking tone of Brother Ole, the sweet and nostalgia inducing Dreamer Girl, the penitent Preacher Man, the ponderous Questions- strongly reminiscent of Disney’s Colours of the Wind and Katie Melua’s Nine Million Bicycles– and the absolutely heartbreaking Baby Gone.

Gone also is the frequent piano and guitar riffs of the debut, the instrumentation is more varied in what is an attempt to include soft rock elements into some of the tracks especially in Ok, ok- there’s even an unnecessary intense guitar strumming in Bimpe. But perhaps, she hasn’t quite mastered percussive instruments as save for Be My Man they don’t feature much.

In spite of these dissimilarities and its diverse content, its success is not triumphal. There are no risks, no unusually high notes, no outrageous pitching, no surprising collaboration, no intricate lyrics and hence no unexpected joy. Unsurprisingly it works; there would be no new fans but the old ones would be pleased or at the very least be grateful.

It would cause the listener to muse, to laugh, to cry and perhaps to dance awkwardly like a Caucasian or slowly like a jazz enthusiast. But, except you have a partner as wild as say, Eva Greene’s character in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers or as wild as Bimbo Akintola’s in Out of Bounds, better listen alone.

Bottom line

The debut had thrived on the sheer novelty of novelty; this one succeeds because- to channel Designer Impostors- if you loved Asa, you would like Beautiful Imperfection. And that’s not a particularly bad thing.

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this review appears in the January 1st, 2011 edition of This Day.

THE DURBAN DIARY

DAY 1: SOCKETS AND SPEECHES

The Royal South African Airways airplane touched down and immediately the trouble of getting to the Murtala Mohammed International Airport at Ikeja on time—my headache some 6 hours before—disappeared. Supplanting such distinctly Lagosian worries as traffic en route airport was how to get to the hotel. The email said some guys would be wearing Durban International Film Festival t-shirts at a desk.

DIFF onscreen

I asked Terh, compatriot, companion and fellow participant at the festival’s Talent Campus. He hadn’t seen the t-shirts or the desk.

Two Nigerians stand at a South African airport… as the joke doesn’t go.

About an hour later, SIMs purchased, we located a DIFF desk but without t-shirts. And a staff of the Centre for Creative Arts picked us and a Dutch filmmaker to the hotel. With three citizens of two countries represented at the World Cup present, we spoke about football. I learn, strangely, that the people of the Netherlands didn’t give their team much of a chance, so were greatly thrilled with the progress of the Oranje. Weird, I always thought they had a good team.

 

At the hotel—the beautiful Tsogo Sun Elangeni Hotel—we were faced with a problem no one but the alert and experienced traveller will expect: we couldn’t charge our devices because the South African AC socket slot accepts only plugs with round pins.

We were directed to Pick and Pay, a store with everything; that is, everything but Nigeria-friendly adaptors.

To gain something from the walk to the store from the hotel, we settled for a meal, the familiar fried rice. Where the Nigerian equivalent of the store would have varied meats show-glass showcased, offering themselves as expensive accompaniment, here only chicken reigned, and a sauce with chopped sausages. Maybe the South Africa isn’t keen on meat, I thought. (I changed my mind when days later I discovered a restaurant called Meat Junction—literally at a junction and with raw meat in show-glass waiting for treatment: in SA, point-and-kill turned point-and-grill.)

It was winter but not quite as cold in Durban as the newcomer from more tropical countries may expect—not for nothing is the Durban slogan ‘The warmest place on earth’. The roads are wide, incredibly smooth, pothole-free, and, for a Nigerian, deadly. I’ll explain.

There’s a song Nigerian kids are taught with regional and perhaps generational variations:

“Look left, look right

Look left again,

Before you cross.”

By the time you’re an adult, the look left, right and then left has become ingrained so that to cross roads is merely to alter speed while abiding instinctively by that childhood protocol.

Now South African vehicles use the right hand drive. And to cross the road, a Nigerian needs to reconfigure: it is right, left and the right. Many times, having crossed one lane and stuck in the middle of the road, I was confused; is it right or left now? I didn’t get hit only because Durban drivers are not quite as impatient as Lagos drivers.

We found a usable adaptor in one of the big familiar ones—GAME, SHOPRITE—and returned to the Elangeni. The festival used Elangeni for screenings, registration and some guest reservations. Talent Campus folk lodged at the nearby Garden Court Marine Parade Hotel.

Cast of Hard to Get

Cast of Hard to Get and guest at premiere

 

 

Later that evening, the festival opened with Zee Ntuli’s Hard to Get. The festival ID, held to my chest by a blue ribbon on my neck, granted entry and subsequently a free ticket to each film.

I met a crowd waiting to get in. Inside, several seats are tacked with paper, ‘Reserved’ written on it. Reserved I guessed for cast and crew of the festival opener. I find a bare seat four rows away away from the screen.

Like Nigeria like South Africa: several speeches drone past, the most memorable being Peter Machen’s where he states that “cinema is both an expression of freedom as well as an enabler of it.”

 

(To be continued)

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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