Thomas Johnson never cries when watching Bambi.
In 1965 Oliver Mobisson, a revolutionary in Nigeria’s Biafran War, moved to Massachusetts to enroll at MIT with a grant from the Nigerian Ministry of Education. Stateside, he would meet his future wife, Tama, with whom he founded Lifeline for Biafra, an organization intent on channeling funds to rebels fighting for Biafra sovereignty. In ’81 Mobisson returned to Igboland. In ’82 he built the ASUTECH 800, sub-Saharan Africa’s first computer line named after the computer technology institute he played an integral part in founding. His son, Jidenna Mobisson, was born some three years later in Wisconsin Rapids, WI. When Jidenna was five years old, the Mobisson family was taken hostage in Nigeria by militiamen; his sister and mother were savagely beaten, and Jidenna got a bullet in his foot. The family would return to the US the next year. Oliver passed away in February of 2010, and was given a chief’s funeral in his home country.
Jidenna’s debut album, The Chief, benefits greatly from an understanding of his upbringing. It’s not necessary to enjoy it—The Chief is a marvelously approachable collection of songs—but context makes it sink in deeper. For example: at first glance, Jidenna’s ballsiness could seem pompous, but it’s not without basis. This is a dude that made a calculated decision to reject his Harvard admission so that he could rap about rejecting his Harvard admission. (Danny Brown has repeatedly said in interviews that he started selling weed in part so he could rap about selling weed.)
Another example: When I first heard “Classic Man,” I thought his modern dandyism, his impeccably tailored suits and flawless side-part, were a shtick—a dapper shtick, but a shtick nonetheless. As it would happen, Jidenna’s sartorial preferences are in tribute to his late father, who had a penchant for three-piece suits and walked with a cane. After his death, Jidenna adopted the style. The ghost of Oliver Mobisson haunts The Chief as an extension of The Classic Man’s psyche, a window through which we’re privy to the hereditary wisdom and perspectives that shifted with his passing.
Beginning with his father’s death and ending with a posthumous conversation with him, The Chief loosely follows Jidenna’s journey to metaphorical chieftain status. “You’re not a man ‘till the day your father dies” is the album’s penultimate nugget of wisdom. The narrative isn’t fully formed, and because it bookends the bulk of the album, any sort of linear plot gets a bit lost in the mix. But within that framework, Jidenna struts himself as a walking diaspora with a double-monk strap firmly planted in parallel realities. Songs are peppered with African imagery and traditions that never feel out of place. Having lived in Boston, New York, the Bay, ATL and Enugu, Nigeria, he uses regionalized templates to synthesize elements of his homeland.
There are moments—like the tribal pomp of “Chief Don’t Run’s” intro, wherein a chanting choir is processed through auto-tune—that are distinctly African. “A Little Bit More’s” Afrobeat is complimented by his pidgin bridging Nigerian and English so subtly you may not notice you don’t recognize the words you’re singing along with. It’s the type of song that would soundtrack a Bud Light commercial at the exact moment all the beautiful twenty-somethings on the crowded dance floor jump for joy as part of a very #organic marketing campaign. Here’s fun fact you can’t find on Genius: when he raps “take you back to my shrine,” Jidenna is referring to the The New Afrika Shrine, a Lagosian club rebuilt from the burnt remnants of the Africa Shrine that Fela Kuti created to house his performances. How casually The Chief engages Jidenna’s heritage is what makes it remarkable album, not to mention a major-label debut from a first generation Nigerian-American in 2017.
Sometimes Jidenna’s rapping can underwhelm the subject matter, but he’s charming enough to work out the discrepancies. Pure bar-for-bar joints like “Long Live The Chief” and “2 Points” teeter on the brink of forgettable, but squeak by on his strength of character and conceptual adherence. The former follows his childhood from cockroaches to his deal with Wondaland Records while the latter’s title stems from an anecdote about his father (when a young Jidenna scored 98% on a test, Oliver asked where the remaining two percent was).
