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Jidenna’s The Chief Is An Adventurous, Deeply Rooted Debut

Two years after ‘Classic Man,’ the Nigerian-American artist expands his range

Jidenna emerged in 2015 with his platinum debut single, "Classic Man," and a sartorial decisiveness suggesting a persona that was fully formed off-camera. Like his mentor, Janelle Monáe, the new kid on Wondaland Records was serious about both his music and his aesthetic, which evokes the elegance of the Jim Crow–era black bourgeoisie with traces of European dandyism. This striking look was a conscious choice following the 2010 death of his father, noted Nigerian computer scientist Oliver Mobisson — a symbol of intellectualism (he helped build the country's first personal computer), but also of a certain leadership, as the honorary chief of a village back home. On a personal level, Jidenna's double-round collars, wing-tipped shoes, and walking cane have always been statements of respect and mourning, even if their uniqueness in mainstream rap was mistaken for gimmickry.

Seven years after the elder Mobisson's death, Jidenna's first full-length album, aptly titled The Chief, is an absorbing, refreshingly brazen grab bag of amped Afrobeats, dense trap, and sparkling ballads that tests the limits of the artist's versatility and adds admirably to his ongoing fatherly tribute.

Though it's chock-full of the cocksure raps that made "Classic Man" a hit, there's an air of world-weariness floating underneath The Chief's glossy production. Jidenna drops us in the passenger seat "on the way to put my poppa in his grave / in a disguise, riding in a motorcade" during the opening cut, "A Bull's Tale." This moment comes shortly after the first of many paranoia-inducing dispatches from an elder character introduced as Uncle Palmwine, who ominously explains, "When you are in the village, you are with your family / But your family may not be with you!"

Jidenna carefully ratchets up the stakes of his visit back home by theorizing on the many factors contributing to the distance between himself and his family over a subdued beat that calls to mind Yasiin Bey circa The Ecstatic. His upbringing in America ("I'm on the low, I ain't tryna be a martyr / It don't help, I stand out like a foreigner") and relative wealth speak to the barriers that can stand between American children of African families and their less-traveled relatives.

That familial mistrust undergirds the darker energies that spring up on The Chief's most introspective moments. It shows up as a traumatized response to surveillance on "Helicopters/Beware," on which he welcomes all challengers to his newly inherited throne: "The crown's on my head tonight / Let them come for me." Even when he's doing his smooth-macking shtick on the trap-inflected doo-wop single "Bambi," thoughts of his ancestors hold him back from experiencing true romance: "If grandfather never had seven wives / Then, darling, you'd be love of my life."

These small moments of concern and caution stand out thanks to the worlds of dynamic tone that Jidenna navigates. He sounds comfortable on these tracks, due in no small part to the rapport he’s built with “Classic Man” coproducers Nana Kwabena (who produced or coproduced all of the tracks on this album) and Nate “Rocket” Wonder. Big names like Hit-Boy pop in here and there, but they're all pulled into Jidenna’s own eclectic musical sphere, which ranges from rhythm-heavy lushness derived from Oliver de Coque–style Igbo highlife to more westernized, shadowy, subdued trap and dance-pop fusions.

When Jidenna takes on a style, it feels less like an imitation and more like a saturation — or, as he recently told MTV News, “I’m not much of a chameleon, but I am a sponge.” That said, his willingness to test out the limits of his absorptive ability can naturally lead at times to excess. His repetitious rhyme scheme and drawl on the second verse of tweak-and-twerk club jam “Trampoline” is annoyingly Drake-esque: “What the fuck we got degrees for? / If we ain’t flying overseas more / If we ain’t fucking on the seashore / If we ain’t puffing on the breeze more.” The album’s fourth single, the Kwabena-produced “The Let Out,” is a fleeting ATL trap bounce that's a bit too similar in construction to Rich Homie Quan’s 2015 hit “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh).” Luckily, Jidenna’s subversion of a sexist trope in the former song (“Oh no, the lady ain’t a tramp / She just be knowing what she wanting”) and clever, catchy chorus on the latter save them both from seeming too stale.

The same cannot be said for portions of “Bambi” and “Safari,” in which the animal metaphors are, at the very least, suspect. Though he tries to offset the silly, stereotypical imagery in “Bambi” with cute wordplay — “To run in the jungle I must be a lion [lyin'] / Or be a cheetah [cheater], but neither is fine” — the device still rings false. Depictions of Africans and the black diaspora as animals harken back to the era of slavery, and they have carried into the 21st century in hideous images, ugly declarations, and abuse by those in power. Jidenna's careless invocation of this history is likely unintentional, and it hardly dooms his album, but it does compel a side-eye.

Jidenna is at his best when he’s reflecting on the narratives, consequences, and consciousnesses that are part and parcel of his family’s improbable journey. On “Chief Don’t Run,” he blitzes down a hard boom-bap beat as he recollects going from “door to door to door all day," begging for a place to sleep, to the present, when he might share a “yacht with a prince in Dubai” one day and hit “the Dalai Lama’s homies in the sky lounge” the next. On the penultimate track, “White Niggas,” Jidenna invigorates a played-out racial role-reversal trope by conjuring an image of a drug-addled white family in realistic, unpretentious terms. The song, while debatably useful for those living under the threat of systemic violence, achieves a melancholy tone that feels just right.

As a debut, The Chief is an adventurous surprise — it turns out that Jidenna's strict adherence to a particular era of fashion hardly translates to his music. And that’s for the better. The Chief lays out the remnants and relics he's collected over his life's travels in a spread that may feel daunting in its diversity but is, at least emotionally, centered on the relatable grief of losing a loved one. He’s still learning ways to honor, celebrate, and call forth the spirit of those who have passed, whether it's in the village or the house party.


VMAs 2017