By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
It says something when a peer, a rival even, utters such a sentiment in public. And certainly, for the period between his first and second albums, MI's position as the best in his home country was incontestable.
Below are 10 of his best songs. So far his output has a perfect symmetry—in that it has produced three albums and three mixtapes. The albums have been released over the period of six years: Talk About It (2008), MI2 (2010), The Chairman (2014). The mixtapes came out in three and four year intervals: Illegal Music (2009), Illegal Music 2 (2012), Illegal Music III: The Finale (2016).
For this list, only songs from these six projects have been considered. This means such singles as ‘God Bless You’ and MI’s excellent verses from DJ Neptune’s ‘1,2,3’ original and remix do not meet the criteria. No songs from the 2015 compilation album The Indestructible Choc Boi Nation (featuring 13 artistes from the label Chocolate City including MI, his brother Jesse Jagz and their childhood friend Ice Prince) were considered.
These songs have been chosen based on quality of lyrics/production, importance to MI’s career, and how central a song is to the rapper’s persona with regards to the rest of the MI Abaga oeuvre. Solo rap songs were considered before collaborations.
Then in his twenties, MI was looking for a way out of his circumstance. Trying to fashion a living from his talents. On Hustle from Talk About It, MI recorded an encouragement to young persons striving in Nigeria, and internationally. “While you're there," he raps, "run Forrest run”. MI’s vocals are sure; and the beat combines electronic production with what appears to be an elastic mouth making rhythmic sounds.
Sample line: “It’s MI hustling the MIC, hustling his rap music to NYC. Ha. Hustle is all I see.”
9. 'Number 1'
MI’s chest-thumping lyrics and Flavour’s mastery of the Igbo brand of the highlife genre produced MI’s most crossover hit. It brought non-rap lovers to rap. It brought non-Nigerians to Nigeria. While they danced, only few Africans would have realised MI was proclaiming a Nigerian superiority over every other African country in the rap genre.
Sample line: “Some of them say they better than me. They must be hi(gh) like aloha.”
MI may never need to write his memoirs. At the very least, he has delivered the first part. A chunk of his autobiography can be found on the last song from MI2. Titled ‘Unstoppable,’ the song narrates the battles MI fought on the way to success. Because some of these battles were fought in the academia, the song includes a line consoling every talented kid doing badly in school: I would struggle with my grades but onstage I will shine.
The obvious model for the song is ‘Last Call,’ the last song from US rapper Kanye West’s College Dropout. Mr West chronicles his own rise through that 12-minute track. MI does same in about half the time.
Sample line: “Who would tell one day we’ll take charge, living this large, we’ll be driving these cars?”
7. 'Short Black Boy'
Along with ‘Safe’, this is the definitive MI song from Talk About It. It launched his ‘short black boy’ nickname. On ‘Short Black Boy’, he raps in the third person and puts himself in the same sentence with his heros: “He flow like Jigga and he sound like Nas/Maybe he’s the best, Nigeria’s own Kanye West .”
The song’s chorus is MI at his most sensuous supported by a mellow beat and finger snaps. “The ladies say who do this beat,” he says, voice soft and deep. “This the type of jam that can get me up on my feet. Rock me slow and so sweet. Come on, feel the heat, feel the heat.” That heat was certainly felt.
Sample line: “What he spits has the power to lift like cannabis.”
6. 'I’m Hot'
Every rapper records songs with the sole intention of proclaiming their own genius, their own greatness. MI has a number of those. ‘I’m Hot’, rapped over a beat of D’Banj’s ‘Mo Gbono Feli Feli’, is this short black boy’s ultimate self-aggrandising certificate. The song is a 3-minute long punchline without a chorus.
Sample line: “People say, 'MI name the best three'. I say, ‘Let’s see: Me. Me. Me.’”
5. 'My Belle My Head'
With MI2, the plan was to combine verbal brilliance with accessibility. MI found the key on ‘My Belle My Head’ as he gave an accurate account of the average citizen's existence in Nigerian pidgin. Here he nails the Nigerian life:
Naija people, just surviving/ Okada riding, police bribing/ Pastor preaching, pay your tithings/ School fees paying, food providing/ Impure water, no electric/ So much traffic, see the life is hectic/ Sewage leaking, there’s air pollution/ Rats are everywhere, no solution/ Roads with potholes, people dying/ All the bastards politicians lying/ University, degree pursuing/ Fuel scarcity, people queuing/ Black market, petrol impurity/ Armed robbery, there’s no security/ Fuel prices, Niger delta/ Religious crisis, then no shelter.
And that is not even a verse.
Sample line: “Hunger hook man for neck. Shey na bow-tie?”
'Safe' put MI Abaga on the lips of every Nigerian with a radio or television. He took the childhood game of combining lines from several songs in the schoolyard to the recording booth. Somehow he made stringing lines and sounds from popular songs from the time into his original composition.
Nigeria has always had intelligent rappers including Mode 9, Eldee, 6 Foot Plus and others. But the local rap audience had never heard a song like ‘Safe’. The combination of excellent production, the calm confidence of the flow, and the sparkly lyrics was unprecedented. When the Mex directed music video was released, it became clear a star was born, and a new path paved.
Sample line: “If there has ever been a rap this fly, it had to be done by another MI.”
3. 'Human Being'
This is MI as a success complaining about the baggage of success. Nearly every celebrity pop artist has a version of this song. MI’s version succeeds because he is pleading not for special treatment but for a recognition of his humanity. Add 2 Baba’s psychologically astute chorus and Sound Sultan’s inspired coda—Somebody tell them I cry, somebody tell them I hurt, somebody tell them I bleed—and you have the one true great song from The Chairman album. The song includes a now poignant line about the late Nomoreloss.
Sample line: “I joined Twitter so I could promote my art. Some of these comments…they nearly broke my heart.”
Through the entire runtime Illegal Music 3 mixtape, MI worries about his legacy. On 'Everything', he cut the picture of a mad monarch suspicious and unsure of what his rivals and heirs are up to. And yet, the neurosis birthed this gem of a rap song. For a longer account, read the review here.
Sample line: “I’ve seen kings not aware of their successors/waiting in the wings/They are blinded by their successes.”
1. 'Wild, Wild West'
MI famously expressed his unhappiness at losing the Best Album category at the 2011 Headies. A very self-aware artist, he mentioned ‘Wild, Wild, West’ as one of the songs that was well received in his twitter rant at the time. As this is too sad a song to ever receive heavy rotation in clubs or radio, it is no stretch to say that it is MI himself who believes in the quality of ‘Wild Wild West’.
And he should. In a career with dance cuts, personal songs, and conscious songs, Wild Wild West is the hybrid of the last two in a song about his violence-stricken childhood town, Jos. Although clever punchlines made MI famous, on ‘Wild Wild West’ MI avoids punchlines and goes for sad poetry backed by a cinematic score. The sad poetry strips off MI's usual brainy exuberance and the score connects the song with the movie theme of the MI2 album.
Even in the absence of a direct display of cleverness, MI Abaga's brilliance comes through—as does his unhappiness at the crisis that altered his beloved town.
Sample lyrics: “My memories of peace are a blur/And you were so pretty I swear/Driving through the city thinking/This is not her/She seems so strange/When did she change?/Blood in the streets, smoke in her sky/Can’t feel her heartbeat, no hope in her eyes/Orphans, coffins/Bastards, caskets, mass burials/How we gonna move past this…”
To purchase music by MI Abaga, visit iTunes.