We’ll get round to reviewing Falz’s new album in a minute. First, I’d like to talk (extensively) about how keenly Falz understands how to do rap music in Nigeria. I mean the kind of rap that radio stations won’t tire of playing. Let’s be clear: it won’t upstage Afrobeats, because rap is a lyric-heavy genre and the Nigerian ear isn’t quite accustomed to songs with too many words. But it will be right up there, sitting in pop culture firmament. Many Nigerian rappers have suggested that making rap music accessible requires a tradeoff, that they have to ‘dumb down’ their lyrics and use danceable beats for broader appeal, as if the fact that you can dance to a song somehow makes the song less pure. But that’s always been the problem with Nigerian HipHop: it is obstinately purist, vying needlessly to do HipHop as it is done in its native black American habitat, resisting every chance of evolution. What we’ve had for the most part is not Hip Hop of the Nigerian flavour, but a Hip Hop culture comprising Nigerian rappers trying futilely to mimic black Americans. They ape the black American accent with varying degrees of cringe, try to speak ebonics, and mint metaphors and punchlines that rarely speak to the Nigerian everyman experience. There’s nothing untoward in coining a simile out of an item in American or British culture; it may be cleverly done but there’s always the chance that many Nigerians wouldn’t get it, and no one wants to have to use a search engine while listening to a song. There’s a lesser chance of alienating your audience if you simply allude to things within the Nigerian frame of reference, name-dropping Clifford Orji rather than Issei Sagawa in a morbid line where you call yourself “a ruthless cannibal rapper”.
You don’t have to dumb down lyrics to be accessible. Sophistication can be simple, and Falz has since shown us how that can be done. Reading from the Falz Rap Manual, which he calls “Wahzup music” and which I propose to call the Strunk & White of contemporary Nigerian rap, these are the ingredients you need in order to be culturally relevant as a Nigerian rapper: First of all, get rid of all pseudo American-speak—it smacks of artistic insincerity (if Nigerians want to hear rap done in a Philadelphian cadence, they’d listen to Lil Dicky or Cassidy, not you). Instead, use the Nigerian English variety and accent. Switch and mix codes, preferably by pairing English and pidgin with Yoruba, the de facto lingua franca of Nigerian pop music. Make allusions your audience will get; it doesn’t always have to be drawn from Nigerian culture but it mustn’t be too arcane—it is pop music you’re trying to create after all, not a humanities’ term paper. Use radio-friendly beats and if you can, get Simi to do the hook. Write coherent lyrics. Finally, be funny. By Jove, Nigerian HipHop is historically peopled with rappers with no sense of humour.
Falz has a surfeit of humour. Listen to his sophomore album Stories That Touch (2015) and by the end of it you’d have laughed so many times you’d need a new set of ribs. It is how we came to know him. It is how he shot himself to the star-spangled heavens of Nigerian celebrity. Yet it is his humour that has also forestalled his apotheosis. In barbershop squabbles over who the greatest Nigerian emcees are, people will, as a matter of obligation, mention Da Grin, M.I. and Mode 9. No one is sure if they should include Falz. We know he’s got bars, but he doesn’t fit into the received ideas we have of how emcees should be: tough, gangbanging and humourless. You can’t be too funny as a rapper and expect to be taken seriously, even if your verses are inspired by the same woodland spirits that lent Illmatic and The Slim Shady LP their brilliance. Apparently it’s a universal bias: Lil Dicky’s humour is often used against him even though he’s the best-rapping Lil-somebody since Lil Wayne, and no comic writer has ever won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Andrew Sean Greer’s comic novel Less won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2018 but as the Washington Post wrote, it was a “most unusual” win.
Maybe Falz recognised the need to tell us he can be serious, too, fearing his humour has become an impediment, a gangrenous leg that must be amputated. Or maybe he could no longer play possum to the calling voice of his socio-political conscience, one that’s likely congenital given his father’s outspoken activism. Perhaps it’s both. For whatever reason, in 2019 Falz finally released a “serious” album, Moral Instruction. Out went Ricky Gervais, in came Huey Newton. He has since been involved in serious matters too, notably the End SARS protests of October 2020. In BAHD he chucks the whiny political themes of his last album but retains the serious tone. Perhaps he thinks that he cannot go back to being a jester, given he has spent the last three years convincing us of how serious he is.
In making BAHD, Falz flouts every rule in the Falz Rap Manual. But to be fair, he may not have it anymore. Protest grounds attract pickpockets as much as they do genuine picketers. As Falz spoke from a soapbox at an End SARS rally, a hand in the crowd may have felt its way into the rapper’s backpocket, spiriting off his prized musical secrets. Why else is the new album without his usual wit? His trademark Yoruba accent and English malapropisms are not heard either. Like the rest of his comic gimmicks they have been cast away, left behind at Lekki Toll Gate, like that fateful camcorder of dubious provenance.
Recruiting the hottest love-song writers in the country—Chike and BoySpyce—Falz essentially uses up the entire album telling his muse that he loves her, she’ll never find anyone like him, he wants to do her “Spiderman” style, the usual Nigerian pop music cant. I should expect that the girl declines his overtures. He has, after all, written a most bland love letter. Things start to pick up by Parempe. Until then you might need a fistful of Adderall pills to fight the urge to sleep. A singing Falz—which is what he is here—is not nearly as interesting as a rapping Falz. You don’t listen to Falz because he can carry a tune or because he has some uncanny talent for delivering saccharine hooks. You listen to him because he has a way with words, because he can surprise you with a well-phrased epigrammatic antithesis: “Police station dey close by six / Security reasons o.”
We must applaud Falz for trying to do something different. Doing things differently is quite anti-pop—pop music listeners have a stubborn knack for what is familiar and has already been tested. 2face long changed his name to 2baba, but it’s the former that the tongue recalls first. Buju will soon find that BNXN will not stick. And perhaps Falz will also find that his new humourless face, his non-Wahzup music, will be so unfamiliar to his core fanbase that they start to ask: Will the Real Falz Please Stand Up?