Because of rap’s insistence on ‘realness’, the genre is perhaps the most autobiographical of modern pop music forms. Directly, obliquely and in spots throughout his career, Nigerian rapper MI has given us bits of his life.
His rise to rap relevance is chronicled on ‘Unstoppable’ from the celebratory sophomore MI2. Doubts about that relevance irrupt all over the low-on-confidence third album, The Chairman.
There's the ode to Jos, the troubled town of his childhood on ‘Wild Wild West’ from MI2. There's his struggle with the exposure of social media on ‘Human Being’ from The Chairman. His attempts at reconciling with his one-time estranged brother Jesse Jagz is recorded on ‘Brother’ from the latter album.
On the chorus of his new song 'Everything', he relays his method to autobiography: “Everything I have learned in my life I can try to sing you in songs.”
Starting firmly, slowly, like the rapper is seething, the syllables tumble out impetuously until sobriety becomes anger. Within the first of the song’s two verses, the emotions pour out in different directions. There is a response to doubters: “Niggers think I’m toast but no, my bread is always buttered.” Then there is something more pointed: “If a nigger’s tripping, I can do without their luggage.” By the last line of the verse his anger has sublimated into frustration: “Genius is so lonely because nobody understands us.”
Although 'Everything' can be seen as referring to a number of people in the Nigerian rap industry, it may also be that MI is aware of the true culprit: The man in the mirror. After all, it was MI who recorded The Chairman without a single solo song, so that the album sounded like a various artists’ collection. It was MI who became CEO of the record label Chocolate City, like Jay-Z, one of his influences, carrying everyone else, when he could focus on his own art. It was MI who took years between studio albums in a time when the pop scene favours a new flavour every week. Why is he carping and to whom?
The disappointment perceived on 'Everything' is perhaps because MI has always seemed made from a softer core than you’ll expect from a rapper. That mushy core produced perhaps the most celebrated love song by a Nigerian rapper, ‘One Naira’ and the less-known gem ‘God Bless You’. But it also produced the tolerable but rather saccharine ‘Imperfect Me’ where he records a slew of his associates telling listeners what they consider MI’s flaws. On ‘Everything’ he admits his tenderness, rapping about being, “always sentimental in my fucking mental.”
By the second verse, MI the angry man is MI the Messiah. “I earned the crown,” he says, “and then returned to sit among the peasants. How should they be saved unless I bring to them a message? How should they improve unless they sit and hear my lessons?”
That line is of course a reference to criticism of the middling banquet that was The Chairman. Artists may publicly denounce critics but the best ones care, maybe a little too deeply. Case in point, Burna Boy.
For rap watchers, the MI blueprint is tripartite: connect with listeners, impress critics, and mentor younger rappers. This is the kind of plan that can only be dreamed up by a rapper pampered by early success, who, quickly addicted to a warm reception by radio, phones and people, is poised to re-enact and possibly amplify that initial reception. So when MI says, “Your highness, are you low enough to one day face rejection?” he is talking to himself. The commercial and critical highs of Talk About It and MI2 were not recreated with The Chairman. He takes the semi-rejection of that album calmly and offers the lesson philosophically to younger rappers in the most compelling manner: “Man must pay to gravity the price for his ascension.” Also: “If you think I am talking to you—nigga this is an intervention.”
What makes ‘Everything' so compelling, other than the picture it paints of the mind of a brilliant rapper who on occasion in the near-5 minutes of the song appears to be a paranoid monarch, is its delivery and production. Set on a whispery beat featuring subdued screams at intervals, the song’s atmosphere enforces the rapper-as-neurotic-king scenario painted by the lyrics.
By the end of the song’s last verse, the paranoia seems to have won over: “Grab myself a pencil and then I wrote my name in history. Why they try to erase it … is just a mystery to me.”
But MI need not worry. If everything else on the forthcoming Illegal Music 3 are as good as 'Everything' the rapper would have earned an entry into that history book—before the first word is written.