MI Abaga – The Judah EP Review
MI Abaga - The Judah EP Review
"I came from nothin' hustle forcing my way into the discussion"
– MI Abaga, "The Warrior"
Since MI Abaga's 2017 opinion-splitting song (you know the one), his music, or the bulk of what constitutes it, has been engaged in the discourse of legacy. Yung Denzl, his 2018 album, was part of the grandiose LAMB claim that alongside Loose Kaynon, A-Q, and prodigy Blaqbonez, the Hip Hop game would be saved. It was a talk and do move, a much-needed one, given the debris of controversy his Fix Up song left.
Yung Denzl navigated the terrain of introspection and philosophy like the typical MI project would. Maximalist in idea, MI employed, amongst a number of artistic talents, the services of a therapist. Her chilling voice was all over the project, a reality thread to hold the artistic aspirations of MI. Known for his tendency to be expressive, Denzl, with its casualness and reserve, was like a pressed hand on M's chest. While it may have been good for his person, it wasn't allied with the MI brand, the Jude Abaga fans who'd grew up on "Beef" and "Crowd Mentality" wanted.
But growth is the only constant. MI Abaga, with his assertive personality, is like the friend who never wants to lose an argument. You've probably seen it if you've listened to his interviews and that Loose Talk episode, you'd know this. Take the intelligence of the person, confidence in speaking, logical ways to structuring an argument (or holding a conversation), and add these to the undeniable artistic ingenuity of MI Abaga and you get 9 solo projects carried on the wings of exhibitionism and conversation; this works better when the artiste is MI Abaga who, over the years, has positioned himself at the center of the Nigerian Hip Hop scene, maintaining relevance in a country where everyone swears the genre is dead. That's perhaps the curse of MI, his success.
Amongst the biggest musical moments of last year, MI vs. Vector was a prime time event. For what seemed the longest hour, rap acts circulated within the mainstream orbit, and fans of both artistes quickly threw their support behind their faves, and song after song, animal allusion following each other, it was adjudged that Vector was the winner of the contest. Not directly influenced by the quality of the diss song, it was rather, the screenshot of a DM that did it. Albeit an unhealthy way to spark conversation, it was the stuff of this digital age: to take and inflate, to create tension amidst the absence of one, anything for the entertaining, anything for the conflicting. Almost 500 words and this "review" has yet gotten around reviewing anything; it's because, unlike any project, an MI project in 2020 isn't a regular cup of tea. Particularly on the back of 2019 where, although he had little music, was one of his most definitive. Finally, against an opponent whose skills weren't too far off from MI's, it put a face to the question of the Short Black Boy's dominance. Whereas the back and forth with Vector could have been handled better, it birthed a movement, atypical of the generation's brand of stan culture. The Tribe of Judah, named after "Judah," a derivative of MI's real name (Jude), was the support system any 12-year veteran needed.
Teasing music strategically, releasing "The Warrior," whose last word – a shout of Judah! – hinted at a possible project. Given the nature of MI's previous releases, Judah, when it came out, wasn't going to be released to an abyss of creative nirvana. Rather than demonstrate his obvious skill on the microphone, MI would rather pair that with anecdotes peeling into the hide of his greatness. Show-not-tell-Jude.
Released last Friday (March 6th) without much fanfare, MI sent his Tribe all over social media, prompting conversation. There are many talk-worthy moments on the project. A spoken word by a kid opens the Judah EP, delivered as a parable. MI's singing atop the ominous beat which rolls over to the next song, "The Lion," is gloomy. "Child of the fire, don't you ever bleed? / King of the jungle, are you ever weak? / For the whole world's turned its back on you / And left you here alone." His verse dabbles from talks of accomplishment ("When the family thrives then I've arrived") to betrayal ("Tell me what to do when the cubs decide/ they gon rule themselves, you ever read Lord of the Flies?") to braggadocio ("The weapon that can stop me has not been devised"). In relating to the theme of greatness and legacy, these three points take center stage.
Elsewhere, it drives the album. "The Blood," which many have suggested is a shot at his brother, the producer and rapper Jesse Jagz, features MI at his most stylistic and emotional, his first verse delving into a story which finds a place in the larger narrative. Rapping of hurt and with hurt, Blood is central to understanding MI's state of mind coming into this album: he possesses the rare mix of understanding and critiquing. However, the second pops its head the most. "Only a few niggas is solid as a rock, boy," he raps on the hook of "The Commandment," a bouncy bop of a song which features some of the most energetic moments on the tape. Liberian rapper Buckyraw comes in to deliver a standout verse that, following the trend of an MI project, puts a rapper on. Alpha Ojini, a talented producer and rapper who replied Fix-Up gets his moment on "The Tribe." An emotional verse which tells of his relationship with MI, he begins with, how he'd listened to the legend's critically acclaimed Illegal Music series and asked: "who be this guy?" The ideology is solidified by Nawe's spoken word on "The Sacrifice," as MI's leadership qualities are extolled. "You carried your community with you," she says.
Part of that community is A-Q, the once-controversial rapper who, nowadays, is a label executive and generally cool-headed. His verse on "The Trinity" however features that aggressive knowledge his name has come to embody. Over a beat by frequent producer BeatsbyJayy, Q and M are sparring partners sworn to leave the mic on fire. "These rappers are false prophets I am not with them/ they prophesy lies and vision, spread it with confidence/ they don't paint no pictures, they photoshopping, I'm cropping 'em/ the day of reckoning is when we come for them," he raps at the end of his verse, as MI takes over for his second verse which, like much of the rapping on Judah, is sweet on the ears and free-flowing, a beautiful case of age and fine wine.
Announced as Judah dropped was that MI, after about ten years, wasn't a name under the Chocolate City imprint. Mutually both parties have parted ways. It is another move on the chessboard. Like A-Q explained to a fan on Twitter, MI's Incredible Music is still under the Chocolate City building, albeit in a different room. The most common narrative allied with the legacy in Hip Hop is being a label executive, an influencer of some sort, and MI is well-positioned to be that. Even though his latest project sells him as a yet formidable rapper, it is curious to see how Jude Abaga will move the arc of his story forward. For the life of me, I'm hoping it continues as the 12 years of his career have been: incredible.