A Classic Sham?
Some have said that the schizophrenic genre-hopping United Colors of Benetton approach of this (impressive) new Jidenna album feels more ingenuous than that of the last few Drake releases, whose similarly multiculti leanings have been said to at best signal a Cliffs Notes-style reading of recent developments in world music (those occurring both in Jamaican dancehall and Nigerian afrobeat, to be specific), or at worst reflect a kind of indifferent opportunism informing a most shameless attempt at exploitation.
It’s exactly the opposite. Drake’s oeuvre can be defined as an erotics of surfaces — his superficiality is baked, as it were, into the equation; his petty is ultimately his purity — wherein an Internet-savvy, sonically region-less seemingly focus-group-approved Canadian former child actor’s genre-piggybacking and bald navel-gazing might just represent some of the more ingenuous gestures from a public figure in our post-truth era. (In the wake of many hip-hop fans’ non-reaction to 50 Cent’s Machiavellian 2009 outing of Rick Ross as a former correctional officer, being honest in rap — a genre rife with a checkered history of straight-faced posturing — about its dishonest, fantastical, more theatric elements seems, radically, like one of the “realest” things one can do.)
Jidenna, on the other hand, strikes one — if only because of his conk hairstyle; his sartorial flair; and his association with actress and future-soul journeywoman Janelle Monáe — as an artist who should have something a bit more authentic (in the conventional sense) to convey. And far too often on The Chief you get a cross-section of shrewdly eclectic songs that are aurally stunning, yet lack a certain je ne sais quoi as expressed by some of the artists who appear to have inspired them. (“Trampoline,” for instance, is Drake-lite with trite cliches and bad puns — “The lady ain’t a tramp/Just ’cause she bounce it up and down like a/trampoline” — sans the existential dread and solipsistic interiority, i.e. the very qualities that make Drake — love or hate him — a compelling artist.)
Don’t get me wrong: there are some legit genuine moments amid these aesthetically pleasing, if slightly contrived songs. But for every “Chief Don’t Run” (whose worldly, pleasantly droning Fela-esque stomp serves as an apt backdrop for the Nigerian rapper’s dizzying rundown of his “you-can’t-make-this-up” personal history, which includes ivy league education and being robbed at gunpoint by village thieves) there are, alas, too many moments where I legit found myself distractedly thinking, “You know, I would really rather listen to Bob Marley — whose birthday was this month — directly followed by the Migos instead of a ham-fisted attempt — “Helicopters” — at absorbing, in one setting, both of those stellar acts.” Also: “Wyclef Jean: The Carnival — in stores now (and since 1997!)!”
In a 2010 interview with Paris Review, celebrated novelist Jonathan Franzen spoke of the artistic necessity of getting at one’s “hot material” (e.g., the messy but essential stuff of personal histories that can inspire great art). To be sure, Jidenna unquestionably has ample “hot material” from which to draw inspiration. He also possesses first-rate pop instincts. But until he finds a way to channel that material into a more honest presentation of himself as an artist, I am afraid Jidenna’s strictly going to be capable of crafting an album that I can only fake-love.