Jidenna’s strength lies in his songwriting and knack for melody. Hooks dominate, tucked between twisting melodies that snap back to their original place after one or four intervening bridges. Having spent the last three years recording in Atlanta studios, The Chief is beholden to the amorphous structuring and fluidity of Georgia’s current luminaries. Executive producer Nana Kwabena, who has production credits on all fourteen cuts (as well as Jidenna’s 2015 breakout “Classic Man”), floods the album with trap drums to give its eclecticism a unified spine.
The single version of “The Let Out” hosts a verse from Quavo. Tinges of Rich Homie Quan’s “Type Of Way” backhandedness can be found on “Some Kind Of Way,” though cast in a cheerier light. Smoldering quiet storm “Helicopters” borrows Future’s strategic repetition while its second movement, “Beware,” recalls the dissonant cacophony of DS2’s most heartless moments. For “Bambi,” a tender doo-wop ballad that adopts African highlife as comfortably as Sinatra-esque classical pop; on “Beware,” Jidenna admits to trying to contort his voice à la Young Thug. He’s said post-release that it’s his favorite song on the album. It’s also the most indicative of his talents, and one of the best songs of 2017.
To really buy into The Chief, you have to buy into Jidenna the man. Promoting the album, he’s came correct with a strong mission statement: progress. His personality is the main attraction, which is fine because Jidenna seems to be an agreeable fella. He’s the type of dude who keeps a gold Apple Watch on his pocket chain, the kind of guy that dresses up as The Game for Halloween. He can quote Common on the spot and acknowledges Ubering to a movie premiere in a Honda Civic to save a dime. Wading through the multitudes of ideas he presents is easy as he never makes any attempts to go too deep, and with a knowing wink assures they rarely appear too shallow. “Safari” is the most obvious outlier: though it’s bubbly and contains several clever turns of phrase, the hook goes on just a little longer than it should. But that’s a small gripe, an eight for the dive but a six for the landing.
His politics, be it gender or political, are commendable and make for some of the albums most clear-sighted moments. “Got a right to get lit/She might even have a wedding ring/Or a doctorate in medicine” he raps on “Trampoline.” He continues, “That lady ain’t a tramp/she just be knowing what she wanting.” Second-to-last track “White N****s,” is a coy, alternate-reality role reversal where blue-eyed blondes and their prescription pills are the main demographic pilloried by the war on drugs. It’s scathing without being offensive, a wink and nod rather than a finger-wag. He has said it’s partially inspired by White Man’s Burden, a 1995 film starring John Travolta. White Man’s Burden, again, a 1995 film starring John Travolta, is a travesty. “White N****s” is a shrewd and genuinely hilarious.
Jidenna identifies as Igbo—one of Africa’s dominant ethnic groups—native to Southeastern Nigeria. The Chief’s cover features him side-eyeing the camera, a ring of milky smoke hanging above his lips, as his head lies on the thigh of a chocolate-skinned woman. He’s wearing a black dinner jacket and white button up. Homegirl’s wearing a (modified) crimson isiagu with a golden lion at her chest. An “isiagu” is a pullover shirt, usually velvet, worn by the Igbo people. They’re often adorned with gold buttons or chains, tend to extend past the waist, and traditionally worn by a chieftain.
The frame captures the duality that defines Jidenna; committing to classicism while simultaneously upending it. Jidenna toys with exoticism and standardized tropes to incorporate foreignness to the greatest of America’s art forms in the midst of a xenophobic peak. The Chief is a pan-Atlantic love letter to his heritage by way of his pedigree via the irony that he wants to push forward a culture both indebted to its past and reluctant to acknowledge it. It’s made with knowledgeable pride and the genuine appreciation of its lineage. It’s the work of an auteur with a singular vision, and the juevos to attempt it in an ankara button up and canary-yellow waistcoat. Long live the chief.