The Apotheosis of Judah
Pop culture is amnesiac. More so in a country like Nigeria where credible, verifiable records are difficult to access and a structured consensus rating system (like the Nielsen SoundScan) is nonexistent. This makes it difficult to compare the impact of artists’ outputs across eras.
For instance, there is no publically available and verifiable data on the distribution and reach of 2face’s Grass to Grace album, did it sell one, two or three million copies? How many times was African Queen played on radios across the country? If a Gen Z nephew of Efe Omoregie was to tell him that African queen is overhyped, what objective metrics will he use to counter this claim?
In recent times, some data has become available to show the reach and impact of songs and projects at least with the introduction of streaming platforms. And a more conscientious effort to document pop culture history is taking hold. The problem still persists when one undertakes the task of proving the greatness of an artist a decade deep into the music industry. One has to call on the collective memory of the culture by scouring through records and write-ups, looking through the available numbers and crafting a narrative leaning towards objectivity or consensus at the least. It is this venture that I have decided to undertake in order to put forward my position that MI Abaga is Nigeria’s GOAT rapper.
Act I: Ascension
In early 2006, MI was just another struggling artist in Nigeria. Working with his friends in the Loopy Music collective (Jesse Jagz, Lindsey, Ice Prince, Eben, Threadstone, E-kelly, Ruby). The Nigerian Hip Hop landscape was dominated by Modenine, Eedris Abdulkareem and Ruggedman. He released the song Crowd Mentality as a subliminal attack on record executives and fans who pointed out that his proclivity for English/Ebonics lyrics delivered in an American accent (He had been in the US from 1999 to 2003), mid-tempo sound, and refusal to ask the people to dance was a recipe for never blowing up in an industry dominated by the pop sounds of 2face, Mohits and P-Square.
Crowd Mentality captured the imagination for reasons it wasn’t supposed to. It was the beginning of a thrilling journey. By 2008, MI was signed to Chocolate City and he brought Ice Prince and Jesse Jagz with him, his comrades who would subsequently sign to the same record label.
His song Safe was an epic moment in Nigerian Hip Hop, but what he had teased on the single became fully revealed on His debut album Talk About It. A lot can be written about the technical quality, lyrical dexterity, music selection and sequencing and overall quality of that album, but its greatest impact is that it introduced the perfect template to balance top-notch lyricism on one hand and mainstream acceptance with records that are commercially appealing to a wider fanbase on the other. It is this template that every rapper who has achieved critical acclaim and commercial success in Nigeria over the last decade has followed. That album also gave most music fans their first experience of an upstart Wizkid, and Nigerian Rap staples Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince.
Act II: Adulation
Two years after the release of his totemic debut, MI was set to release his second album with heightened expectations as he had dropped a high-quality Mixtape-Illegal Music, was engaged in beef with both Kelly Handsome and Iceberg Slim and had fallen out with his manager. To say there was a lot on the line was like saying Tony Montana had a little cocaine on his table. It was against this backdrop he went ahead to put forward a body of work brimming with quality, territorial roaring and chest-thumping as had never been witnessed in Nigeria’s music scene.
It was the work of a man aware he was untouchable. Iceberg and Kelly Handsome were caricatured and dismissed on Beef, the travails of being at the apex dissected masterfully on Nobody, love interests reassured on One Naira and the throne proclaimed to be fully occupied on both Number 1 and Undisputed.
Everything good on Talk About It was improved upon; the soundscape had been expanded to cater to an even wider audience. Critics, however, noted the drop in lyrical dexterity.
Despite this, there was no one close, the widely respected Jesse Jagz may have been his brother, but MI was on his own at the top. The topical structure of MI2: The Movie became the general template for Nigerian Hip Hop. First, talk about how awesome and great you are, woo the ladies, give the haters short rift, and graze some socio-political concern. Ensure you do it on percussion-heavy or mid-tempo instrumentation and say everything with the conviction of a Roman general.
Listen to every rap album before and after MI2: The Movie. While in the past rappers were infatuated with sounding clever and showing lyrical dexterity with displays of complex technique, MI had optimized his clear delivery and easy flow with less head-turning metaphors and complex rhymes on Talk About It to a more relatable music offering.
This catapulted the short black boy to the very heights of Nigerian Music, for the first time in modern Nigerian Music a Hip Hop artiste was headlining shows just like the pop acts, getting endorsements, and running the award circuits with nominations and wins outside Hip Hop categories. This was validated by a BET awards nomination for Best International Act in 2010 alongside P-Square (the first time Nigerian artistes were nominated) in addition to the double victories at MTV MAMAs 2009 and 2010 Channel O award wins. In the country and on the continent, the son of the evangelist had ascended to Olympus.
Act III: Tribulation
In October 2017, MI released the controversial You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives(YRSFUYL). It turned all conversations about entertainment in Nigeria towards Hip Hop/Rap. Ehis Combs writing for Filterfreeng best captured the impact of the song thus, “The rap community got energized, the radio suddenly felt compelled to break format by playing rap music again and discussing Nigerian music on their belts.”
