In 2011, CBN put together a bailout package worth trillions of Naira to save a number of struggling banks. It was a huge amount and financial experts still talk about the impact of that bailout till this day, but CBN’s hands were tied, they had to control the economy – the banks were simply “too big to fail”.
The struggle was also real for a section of Nigeria’s rap community circa 2014. After 4 long years, MI released his third studio album The Chairman. But a lot had changed in that time, the Choc Boys had separated and created a vacuum at the top, Olamide and Phyno then became the new leaders, the Awolowo and Zik of rap music if you like. Reminisce too was finally getting his just due, TIME Magazine even named him “One Of The Seven World Rappers You Should Meet”. The last time Mr. Abaga had an album out, all 3 of those rappers had 1 hit song between them, no albums, but by 2014 they were the ones making the loudest noise, and that noise was in their mother tongue.
The trio’s rise would signal a shift in hip-hop culture, from those who listened to hip-hop through their headphones and wanted to rap along to every word, to the streets and the clubs where people just wanted to feel the music regardless of what the rapper was talking about. Everyone adjusted, even the notoriously puritistic Modenine. Back in 2012, Don Jazzy insulted Modo when he said he wouldn’t take a dictionary to listen to the rapper’s wordy rhymes. The producer however atoned for his comments 2 years after by gifting him “Some More”, Modenine’s most radio-friendly record since his Question Mark days. Also, around the same time, ex-Thorobred MC Illbliss started incorporating more Igbo into his verses, and in 2015, Vector would remix his hit song “King Kong” and strategically include rappers from every major tribe.
MI too seemed to have realized that shift, The Chairman album featured Olamide, Phyno and Reminisce, contained a number of big-sounding, radio and club-friendly joints and delivered some of the most asinine lyrics of his illustrious career.
Just because cat sabi swim no mean say e be catfish (Middle)
Did you smoke something? ‘Cos hi [high] girl (Mine)
You’re now chilling with an MC that can flow than your menses (Bullion Van)
It didn’t matter that The Chairman was one of the best-produced rap albums you’ll ever hear or that MI had engineered one of the cleverest album arrangements you’ll ever see, fans of lyricism were disappointed.
Granted, MI traditionally reserves his sharpest bars for his Illegal Music series but those mixtapes are for his core fans. Just like he did in ‘08 with the release of Talk About It, many were waiting on The Chairman to make lyricism cool again on the mainstream. Mister Incredible was seen by many as the last of a dying breed of a particular type of MC, the album was therefore too big to fail – but did it?
The Chairman divides fan opinion – was it too ‘commercial’? Were the lyrics watered down? Was MI really trying to fit in or had he just lost his Midas touch? The debate was reopened last week when K.E.A.D, an upcoming rapper, recorded a strongly-worded open letter to his idol MI, and respected music journalist Ayomide Tayo followed up with a pen and paper version of his own. Ayomide’s letter posited that The Chairman album was a real low-point for the legendary MC and as a result, had had a ‘short shelf-life’. MI took umbrage, he pointed to iTunes Nigeria to show how the album consistently remained in or around the top 5 despite being released nearly 3 years ago. In real-time, he then scheduled an appointment on Loose Talk, a popular podcast that Ayomide co-hosts with Osagie Alonge and Steve Dede, and a fiery discussion ensued the very next day.
MI’s argument was a two-fold: regardless of what K.E.A.D or the critic community thinks about The Chairman album, it is simply an opinion, and that since the term shelf-life connotes commercial performance – not critical-acclaim – The Chairman album had indeed performed very well. According to MI, The Chairman had grossed $120,000 since its release, but it’s impossible to verify his claim because, in Nigeria, commercial performance is still a game of he-say, she-say.
It’s the same way it was impossible to verify Chocolate City’s claims in ‘08 that MI’s climate-shifting debut album Talk About It, sold 30,000 units in 30 minutes. That said, until we have the metrics we like, we have to make do with the metrics we have. Using iTunes as an imperfect – but at least an objective – indicator, you can say that The Chairman is the best-performing Nigerian rap album of the last 3 years with a straight face and not sound stupid. And this is in a stretch of time when Olamide, Phyno and Reminisce have also released studio albums.
However, high sales doesn’t equate to high quality, there is as close a relationship between commercial success and critical-acclaim as there is between Donald and Melania Trump. Osagie and Ayomide took their time to stress this point. But interestingly enough, The Chairman album did pass the critic’s smell test as well. When it was released in 2014, the album was largely well-received by the country’s foremost critics. Tola Sarumi of NotJustOk scored it a 6.5/10, Wilfred Okiche of YNaija gushed:“MI’s The Chairman is prime stuff and represents a return to form for Jude Abaga”, even Ayomide Tayo scored the album a 4/5. While they still questioned MI’s creative direction, critics understood that the climate of hip-hop had changed and that the legendary MC was better off trying to control things from the inside than from the outside.
MI’s The Chairman album, therefore, did not fail, whether commercially or critically, but it will forever be judged on how the man who once changed the game minimized his own impact by choosing to change with the game with every new release. However, when analyzing why the lyrical style of rap that he pushed to the mainstream had had a short reign, there is enough blame to go round, particularly to rappers of the same ilk that MI put on. His brother, the immaculately-talented Jesse Jagz never lived up to his ‘greatest’ title and Iceprince took the pop sounds every rapper was experimenting with to heart until he became unrecognizable and unrelatable as an artist. And then there are all the rappers that MI has supported through the years, either by signing them, featuring on their songs or by featuring them on his mixtapes – where are they now?
As far as where The Chairman ranks on the list of MI’s best albums, that debate will never end, nor should it. Yet with all the criticism the album has endured, there is still hope – however faint – that with album #4 Young Denzl, CBN and its head honcho will regain its position at the top and be able to control the economy of Nigerian hip-hop once again.