4 hours had gone by, this man is still sustaining a digital house party, leaving his fans requesting for more. In an alternate universe, they would have gone till daybreak. How did this man resurrect a genre that used to never make it to mainstream entertainment conversations unless the sentence had “dead” in it? Half the time we used to talk about hip-hop in Nigeria, we were either discussing who the best rapper was from only 3 rappers at the time (Modenine, Ruggedman and Eedris Abdulkareem); or we were asking what cemetery hip-hop was buried because if there was anything that was certain at the time, it was that hip-hop was dead. So how exactly did a 5’2″ (cliche tbh but couldn’t help it lol) lyricist from Plateau, Jos manage to play Jesus on this Lazarus situation?
M.I fresh off from the United State teamed up with Djinee to make the hit song “Safe”, a song meant to be a parody of popular Nigerian songs (well it kinda was) but turned out to be an instant hit. This was a sign of good things to come but even after his exploits with Safe and the critically acclaimed debut album Talk About It in 2008, it was yet to be seen how he could possibly save hip-hop.
Fast forward 12 years later, M.I has gone on to drop 9 more projects to not only solidify his spot as Hip-hop’s Messiah here in Nigeria but Africa’s GOAT. Here’s how he did it…
M.I’s discography consists of 4 studio albums, 3 mixtapes, 2 EPs and a playlist.
The Studio Albums
To bring a genre to limelight is to penetrate the mainstream media. For so long, the hip-hop genre has been underground and a tiny close-knit village. The industry decided a long time ago that it wasn’t a necessarily enjoyable style of music. Ever since Fela birthed Afrobeats, it has become an escape from reality for a lot of people as it has provided a sort of refuge for people mentally displaced by the country’s unending hardship. The average Nigerian man would rather dance to a pop song than vibe to rap music. To be fair, it is like this everywhere else as pop culture has a higher bargaining power on the markets of entertainment. However, it was way worse in Nigeria. Rap songs sell at a paltry rate compared to their afrobeat counterparts. Hip-hop songs wouldn’t get played on the radio or by the DJs at the club. They weren’t considered hits so the artistes barely make enough to sustain the hardcore status and stay true to the game but then came M.I.
Usually, rappers would take the easy way out and occasionally switch to pop sounds just to penetrate the airwaves and make some dough whilst they were still relevant. This means they had to water down their creativity to a ridiculous degree just to pander to a larger fan base. Not M.I. He somehow managed to find a way to commercialise hip-hop whilst staying true to the game a hundred per cent.
His debut album Talk About It was met with a lot of commercial success with tracks such as Anoti, the aforementioned Safe featuring Djinee, Blaze – a ridiculously hard cypher featuring fellow hip-hop heads Jesse Jagz, Iceprince and Blaise and perhaps the headliner for M.I.’s masterplan to gradually seep into and convert Afrobeat faithfuls was his feature with a relatively unknown but immensely talented kid on Fast Money, Fast Cars. The kid would turn out to be arguably Nigeria’s biggest music exploit today, Wizkid. Important to note that this was only M.I’s debut album and his first foray into the Nigeria music scene but guess what the cat dragged in with all of that critic’s success? A beef! The beef stemmed from a line on Fast Money, Fast Cars where he took a jab at fellow music artiste Kelly Hansome. Some would say beefs are a healthy competition that does a whole lot of good for the genre as they get everyone locked in following closely and expecting fightbacks. This particular beef did just exactly that as it spanned all of 2 years and 6 tracks (3 from both parties) including a label gang-up fight to create a classical hip-hop tune titled Nobody Test Me and of course the most commercially successful diss track to come out of Nigeria; Beef. It was working. M.I from only his debut album has managed to garner airplay from a parody song (safe), found a diamond in the rough in Wizkid and most importantly set up beef to stay relevant in the media as he continued to steer the conversation around hip-hop away from mortality.
