With H.I.V., his maiden studio album, Jovi showcased his artistic mettle in his thematic lyrics. Rapping progressively in a range of languages, like pidgin, French, English and, on occasion, his mother tongue, he explored the experiences and condition of the common man. This made the artist relatable and certain tracks, like “Don for Kwat”, became street anthems. He ditched the rags-to-riches narrative of Cameroonian wannabe rappers who were still tethered to Western hip-hop culture. In terms of sound, he swam against the tide and went back to his roots, tapping into a rich and diverse of pool of local rhythms to produce a unique, authentic sound.
For all his genius and numerous releases, the perception lingered that Jovi was not the game changer he claimed to be. Despite his already impressive body of work, there were continuous comparisons between him and other MCs who threw their musical weight onto the hip-hop scene with greater pomp and pageantry. Consequently, there was an expectation that his third studio album would be a knockout that would clear away any doubt regarding his undisputed champion status, no matter the scoring method.
It would be inaccurate to reduce this album to nothing more than its blemishes. On this album, Jovi hits several notes. The first is the album cover art. Yeah, you got me: the album art. The smudged black and white picture of a man flanked by 16 wives is not just highly artistic. It is a historical watermark that comes to life when placed against the backdrop of a rapper who advocates using our past as a source of energy to power cultural endeavours like music in the contemporary world.
This album is vintage Jovi. It defies the standard codes of hip-hop by blurring the lines between hip-hop and other genres
The second delight in this album is the emotional trip he takes us on in the first track, titled “Free Music”, in which he sings about love. Since he stepped into the limelight, Jovi has projected the image of the standard rapper: hard-core and macho. Rarely has he talked extensively about matters of the heart. Looking for emotion, tenderness and sentiment in his music has been the same as looking for a needle in a haystack – an exhausting endeavour.
However, in 16 Wives he gets emotional in more than just a sentence or two. In fact, he does so in the majority of the tracks. This is refreshing and provides fans another lens through which to see the artist as it humanises in a way that standard rapping, with its occasional misogynistic punchlines, does not.
Thirdly, with all his experimentation with sound, Jovi is, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, premiering psychedelic rap in Cameroon. The quick transition from an up-tempo to a downbeat and the drowsy voice on “50-50”, that Indian folklore-like refrain on “Tchana Pierre,” and the eerie sound ringing through “Man Pass Man 3”, meet the criterion of this subgenre of rap, which is closely related to the popularity of the drug culture and is referenced lyrically and visually in the artist’s music. Check out the B.A.S.T.A.R.D. video – it is testimony that Jovi is always experimenting, pushing the boundaries in his attempt to stand out and apart and adds further depth to his reputation as a pioneer.
The album sees him experimenting with sound, spitting fiery punchlines with the hunger of a rookie and paying tribute in sound and name to an old generation of Cameroonian musicians. Unfortunately, this formula makes this album reminiscent of its two predecessors; an echo of the former. As such it is bereft of the power of novelty to introduce the artist to a new audience.
The extensive experimentation with sound poses the danger of narrowing his audience to only a small group of connoisseurs and people who have a rich musical culture like himself. This shuts out many others who could have been transformed into fans if only he had not veered off so often and so widely from the codes of standard hip-hop and traded his experimentation for an equal measure of conformism. Supposing music is a synergy between sound and words, a huge segment of his genius is lost to a huge segment of his fan base that does not have the cultural resources to fully appreciate the extent of his skill.
The extensive experimentation with sound poses the danger of narrowing his audience to only a small group of connoisseurs and people who have a rich musical culture like himself, shutting out many others who could have been transformed into fans
Another hitch with this album is the tone. Unlike his previous album, where tracks like “Cash” provided a vibrant relief from the other mild-tempo tracks, all the songs on this album sound the same in tone, making the listening experience boring to some degree. In fact, listening to any of the songs on the album produces the same feeling, with little or no highs to jerk you out of your lull and into a higher state of excitement.
Furthermore, despite the torrential pace of punchlines you meet at every turn, 16 Wives does not rise above the din of average rap albums where, in the space of one song, the MC shuttles between several themes, to the extent that a song becomes a confusing potpourri. In “Free Music”, Jovi talks principally about a failing relationship. However, rather than explore only this theme in some depth, somewhere in the middle he takes off on an ego trip. This is standard practice in hip-hop but it is worth pointing out that this tends to make rap songs incoherent thematically, because the narrative is truncated prematurely and listeners are plunged into a new narrative about a completely different issue. This particular aspect places 16 Wives firmly in line with the other mass of rap albums released.
On a final note
To summarise, this album is vintage Jovi. It defies the standard codes of hip-hop by blurring the lines between hip-hop and other genres. For all its lyrical strengths, 16 Wives suffers comparatively from the MC’s reputation as a sound alchemist. This trait gives sound – as experimental as it comes – a predominant place in his music. The unfortunate result is that it alienates an informed audience. In as much as he tries to keep a balance between the esoteric – brought in by his sound – and the generic – brought in by his lyrics and theme – the album comes off as professorial and destined for connoisseurs – a limited group – rather than the masses. In the wider scheme of things, this is to Jovi’s detriment, because it will surely not increase the number of people who rush to his next concert. That said, “Workmanship”, featuring Pascal, comes highly recommended.