Every moment chooses its music. Or maybe it’s the reverse, the music chooses its moment? Anyway, days after Oba Akiolu of Lagos issued a threat targeting Igbos, you could listen to Olamide of Akiolu’s own ethnicity on a joint album with Phyno from the targeted tribe. How is that for subversion? For those preferring their pop with politics, the title, 2 Kings, counterpoints niftily to the Oba’s declaration. If, as they say, politics is about interest, then pop is about the best tunes.
That Olamide and Phyno together make great tunes has been obvious to their audience. “Ghostmode” (2013), the duo’s first single alerted the country to the possibility of rap from east and west cohabiting. A few more songs later, some with company, notably Reminisce’s potent “Local Rappers”, and buzz of a full collaborative album erupted online. But everyone knows not to take the internet too seriously.
Not this time; and thankfully. 2 Kings is a free album—apparently all that is required as payment is a gentleman’s pledge to say something about it online—but a paid album is unlikely to give superior pleasure this year.
Olamide and Phyno’s rise to pop’s peak has managed to counter received wisdom: ‘local rappers’ can’t succeed in hip hop. The form, the reasoning goes, is too American, too foreign to really make it in Nigeria. Thus some of the more celebrated rappers have had dalliances with the west (MI, Mode Nine) or affected the semblance of accent (Ruggedman). The theory took a hit with MI’s “My Belle My Head” from sophomore MI2 (2010) which had verses in pidgin, a volte face from the rapper after declaring on debut Talk About It (2008) that he “doesn’t have to rap in vernacular because the flow’s so spectacular.”
But that was one song. It was albums from Olamide, Reminisce and Phyno that truly gave lie to that theory. And did they come quickly! A combined six albums during MI’s 4-year hiatus and a new order was in place. When MI returned a little too late, he had to feature all three on The Chairman or risk obsolescence. It’s a tough lesson but hip hop in this era is a highly motile form.
While Local Rappers had the talented three on a track elevating the Nigerian epithet ‘local’ into self-exaltation, 2 Kings features the duo raising that adjective further, hoisting it to regency— “Lion meji ti enter (two lions are here),” is Olamide’s first line on the album.
He adds: “Versace lori ankara/ Street boy ni mi/mo si ma’n je bread and akara…” (Versace on ankara/ I am a street boy…I still eat bread and akara.) Here at last is the antidote to popping champagne in the club. In those lines you can perceive the influence of American hip hop; even hip hop’s fervent Pollyannas know Migos’s Versace is a long way down from Notorious BIG’s. The flow of course harks back to 1990s hip hop. You may recall Jay-Z on So Ghetto (1998): “…won’t change for nobody plus I’ve been rich,”—this after dropping a ‘bougie broad’ because she complained the Brooklyn rapper was too rich to wear a do-rag.
In contrast, Phyno isn’t interested in the specifics of mundane Nigerian living. He’s about his cheddar—“I only pay attention if you pay me”—he says and nameschecks Upper Iweka, the business hub of Anambra.
This connection to rap’s traditions comes with its problems. Misogyny, homophobia (“all you fake n**gas, gay n**gas get out of my way…”) take up space on the record. Following the duo’s lead, Lil Kesh, Olamide’s mini-me and rap’s mini-satyr, one of only three featured artistes, uses his verse to magnify his manhood. And no female shows up for much of 2 Kings, save as twerking figures to be watched and made love to (not in those words and not necessarily in that order).
On the penultimate song, the always superb Stormrex salvages the situation. The Igbo singer, one of the best singers working today, and the greatest vocalist working primarily in an indigenous language, offers an immensely beautiful chorus on “Carry Me Go”, the album’s love song. Phyno fares much better on the song; he’s more relaxed. Olamide’s patience runs out early and after a few lines he asks/threatens/demands, “What’s the dubs now? Nwanne, open the door now…” Rest assured, he isn’t requesting access to the nameless maiden’s heart. His discomfort on that song belies the smoothness with which he issues a dismissal on “Koba Koba”: “Sorry to break your heart/But I thought you know about me…” Phyno adds, “You catching feelings while I’m catching flights…”
Stormrex, fortunately, papers over the cracks. In fact, she may have done the impossible by handing two testosterone stricken rappers a wedding song. Bad news for their street cred. Good news; for it is new ground. First, Nigerian hip hop conquered clubs. For better or worse, it may yet conquer matrimony.
2 Kings may owe its cultural relevance to the rappers, but it owes at least half of its immediate pleasures to its producers. Pheelz, Olamide’s usual producer takes the opportunity to show an eclectic spread. If it sometimes feels as if Phyno is superfluous, it is because Pheelz and Olamide have a potent chemistry, and the producer works on six of the album’s ten songs. From his co-production on opener “Cypher”, the better to allow the lyrics a deserved spotlight to the folkloric “Carry Me Go”, to the shoki-ready “Ladi” (which has a radio-aware line, “I am not Kiss Daniel—I will kiss and tell.”) Pheelz is on a roll. On “Nobody’s Fault”, he employs an ascend and release pattern over crashing cymbals with a retro-sample reminiscent of that classic of American hip hop, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.
Phyno’s Major Bangz produces two songs, gleefully overrun by his usual percussion-on-steroids, last heard to head bopping effect on Phyno’s “Parcel”. His two songs are highlights on an album without a downer. Alone with Bangz, Phyno delivers his most playful, fluent flow on “Une”, 2 King’s sole solo track. (Olamide doesn’t get a solo because he shares his ‘unaccompanied’ turn with Wizkid on “Confam Ni”).
At 37 minutes, 2 Kings shows that the rappers are well aware of the precarious state of the album format. Gone are the fillers that made Olamide’s last LP Street OT a reckless indulgence of nearly 2 dozen songs, running well over an hour. Melodious, aware, over-before-you-know-it, 2 Kings is a slick, compact product. In its conciseness, you could say it is the album’s answer to the dominance of the single format.
The pressure of releasing an album for sale appears to force musicians into inserting every conceivable form, star-feature and genre into the mix, losing cohesiveness to satisfy the widest group of listeners. “You don’t like track 8? Here, try track 29.” The result is much effort wading through a sonic morass only to palm a handful of gems. 2 Kings’ brevity is the road less taken. By releasing this early in 2015, hopefully others are considering this route.
Meanwhile, the one excellent relic from Street OT that shows up here is the eccentric chorus. On Street OT’s remarkable “Up in the Club”, Olamide used repeated shouts (‘Yah! Yah! Yah!’) as chorus. On “For My City” he mimics the chants of Lagos water hawkers and bus conductors (‘Gala! Gala! Gala! Pure water tu tu re! o tu tu , o wo yin o! (this is cold pure water, it’s so cold it numbs your teeth) Ojota! Ojota! Ojota to ba ni change e ma wo le o (Ojota! If you don’t have change don’t come in).
Once again, the man makes it work. 2 Kings therefore provides the industry with a workable model for the album format as it hands Lagos an anthem in three languages. Lagos is, of course, Yoruba land; nonetheless, a multilingual anthem sounds about right for a true metropolis.
“They say I sold my soul to devil….” Olamide goes on “God Be with Us”. That line is either a sendup or a continuation of his reach for a Gothic edge. Yet only a few will care if Olamide is Faust. The devil, and this should come as no surprise, still has the best tunes.