Reasons M.I. Abaga’s debut album is important to Nigeria music


When MI Abaga came on the scene in the late 2000s, Nigerian music, and rap in particular, was in a very delicate place, wriites .

The legacies of so-called pioneers like Swatroot, Trybesmenand the Thoroughbreds were still largely intact, but in a lot of ways, the sound had become stagnant at its core.

Image result for mi first album
(Cover of M.I. Abaga’s debut album, “Talk About It” ITunes)

It felt like all the rappers had started a secret Facebook group and agreed on a formula for making songs. They could pick chest-thumping boastful verses or playful, comedic lyrics a la Freestyle Essien; combine either of them with heavy boom-bap production or weak attempts at the emerging pop sound of the time. And BOOM! Song has landed.

Cover of "Malcolm IX" by Mode 9.
Cover of “Malcolm IX” by Mode 9.

Nowadays he might not be anyone’s favorite but in those years, Mode 9 was the top dog, top gun, top lion and everything else. He built a reputation off complex lyrics and albums like 2004’s “Malcolm IX: The Lost Sessions” and 2006’s “E Pluribus Unum”, yet, if you combined the songs on all his bodies of work at the time, it was basically one long cry for recognition over samples of 90s rap classics. He was doing a lot of things right, but connecting was not one of them.

Later, Lord of Ajasa scored a regional crossover hit and got Yorubaland jamming with 2008’s ‘Le Fenu So’ featuring 9ice, but his case was more the exception than the norm. Sure, our artistes were making rap music but it was largely for those in Timberland boots and oversized Polo shirts; hip-hop heads.

Cue a certain short black boy from Jos by way of Calvin College, Michigan. In a lot of ways, I think MI’s official debut single, “Crowd Mentality” is  similar to Nas’ verse on ‘Live At The Barbeque’, and here’s why. Before they dropped, both artistes were relatively unknown entities. The songs introduced us to two acts with albums that would flip the game on its head. Obviously, MI is more Diet Kanye West than Nasir Jones, but you get the point.

If rappers were safe asleep before then, “Crowd Mentality” was the slap across the face and the kick down below that woke them up. M.I. introduced himself to us by scoring massive points for doing what his contemporaries could not; dropping knowledge and getting people to listen.

Mr Incredible released his highly anticipated first album, ‘Talk About It’ in 2008. It was a critical and commercial darling. In between cuts like ‘Safe’, ‘Teaser’ feat. General Pype, ‘Area’ feat YQ and ‘Short Black Boy’, he scored what many of us young fans considered a dream debut.

It’s been too long since those days, when we would religiously sit by speakers, hoping to catch one more punchline that had flown over our heads on previous listens. That’s why it’s easy now to forget what that album stood for at the time. But in a way, every Nigerian rap album since has been a reflection of the legacy of arguably M.I.’s best and most sincere work.

On the homefront, rap albums are now defined by painful attempts to create crossover pop hits and do it for the culture at the same time, and certain people blame M.I. for this. What ‘Talk About It’ did, however, was to create a flexible, workable formula for rap albums in a society where everyone just wants to dance.

The album had everything; reggae/dancehall vibes on “Teaser” featuring General Pype, a thinly-veiled stoner anthem in “Blaze” featuring Blaise, Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince, heavenly praise in “Jehovah” – all while managing to deliver the lyricism he unwittingly promised. That formula still works till this day, 8 years after. Before him, the biggest rap albums of the time had sacrificed something for another; “Talk About It” proved it did not have to be so.

There’s a reason why the average Nigerian’s knowledge of rap music starts in 2008. Sure, we bumped our heads to Trybesmen’s “Shake Body” and displayed our lack of taste with Ruggedman’s “Ehen”, but with “Safe”, M.I. Abaga blew the lid open. It was like someone just whispered in our ears that rap songs could also be radio hits.

Apart from being one of the year’s biggest songs across all genres, it was the first time in a long time when hip-hop would come on the radio or television and entire families would sing, rap, hum or do something along to the music. I know mine did.

There’s no Nielsen Soundscan or Billboard to verify the claims of “30000 records sold in 30 minutes”, but there’s little you can do to deny how well the album was received.

That success left the gate open for household names like Vector, Ice Prince, Jesse Jagz and a later generation of rappers to strut their stuff to a larger and importantly, a more receptive audience.

Over time, M.I. has built a reputation for plugging up and coming acts, but the list of collaborators on “Talk About It” reads like a future Hall of Fame next to anything else. Yes, certain acts like YQ and General Pype were already holding their own – and some left the scene, never to be heard from again, like Leony from the album’s title track “Talk About It”. But for every Uche, there’s a Blaise, one of the best Nigerian femcees to hold the mic.

 Ice Prince wipes the dust off the feet of his mentor, M.I Abaga
 Ice Prince wipes the dust off the feet of his mentor, M.I Abaga (Tumblr)

“Talk About It” introduced us to Jesse Jagz, the man behind the boards on the album and a maverick who has had an enviable career as a producer and a rapper, as well as Ice Prince, who won Best International Act (Africa) at the BET awards in 2013.

And it was on “Fast Money, Fast Cars” that we first heard a certain young man from Ojuelegba whom we now know as Wizkid, arguably the biggest thing out of Africa in recent times. M.I.’s debut launched careers and movements – till this day, Ice Prince continues to enjoy the shine that reflected off his mentor in their early years.

In the course of a career spanning nearly a decade at the apex, M.I. has built a catalogue that established acts would wipe out entire villages for, but there’s no mistaking where it all started; his debut is the foundation of his legacy. A cohesive body of 18 tracks that is within a shout of being tagged Nigeria’s best rap album ever.

Some circles had heralded him as ‘the one’ before it dropped. And somehow, like his spirit animal Kanye West, he managed to absorb a messianic complex from that praise that he carries till this day – but in “Talk About It”, M.I. made an album that will last much longer than any form of salvation he was supposed to bring.