ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Tag: MI

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.

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.

MI2: Mission Improbable?

Ahead of the forthcoming Illegal Music II, the ping looks back at MI’s MI2-The Movie.

Mister Incredible goes to Hollywood

Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year is the title of a Fall Out Boy song, and that is the question to be answered by every artiste after a successful debut. Jude Abaga more commonly known as MI is one of such, though following the innumerable collaborations- from the average ( TY Mix’s Omo Naija) to the sublime (think the Choc Boiz’ Anthem)- comeback is not quite the term. But there’s no question about the pressure he must have been to deliver the goods second time around on his own.

The Great Feast

How does he respond to this pressure? He tries to invite everyone to the feast that is the MI2 album. The first five songs all have featured artistes and if Talk About It was a little highbrow, MI2– with its several pidgin choruses- strives not to be.

Quickly, despite its subtitle it is not a movie but it has a movie theme that is frequently abandoned and this is good news for it becomes a distraction after the novelty wears off. The album opens with an audio ‘movie’ that features a kidnap and the funny politically incorrect line: “We don’t release those we kidnap, we are not Nigerians.” The movie- and thus the album- starts with the New Line Cinema score (copyright issues). Movie buffs would readily recognize the sound from the Rush Hour movies.

The music (finally) starts with Action Film featuring Brymo who provides a fitting chorus to MI’s wordplay: “so gifted he must know Santa.” MI’s flow has urgency to it like he knows he has to impress us quickly and he manages to. Still, the album doesn’t take off until highlife singer Flavour appears in the song Number one, where despite singing only the chorus and a bridge both in praise of MI, he jostles for supremacy even when Mister Incredible spits gems like, “They must be high like Aloha”. Flavour’s delivery is a reminder that be it politician, magnate or artiste, Igbo highlife reserves the right to effective praise singing.

Flavour isn’t the only recognizable artiste in MI2, there’s Timaya and Tuface, the latter features on a track previously released but with new lyrics for MI to play with: “Try to be nice and you feel Toni’s pain.” He drops gems, “Life is bisexual- anybody can blow” still both tracks do not add up to the sum of the artistes.

The track Beef sees MI responding to the misguided attempt of Kelly Handsome to start a feud. Truth is, it was never really a contest. That MI has devoted an entire track, after the beautifully dismissive line in the Nobody Test Me, “Only one Kelly that I know- Kelly Rowland,” to the man raises more questions about MI’s range of topics on the album than it delivers the coup de grâce to a largely irrelevant singer.

MI who has said previously that he doesn’t need “to spit in vernacular because the flow is so spectacular,” eats his words repeatedly during the 70 minutes of the album but especially in the three vignettes of suburban Nigeria that make up the song My Belle My Head, and it is unlikely he develops bellyache, as production on the track is near faultless, the rap on the song is melodious and his pidgin is wickedly witty: “Hunger hook man for neck, shey na bowtie?” but the song suffers from a lack of street credibility. Lack of this had seen Jay-z taunt Nas in Takeover: “You ain’t lived it, you witnessed it from your folk’s pad, scribbled on your notepad and created your life.”

Though he spits in first person about caring for his poor mother- “make I turn slave, Kunta kinte-” and in cajoling a young man on the road to spare some change, you just can’t picture the short black boy in that circumstance. This is why a lyrically inferior track like Timaya’s Plantain Boy, would resonate more with the average Nigerian. The schoolboy in Mushin, the bus conductor in Benin and the longsuffering hawker in Abakaliki know the difference between rapping it and living it. It’s a fine song but it is not likely that those he’s trying to invite to this banquet would be tempted.

It also suffers from reluctance to push for higher social consciousness- a police officer in the third verse threatens incarceration rather than the accidental discharge that has become a staple of today’s headlines. But, these would only matter if the catchy tune does not distract which admittedly is difficult.

What You Know

“Write what you know” is a sentiment relayed to the aspiring fiction writer. On evidence presented by this album, it is good advice for rappers: on the song Wild Wild West, The Jos crises receive treatment and what a treat. In production, delivery and lyrics, the intention and execution merge perfectly. Here, the movie theme contributes to the meaning of the song as the beat has a sweeping quality, precisely the kind one would expect in a movie scene showing a desolate landscape. And in a voice laced with love and bitterness MI- who grew up in the place- delivers solemn poetry:

“J town,

I miss how you were

Tell me how did this occur?

My memories of peace are a blur

And you were so pretty I swear

Driving through the city thinking

This is not her

She seems so strange

When did she change?

Blood in the streets, smoke in her sky

Can’t feel her heartbeat no hope in her eyes

Orphans, coffins

Bastards, caskets, mass burials

How we gonna move past this…”

No clever wordplay is delivered in the two heartfelt verses on this song and the sobriety is an achievement.

 Honourable Mention

Amidst the posturing (and navel-gazing in Imperfect Me,) there’s the love song- which is pretty much obligatory in today’s LPs- One Naira. Waje, who excels in cameos shines in the midst of MI’s profession of love and fidelity: “I no go chop outside, no picnics.”

