Maybe M.I Abaga corroded a lot of the good faith the hip-hop community had in him with “You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives” but the record ultimately proved one thing – M.I knows how to get everyone’s attention.
Returning with a controversial statement as a single, after a lengthy hiatus is as loud as the bell rings. But instead of letting it be an ‘I said what I said’ moment, allowing both detractors and supporters space to infer or at least fill in non-existent mea culpas, Mr. Abaga metastasized the hypocritical parts of “Fix Up” with a couple of ignorant and contradictory post release tweets.
It’s the social media age, attention spans have diminished to the size of a rice grain, and keeping the conversation going regardless of how it is continued is paramount. Maybe all press isn’t good press, but Mr. Abaga is a chess player, he plans ahead and “Fix Up” was a move. As the foremost star of lyric-driven rap, Mr. Abaga doesn’t need to resort to antics to get widespread attention. But the ploy did get people excited for his return from another hiatus, especially those whom have taken offence. Thankfully, creating raucous is second to Mr. Abaga’s best ability: making great albums.
Causing rifts with his music is pretty much normal to Mr. Abaga. Though he offended his ‘day ones’ with Talk About It, an album that’s widely regarded as a classic material, but no ripline is deeper than the one Mr. Abaga caused with The Chairman, an album that came after a lengthy self-imposed exile.
The initial reaction was all praise, especially with the winning concept of songs with opposing titles facing each other being applauded and drummed up. But as the high from his triumphant return wore off, there were questions; how an album with a few too many asinine lyrics could be accepted from an artist who’s reshaped the genre in his image and why was it “too commercial,” even if the musical sheen is considered to be one the album’s bigger strengths.
But The Chairman being a self-anointing service of Mr. Abaga as the head of Nigerian hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore meant that the album was mildly asphyxiated by the resulting amount of ego on display. The Mr. Miyagi-of-relatable-raps-meets-commercialism had entered another stratosphere and it showed, as he strung together a long sheet of A-list collaborators and affiliates as he deemed fit – boss moves, I guess. None of these things actually hinder enjoying The Chairman as an album, but his likeability was being tested (even if the messianic Illegal Music 3 was well-accepted as a course correction) and the disappointed fans only clutched tighter to their copies of Talk About It. I can only wonder what the reactions are after listening to Mr. Abaga’s latest project Rendezvous.
Known for not staying in one place with his commercial releases, Rendezvous features some of the most drastic changes Mr. Abaga has made yet, while still sounding modish to anyone who’s been paying attention to rap’s current shifting trends and artists of the bubbling alté movement, a handful of whom make appearances across the span of the “playlist” project.
During the now infamous Loose Talk podcast interview, there’s a point where Mr. Abaga explains that the somewhat natural change from 4-bar loops to 3-bar loops was the catalyst behind him scrap a whole album’s worth of new material – the first telltale sign of a major shift. With professed inspiration of and help from many of these newer artists and producers versed in this new trend, Mr. Abaga’s stylistic changes are the marks of an artist trying to escape being a relic through evolving his sound to become more modern.
Whether you call the shift in sound a sellout’s move in a bid to placate a younger demographic, Mr. Abaga’s constant determination to not stay stagnant is well contrived to fit his goal: stay fresh, stay on top. What actually gives Rendezvous positive marks is its innovative tagging as a playlist. While it’s the first of its kind in the Nigerian market at this level, there’s influence from More Life, Drake’s own playlist project released about a year ago, albeit with its own tweaks.
The first marked tweak is the tacking of a moving narrative to each song on the project, the summary; Mr. Abaga meets up with a lover and a couple of friends for a longer night on the town after a long day. Although an interesting story arch, it doesn’t take having detective skills to figure that this idea is an afterthought, it’s obvious the songs themselves do not line up to form a convincing story line. They are disparate pieces that are actually connected by the energy they exude in giving the attached narrative credibility. Each song acts as less of a descriptive soundtrack and more of an accompaniment to the individual event attached to it.
After Rendezvous opens on more drowsy terms with the Chillz-featured “Sunset,” bringing the energy is exactly what “Soup” does – a hard-nosed rap song with a baseline dumber than Ciroma Chukwuma Adekunle. “Soup” features South Africa’s Cassper Nyovest, who matches Mr. Abaga’s tenacious braggadocio, on a track where both rappers are assertively rapping wide awake. Impatience is palpable on the Wande Coal assisted “Kososhi” (“it’s 2000-and-don’t-waste-my-time takes the early lead for catchphrase of the year), and it’s easy to envision flailing hands reacting to the palpable energy from the dreamy electropop sounds of “One Time,” dominated by Moelogo’s pining, strained tenor. The confident swagger of walking into a club with a gold card leaps out of “On Code,” featuring a glorious AKA verse, replete with red-blooded boasts over epic drums supplied by Mr. Abaga himself.
While the contrived storyline flows into each other quite seamlessly, Mr. Abaga improvises to ensure that the variedness of sounds doesn’t hinder front-to-back listens. There are short skits in between songs by popular radio OAPs and prank rap icons Igwe Tupac and Vic-O amongst others, accompanied by a musical prelude following songs, especially those with heavily differing sonic auras to their predecessors. These important transitions unite Rendezvous and improve overall listenability, while also emphasizing its variety.
Enlisting well over two dozen collaborators, Rendezvous is as colorful as a full length album can get. It is a better repeat of the same communal tactic integral to The Chairman, with each artist and producer playing to their strengths, while still in service to a project that is Mr. Abaga’s most diverse and most sophisticated fabric yet.
As if Mr. Abaga knows his voice won’t always be the most compelling piece of his songs, ceding a significant amount of the reins to contributors is a manner of orchestrating that pays huge dividends. In a shrewd method of magnanimity, artists of the “new wave” are given a bigger stage to shine with their features, and they make light work of their spots. Mr. Abaga plays third fiddle on “Jungle,” chipping in with an extended bridge between and after verses delivered by the impassioned vibrations from Tomi Thomas’s voice and the pristine eccentricity of Santi’s ragga. Nonso Amadi gracefully wrings out his boyish charm to full effect on “Playlist,” and Odunsi is the only multiple feature, solely producing and dishing out sticky, undulating hooks on “Popping” and “Lekki.”
Both Odunsi produced songs feature stellar verses from other guest veteran rappers (Ajebutter22 arguably steals the show on “Lekki” with his trademark style of offbrand similes: “put pressure, force over area/playing with fire, awon Targaryens”), but Show Dem Camp’s Ghost is the glittering pick, obliterating “Popping” with a dense verse that reads like ’70s mafia boss meets Raymond Reddington – even though Mr. Abaga’s philosophy professor-esque verse is actually really good.
The most unlikely show out on Rendezvous is Dice Ailes on the pre-released “Your Father,” a squeaky trap song with a juvenile, belligerent energy that fits its guest more than Mr. Abaga. The beyond distasteful lines from Mr. Abaga (“I blame myself for meeting and straffing your mother”) depict an unnecessary and lazy desperation to sound hip while going off on inferior rappers. That “30 is the new 20” moment is the only brazen disappointment on an otherwise brilliant project.
Another criticism that will be leveled – maybe a bit wrongly – is its lack of depth. With 15 songs at 52 minutes, Rendezvous is a slightly lengthy pool designed for shallow depth only, an indication of its curator’s shallow existence. But who cares when the significantly vibecentric music is quite good? Besides, there should be more to dig into on his next project Yxng Denzel, being promoted as a concept “album,” scheduled for release in May of this year.
Putting out a well-curated, banal “playlist” to drive up anticipation of an album is actual boss moves, though.