Fast forward 2 years and there comes another masterpiece from M.I titled MI 2: The Movie. This sophomore album which a lot of people might consider his best work was definitely the turning point for hip-hop. It had the aforementioned Beef dedicated to Kelly Hansome so of course, people were paying close attention. But to add to that were ridiculous hits such as a lyrically packed Action Film announcing Brymo to the limelight, an extremely relatable Nobody with afrobeat legend Tuface, an evergreen love song One Naira with Nigeria’s sweetheart and one of the best vocalists around, Waje and a solo effort Undisputed… All these to furthermore key into afrobeat faithfuls without selling out (genius strategy yet again) and overall making what had always been considered a boring genre fun to the masses. So even when people listen to a lengthy rap song like Represent where he got the label mates together again, they vibe to it. Subconsciously, people are mentally playing both sides (afrobeat and hip-hop) and they didn’t even know it. Now he had switched up the conversation from a half glass empty one to a half glass full one. The perspective is different now. Rap can actually be as cool as pop.
He followed suit 4 years later with his 3rd studio album, The Chairman. This time, his spot as the greatest rapper in Nigeria was pretty much solidified. With his flows tight as ever, he had his most A-list collaborations ever on this album as the likes of now superstar Wizkid, legends Tuface and Sound Sultan, indigenous rap leaders Olamide, Phyno and Reminisce, Ghana’s topmost rapper Sarkodie and gospel music’s biggest name Frank Edwards. This album was packed and showed how diversified a hip-hop album could be without losing its core element: rap.
Now despite having achieved industry legend status and fulfilled his calling as hip-hop’s Messiah, the genre still didn’t measure up to afrobeat. This was largely due to the fact that so-called rappers do more pop song to garner airplay and stream so M.I as the gatekeeper ordered that his colleagues fixed up their lives on a song that headlined his 4th studio album “Yxng Dxnzl” and sparked a lot of controversies from other rappers. Leading by example, he gathered label mates to put out 3 Hip-hop albums within a week of each other in a bid to save the genre once again. This resulted in the LAMB August projects featuring a joint album by Loose Kaynon and A-Q, an album from the convener himself M.I. and another from Blaqbonez, tagging it the sacrificial projects (pun intended of course). It was a successful tactic as it woke up the hip-hop community again and put the rappers on their toes.
The Mixtapes and Playlist
Unlike the studio albums where M.I tried to push his art to the mainstream forefront through the groundbreaking features, the mixtapes serve as a daily bread to real hip-hop heads. At least 90% of relevant hip-hop artistes today got their recognition on one of the Illegal Music series. This is mainly for the culture as M.I puts it out for free. The IM series was the fuel that kept the genre going.
Illegal Music 1 was made of samples of foreign rap classics including classics from Jay Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne.
Illegal Music 2 was a lot more like the entire mixtape was made from of a hip-hop Bootcamp as every track on the mixtape was exactly tailored to meet real hip-hop heads’ expectations: undiluted.
Illegal Music 3 had him introducing East African giant Kaligraph Jones to the entire continent and Rendezvous got 2 of South Africa’s finests just so he could take the conversation to the global stage.
He said Hip-hop is as viable as pop and he has spent his entire career proving that to great effect.
Fast forward 2020, M.I decided to honour his core fans with a 6-track EP titled Judah The EP. A cult following “The Tribe of Judah” was born.
Still, in 2020, M.I in a bid to strengthen his vision of steering Hip-hop on the forefront of music conversations in Nigeria teamed up with one of the numerous rappers he had inspired with his charge back in 2018, A-Q. They dropped a joint project titled “The Live Report” to worldwide critical acclaim.
— Yung denzL (@MI_Abaga) March 25, 2020
Just as he sat in front of his piano, starring at his camera during his Instagram Live, calling fellow artists and members of the tribe, playing his hits on request and going at that for 4 solid hours non-stop, it dawned on me: this man has done for Hip-Hop what Moses did for the Israelites. Jude Abaga’s influence in the Nigerian music industry and Africa’s rap scene as a whole is undoubtedly gargantuan and he deserves the flowers he’s earned now that he’s still here with us.
Alexa, please play African Rapper Number 1.