Other notable tracks include Undisputed and the punchline laden Represent with the Choc Boiz.

Commercial Appeal

 Talk about It thrived commercially on the strength of Safe, a song that relied on the brilliant play of lyrics from popular songs. Despite the stellar production of the tracks, no one song in MI2 has that potential. The album needs a grand video to push it. Chocolate City can’t afford to play it, ahem, safe.

 Verdict

Even Brave heart had a late start,” he says on Epic. Well, as MI2 is not a classic record, fans would hope the reverse isn’t true for the Incredible Meister- that he hasn’t peaked too early.

NB: This piece was first published December, 2010 in This Day.

Everybody Loves Ice Prince? Really?

Panshak is no Raymond

For a while, there has been a subdued debate on the prowess of Ice prince. It was not an argument that could be shouted from rooftops since its major proposition was that the man could rival fellow label mate MI, on the microphone. It was not an entirely outrageous position to take, after all the man had excelled in pretty much all of the cameos he has been in and the only thing in his way, it seemed, was the set hierarchy in Chocolate City: MI>Jesse Jags> Ice Prince> Brymo. An order spelt out by the head honcho himself on Represent.

That paragraph is composed in the past tense intentionally. For the man has put an end to the debate himself.

Is Ice Prince MI’s equal? The answer is a definite no. He is not remotely close. It was easy to be fooled that he might be able to compete were he in another crew with a less clear-cut order what with his swagger and decent flow. The brief bits on Samklef’s Molowo Noni, the Choc Boiz’ songs and his own Oleku created an anticipation that when he finally gets his chance on the Chocolate City roster he would give us a full regimen of what had previously been administered in minute doses.

Fate has other plans though for Ice Prince is a choker. There were signs- the most infamous being the freestyle session at Tim Westwood where he ‘freestyled from his phone’. The public mostly ignored this as not every emcee is gifted at freestyling. “He’d come good,” we thought when he has time to craft lines to the beats of one of Nigeria’s finest producers Jesse Jags.

Well, he has deflated those hopes with an album that refuses (or cannot) decide what it wants to be.

Ice had Chocolate City’s previous releases as template for ambition: the first MI album Talk About It was an obvious game changer with its sophisticated beats and weird skit titles, Jesse Jags’ Jags Of All Tradez was eclectic, designed to show his range with a slight advantage to his production ability, MI2 with all its shortcomings was a hyperactive effort with one eye on commercial viability.

These albums had an agenda and fulfilled them to a reasonable extent. Everyone Loves Ice Prince(ELI) is different: it is an amorphous entity unsure, uncertain of what it wants to be. Between the homage of awkward album opener I Remember to the boasts on Oleku; the weak rapping on the Kelly Handsome-like Juju to the singing on Find You (Drake’s Find Your Love, anyone?); the championing of his skills to the lines taken from Kanye (“You should be honoured and bow to greatness”)and Frank Ocean (“We made it sweet baby Jesus”); the African beat on Superstar to the quasi-reggae on Magician, a lot of the intended effect gets lost.

Even his normally reliable lines fall flat. Excerpts: “You like that movie magic cos you got much action,” “Your body too smooth like lotion,” “Life is going fast so I’m making my slo mo”, “You gat wings, Imma lend u my feathers” “Life is a picture, you better get your photo”, “You must be a producer, you make my heart beat”. Seriously, wtf.

Less than impressive production means these ridiculous lines are bare, out with no place to hide. Even Oleku reveals ridiculous lines after the high of its beats. How can anyone explain “Too many songs, but mine is latest”?

The album doesn’t work and might have benefited from A-list artistes but with the exception of Tuface, Wizkid and the rest of the Choc Boiz, the guests are almost entirely obscure which might have been a smaller mountain for a more vast artist- Jags Of All Tradez had unknown vocalists Eve and Lindsey both of whom produced rapturous choruses. For ELI, Ice gets Sean Tero whose career never did take off and some other less than familiar names. When either one of the interchangeable guests, Yung L and J-Milla say earnestly “You sing for me girl like Mozart”, it might take superhuman might not to push skip.

Still, this album is Ice Prince’s. He has been pegged back by this less than average debut. Considering how long it took him to get his record out in the first place, taking into account the schedule of Chocolate City, it might be another Olympiad before he gets a chance to redeem himself. Already, some are saying deliberate sabotage on the part of his Chocolate City superiors.

Unreasonably it seems but there are questions: how come MI2 had for Number 1, its highlife song the best of the new Ibo crooners, Flavour while ELI gets the less competent Wizboy for By This Time? Whose idea was it that Ice Prince anchors most of his own choruses? Why is Brymo not on another song based on the success of Oleku?

Indeed in an album where everyone involved must hang their head low, the real winner is MI who after the mismatch that was Kelly Handsome has just emerged unscathed out of a battle that had potential without even taking a shot. Hip hop heads would have to wait for a worthy opponent.

As for Ice Prince, hopefully the delightful cameos would continue and perhaps he just might think twice before proclaiming everyone loves him on his sophomore since, as his debut has proven, he is no Ray Romano.

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