In the grand scheme of things however, this song had two main points of impact, For MI, it was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that it reenergized his career, after offering his weakest body of work on The Chairman album in 2014 and bringing the vibrant Illegal Music series to a close in 2016, the past few months had brought greater scrutiny of his stewardship of Chocolate City as CEO. The curse was that the egos of many of his peers and upcoming rappers were hurt by the stinging criticism of YRSFUYL. They felt that as someone who had navigated the treacherous terrain of Nigerian music which is doubly so for Rap/Hip Hop artistes, he should have shown greater empathy.
The animosity was to come to a head two years later during his feuding with Vector and the faux pas in his defence of SA rapper AKA during the Xenophobia debacle of 2019. He didn’t lose the beef with Vector based on Vector having better diss tracks, as a matter of fact, most agreed that Lanre Ogunmefun’s songs were poorly produced and executed. The problem was one of perception, and he lost it immediately a DM surfaced of him attempting to defuse tensions with Vector. In these social media times, perception is greater than reality, ask Meek Mill and even ask Drake.
Act IV: Ascension, Again
The reality of YRSFUYL is that only MI Abaga could have brought about that moment. He possessed the gravitas in terms of that delicate blend of commercial success, wider appeal and the respect of purists (based on skill and technical ability) that is the holy grail of acceptance into the Hip Hop/Rap pantheon. The other Rappers on this Mount Rushmore are Olamide who if he had attempted it would have been met with derision. The consensus is that Olamide has tilted too much towards commercial appeal to hold great credibility to tastemakers, fans and peers in Hip Hop/Rap circles.
Modenine would have gotten a dismissive reaction. He is the greatest technician in Nigerian Hip Hop but he never attained a significant impact on the culture and the wider music audience. The other impact is on the Hip Hop conversation in Nigeria, YRSFUYL was a microcosm of all conversations around the art form in Nigeria, heavy on individual braggadocio and name-calling, the “Hashing of tags”, the endless rhetoric and lack of consensus and consequently the end game of no concrete outcomes that will alter the trajectory of the genre.
All players within the ecosystem namely; media, fans, artists, music executives, managers, promoters, record labels etc. are culpable in this malaise. In a way, it is ironic that the premier Nigerian rapper should have instigated this quintessentially Nigerian Hip Hop moment. It is also ridiculous that despite his obvious failings, he should be the one to have had the most positive impact on rappers in the aftermath of the debacle by giving platforms to AQ, Alpha Ojini and Blaqbonez (Alpha and Blaqbonez were among the plethora of artistes to reply YRSFUYL).
Add to that the honour of creating an EP (Rendezvous) with some of the best growing artistes in the Hip Hop and alternative music scene as well as curating the LAMB August project (he was the executive producer of 3 hip hop albums released in three weeks) released in August 2018. This is way more than any competitors or detractors can point to as their own contributions to moving the genre forward within the same period.
It is apparent that MI is no longer the effervescent tyro of Talk About It nor the masterful virtuoso of MI2: The Movie. The outlandish braggadocio and audacious rhyming on any and every beat have been mellowed to defiant chest-thumping and the introspection of a veteran who believes that if he doesn’t blow his trumpet the usurpers circling will say he wasn’t on-song while recognizing that he has much wisdom to impart as he has, after all, been there and done that.
The aforementioned YRSFUYL won the best rap single at the Headies 2018, ten years after he had won the best rap single for Crowd Mentality in 2008. The Nominees in 2008 were Modenine, Rooftop MCs, Naeto C, Jimmy Jatt and Elajoe. All nominees are ripe for a “Where are they now” episode on Pulseng. Simply put, no one has been this good at this level for this long. No other Hip Hop artiste has had a direct and indirect impact on the introduction and growth of as many other artistes; Jesse Jagz, Ice Prince, Wizkid, Milli, Ckay, Phyno, Loose Kaynon, Ruby,Yung L, Blaqbonez, AQ, Koker, etc are a few who can point to getting their big break through Jude Abaga either on a song, a record deal, a phone call to a connect or a spot on a show/tour. No other rapper has the quality of discography. You can even ignore his production catalogue which includes Safe ft Djinee, 123 Remix by Dj Neptune, Feeling It by Banky W, Olofofo by Ice Prince ft Wizkid among others. Dubbing him the most skilled Nigerian rapper of all time is a matter of opinion, accepting him as the greatest of all time is a matter of fact.
More than anything else however, MI is an inspiration to anyone who wants to be inspired. His isn’t a Horatio Alger type rags-to-riches story. It’s one that most Nigerians who are able to read this piece can relate to and learn to emulate. A young man from a middle-class family braved the odds and in spite of his flaws raised himself to the pinnacle of his career and took his family and friends along for the ride. So, anytime social media narratives make you want to type something silly about the GOAT, take a moment to reflect, and ask yourself how can I do what he did in my own life.
By Ernest for Urban Central. Tweets @Ernyy_B
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