Sometime during the 4 hours writer and editor Toni Kan and I spend with MI, the rapper noticed the Arsenal jersey under my jacket. We had been talking about his brother Jesse Jagz.
“Fan of Jesse. Fan of Arsenal. You have great taste,” he said.
He would know. Africa’s rapper #1—as he called himself on his sophomore, MI2—had invited us for a first taste of his forthcoming album.
The Chairman, as the album is named, is a concept album. A 17-tracker, the songs occur in pairs. The odd number of songs inevitably presents the problem of one lonely song; Jude Abaga solves this by having this song literally titled The Middle. The album art 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. MI’s digitally touched face lies in the centre as does The Middle. The idea runs from cover art to track titles to MI’s verses.
“For the cerebral,” MI said by way of introduction, “every song is a mirror image.”
“The album was a learning experience for all of us,” he said describing how much of a collaborative effort The Chairman is. Asked about specific producers on certain songs, MI recites a few names—L-3, Sarz, Pheelz, himself—forgets, and says simply: the team.
A team of artistes does make it to the songs. You’ll find Sound Sultan and 2face, Olamide and Reminisce, Patoranking and Nosa, Phyno and Runtown, Oritse Femi and Wizkid. And so on. The songs on the album are as diverse as those artistes. As you’ll read—and hear for yourself soon.
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 variety. What follows are my initial thoughts on 15 of the album’s 17 tracks.
1) Intro: The Chairman begins with a galvanic sigh. A teacher addresses pupils: “All of you students are poor. You have nothing and you know it.” The response? “Okay sir, thank you sir.” Three 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 a tricky entity. The novelty dies off and become a staple for the skip button. Plus the enactment isn’t quite as funny as 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? A brief laugh and “next song!” He then played track 8. As you’ll see he wasn’t evading.
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 is a reminder that it’s 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.” Yawn.
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 that 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 drunken, slurry, slangy update. Expect to hear the new version 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 personifies Jos, his homeland. On Another Man, he extends empathy to soldiers. MI proves to be a rapper of his time.
8) Brothers: “When Mo Hits broke up, I was like know what? This will never happen to us…” A personal song about the dissolution of Choc Boiz: only MI and Ice Prince remain, Jesse Jagz walked and Brymo was swept away by legal wrangling. In the studio, MI spoke about seeing a photo of D’Banj and Don Jazzy in an office he visited. “It broke my heart. Ours was more amicable. With Jesse it was a new direction.”
Later he added, “The whole celebrity-ship shit isn’t worth it. They give what you don’t want and take things you shouldn’t lose.” A brooding song almost undone later by stylised R&B indulgence, Brothers is based on a piano riff and like most of the songs on The Chairman richly layered. This song was his answer to Toni Kan’s “Did you miss Brymo?” (See number 3)
9) The Middle: Whatever else can be said about MI, the man is effing clever. The Middle serves two purposes. First, it resolves the oddity of pairing up songs for a collection having an odd number of tracks. Second, it addresses the rise and rise of Olamide who has taken MI’s 4 year hiatus, Da Grin’s death and the mediocrity and humourlessness blotching the landscape to build an impressive resume. Olamide has of course been on MI’s mind. On Phyno’s Icholiya, MI acknowledged him in his absence: “Ice got the north, Phyno got the east, Olamide the west—so what’s left for you to eat…?” The Middle is MI’s pacifist approach to the debate. It’s neither here nor there, he seems to say. Let’s just leave it. But MI is a rapper and cannot resist asserting his own superiority on the song by modifying Olamide’s Baddest guy ever liveth line into “I’m the best rapper ever liveth.” We see what you did there MI.
10) Enemies: The memorable bit of this song occurs at the start where a phone call MI claims was recreated but actually happened purports that MI is jealous of his brothers, unnamed but obviously Ice Prince and Jesse Jagz. The song features Patoranking.
11) Bullion Van: Features Runtown, Stormrex and Phyno. The easterners are here! And as expected, the song is about money. The second song on The Chairman courting the east, MI dusts off his Number 1 flow for this one. Here’s the chorus: “We be the niggers when dey step into the club with a bullion van.” Although to marginal effect, Stormrex douses The Chairman’s carnival of testosterone. Infectious highlife drums reign here but MI will probably never make a better Igbo highlife song than the Flavor-flavoured Number 1.
12) Girl: The token love song on the album is also the album’s lowest point. MI sings, autotuning to fit in with the song’s R&B mood. The song doesn’t quite succeed. As a duet One Naira is perhaps Girl’s model. Pity—MI’s best love song is not on any of his studio albums or mixtapes; it is a single released online a few years ago and without fanfare. It is called God Bless You.
13) Millionaira Champagne: At the album listening session, MI didn’t want to play this song. It is too rap, too heavy and we had female company. We urged him to. Yes, it is heavy. A party banger punctuated with shouts of “Look at you, now look at us.” That line is lifted from Lil Wayne/2 Chains’ RAF. Each rapper produces 32 bars, Sarkodie applying his Twi-influenced flow and MI midway raps mildly a cappella. Aimed at some unnamed hater: “You’re like an exit sign—you’re on your way out!” and then a line MI had to repeat: “I told you rappers like Lekki Bridge.” A highly geographic punchline, if you don’t live in Lagos it may fly over your head—but at that point you may be nodding too much to care.
14) Yours: Featuring Milli and the albums most impressive beat, starting off with subdued arpeggios. A refrain, ‘it’s yours, it’s yours’, borrowed from Drake’s Wu-Tang Forever is repeated at intervals. A hip-hop delight, the song addresses MI’s unnamed former producer. MI’s inspirational shtick kills the song’s momentum at the end.
16) Human Being: Features 2face and Sound Sultan. I’ll have to go the clichéd route and call this The Chairman’s instant classic. MI says the song’s recording took days and it shows. His most personal song on his most personal album, Mister Incredible’s introspection here speaks for every star encountering the bitch celebrity when he craves lady fame. In explaining his inability to be friendly to fans always, it is a polite version of Eminem’s The Way I Am.
17) The Chairman: The eponymous track features Oritse Femi and Frank Edwards and is a thanksgiving song. Starts off with the galvanic sigh of the album’s Intro closing the circle that started months ago with the much derided single of the same name. MI says of ghettoed singer Oritse Femi, “He is like the hardest guy—tattoo, dyed hair—but with an angel’s voice.” Dedicated to God, it features MI’s 10-year old niece reciting Psalm 121.
“You be chairman o, nobody be like you,” gospel singer Frank Edward sings. He isn’t singing about MI; but then who knows?—we’ve all heard rappers often call themselves god.
Expected release date: 23rd October