It’s been over two years since Jidenna’s first single ‘Classic Man’ was released as part of Janelle Monae’s compilation ‘The Eephus’. The hit song was in heavy rotation on just about every radio station in 2015, received a Kendrick Lamar-assisted remix, went on to gain a platinum plaque and scored a nomination for Best Rap/Sung Performance at the Grammys that year.
While the rush of success might have pressured many artists into dropping their debut album in a hurry, not wanting to let hype die down, Jidenna instead retreated to Wondaland and quietly began crafting a stand-out record that would last way beyond the buzz of one smash hit single.
“I made ‘Classic Man’ to let people know that I make classics, man,” he confidently states. The song has since received another wave of attention, when it was used during a pivotal scene in Oscar Award-winning movie ‘Moonlight’. It’s clear that Jidenna’s success has been far from accidental.
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In Jidenna’s case, Wondaland isn’t something out of a fairytale, but the name of the record label helmed by multi-talented singer and actress Janelle Monae to which he is signed. He first connected with Monae through MySpace and invited her to perform at a masquerade party he was throwing.
Their meeting was perhaps a strategic move on Jidenna’s part. Attending Stanford University around the same time that Mark Zuckerberg was preparing the world for Facebook by experimenting with campus-based social networks, Jidenna had already been introduced to the power of using the Internet to extend your social circle.
On top of that, a co-sign from a successful female like Janelle gave him an allure in a climate where almost all rappers receive their first big industry daps from fellow male artists only.
With Wondaland’s studios based in Janelle’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia - the same city that spawned dozens of musical icons including Outkast, TLC, Jagged Edge, Ludacris and 112 - Jidenna couldn’t have been in a more inspiring and eclectic environment to record his debut album, ‘The Chief’, which was finally released in February this year.
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People want myths, big myths.
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As an introduction to Jidenna’s artistry, ‘The Chief’ is solid. Paying homage to his Nigerian bloodline, specifically his Father and Grandfather, Jidenna uses this record to intelligently weave themes of love, pain, family, politics and partying with subtle references to the animal kingdom and his very own tribe, all carefully wrapped up in a narrative that echoes the rapper’s own riveting personal story.
“I definitely chose the route of trying to tell my story,” the 32-year-old explains. “I was leaning more on the autobiographical feelings and narratives as opposed to making a vibe-y album that would be the same song all the way through. The story is important. People want myths, big myths.”
Born in Wisconsin to an American mother and a Nigerian father, Jidenna spent part of his childhood in Nigeria, before moving back to the States when he was six years old and settling in Boston, Massachusetts, where he attended boarding school. After graduating from Stanford, Jidenna bounced around the US, moving between Los Angeles, Oakland and Brooklyn, all while building up a strong network of like-minded peers with whom he founded the social club, Fear & Fancy. Before ‘The Chief’ was even an idea, Jidenna was already working to form his own tribe, although he’s reticent to claim leadership. The name of his album is not a self-declaration: “It’s not me saying I am the Chief,” he says. “This is more like my highest self [that I am yet to reach] and it comes from my DNA.”
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“A Chief is somewhat an ambassador for a larger agency, right?” he continues. “You represent your people as a diplomat and I think [as a Chief] you are one half politics but you also have to be able to party. That’s definitely what I would say a Chief is; that neighbourhood politician that has connections with the political and the house party.”
Jidenna’s album manages to draw similar connections. He boldly switches between hard-hitting subject matter, such as the song ‘White Niggas’ in which he speaks about racial roles in America being reversed, and fun tracks about partying and hanging out after the club, like in the ‘Let Out’. For someone who is adamant that he’s not yet acquired Chief status, he can certainly talk the talk.
“I can talk economic theory and I can talk about the best strip clubs in Atlanta as well,” he states. “I don’t feel like a ‘conscious’ rapper, it’s just natural to talk about what I see. I’m actually amazed when artists don’t talk about [politics]. I don’t know how an American artist can be in an interview and not talk about Trump or about immigration. If you don’t talk about it then what world are you living in? I’m constantly thinking about how to redesign the world to make it a better world to live in.”
This sense of awareness is arguably what gives Jidenna his distinctive style and sound. Being aware of his dual-heritage and passionate about his strong Nigerian roots has lent well to creating a unique body of work, which fuses different sounds together and ultimately earned the respect of his peers and idols.
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It’s good to start with the story and the myth.
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“I am bringing together older African sounds like that West African music from the 60’s on “Bambi”, and then I’m putting a trap beat on it,” he explains. The song was recorded at Atlanta’s legendary Stankonia Studios in the presence of Dungeon Family veterans Big Boi, Killer Mike and Kawan Prather, who gave it their affirmation.
“We have 30 dudes packed in a studio, we’re all drinking some Cognac and smoking blunts or whatever and I’m trying to play the hard songs for them like ‘Long Live The Chief’ and ‘2 Points’,” Jidenna recalls, grinning. “And then I played ‘Bambi’, thinking they probably won’t like it, but everybody was bouncing. Everybody loved it. That’s when I knew I had something. They were like ‘Yo, this is the song men wish they could write!’”
Jidenna is proud of his opening statement, and rightly so. “I don’t feel any pressure,” he admits. “I feel like this is the perfect album to start with.” A conversation he had with radio host Sway Calloway about Jay Z’s debut album ‘Reasonable Doubt’ has Jidenna feeling optimistic about how ‘The Chief’ will be perceived with hindsight. “When ‘Reasonable Doubt’ came out, it was only people in the underground that were like ‘Yo this should be bigger!’” he explains. “It wasn’t until an album or two later when people were like ‘Yo, that Reasonable Doubt was a classic, it changed the game’ and Sway was like ‘That’s how I feel about your project right now’. It’s good to start with the story and the myth.”
If ‘Classic Man’ was the foreword, then ‘The Chief’ is the introduction to Jidenna’s multifaceted story. And with a story as strong as his, there’s no doubt that the next chapter is about to be special.
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Words: Natasha Nanner