Ladipoe is observing the trajectory of the sun carefully. He takes some photos half-heartedly but belatedly motions to a position on the balcony where he thinks the sun could align perfectly for the kind of pictures he has in mind. “I just don’t want the regular Mavin logo picture,” he had explained to Jinius, Mavin’s official photographer, as we headed up the stairs. Once there, Jinius keeps clicking away, in search of the right angles for the rapper. After a while, loads of pictures taken, they agree to try again after the interview. The sun is setting just east of the matte-black painted Mavin Records creative headquarters domicile in a sequestered part of Lekki, Lagos. On the identical adjoining balcony – located in the second wing of the Mavin complex – some men are unwinding as they enjoy some of the light Friday breeze, but Poe seems invigorated, pleased even, to talk. Ladipoe, real name Ladipo Eso, takes a seat a few meters away from me and is ready to go, but he has a question before we start though. “Have you listened to Talk About Poe?” I answer in the affirmative, he lightly exhales and motions with his hands that we start.
Exactly a year before the day we meet, Mavin Records received a multi-million-dollar investment from Kupanda Holdings, a joint venture between pan-African investment company Kupanda Capital and equity firm, TPG Growth. The deal positioned the Don Jazzy-led establishment as one of the strongest and most popular in Nigeria and it is that reach that was on Ladipoe’s mind when he signed in 2017. “I joined Mavin because I wanted more eyes and ears on my career, my music, and on my sound,” he says. The deal seemed odd because Poe was a traditional MC in every sense and the Mavin brand was securely built around dishing out the hottest iterations of popular afropop and afrobeats, but he was aware that the label was looking to diversify their portfolio. “They really wanted a rapper and I felt like it was an opportunity to show that I’m arguably one of the best rappers doing it,” he says. Ladipoe believes that signing him and Johnny Drille effectively changed the outlook of the label, allowing them to see “different opportunities.”
Being on arguably the biggest label in Nigeria, however, presents its unique challenges; Ladipoe had to learn some lessons. One, work harder: “I realized that rappers are not as prolific as afrobeats/afro-fusion/afro-pop artists,” he says “They put out way more music than us (rappers) and are more consistent. Rappers take a lot longer to release music. Two, understand your market: “Mavin showed me that you have to work harder and respect your fanbase. I live in Nigeria, I grew up in Nigeria, I also have to make music that appeals to Nigerians and have to be more sensitive about that. I wasn’t like that before, now I know how to play around with that a little bit more.”
A result of that ameliorated work ethic was his debut album. Released in October 2018, Talk About Poe had been – at least three – years in coming; a gift that had been teased for a long time but never quite given to the audience who had hoped, begged, and demanded its release at different stages. Since the early days of rocking with SDC and promising that all he had were lifelines, not punchlines, this project had been earmarked as Ladipoe’s grand introduction to the public. According to him, when the project dropped, he had the element of surprise for two reasons. “The first was that people were not expecting me to drop a project, they had gotten used to the fact that Poe doesn’t have a project; they probably thought ‘we like Poe, he’s dope, but we’re probably not going to get an album. He’s been talking about Talk About Poe for the last two years but it hasn’t come.’” The second, and more profound, reason was the mystical, inevitable, sound change that the Nigerian listening audience expects when a rapper gets in bed with a label of Mavin’s stature and profitability. Instead, according to the man, “it was so Ladipoe, in fact, it was Ladipoe on another level that I feel like it helped the acceptance of the project because of the expectation that it was going to be something else; something they didn’t want.” For him, it was something to be doubly proud of because he has “always been the guy to switch up expectations.”
He’s not lying. The expectation for Talk About Poe would have been to put out a bloated 50-60 minutes LP that caters to day-one fans – who he says have heard him on all kinds of songs: Show Dem Camp, Falz, and MI – curious to know what project Ladipoe sounds like. The cover art for Talk About Poe sees him on a pedestal, surrounded by microphones and newspaper clippings, ready to answer questions about himself. But the project tops out at under 30 minutes and it is something he loves. “I feel like Talk About Poe has great repeat value because sometimes it is good to say what you need to say in the shortest time possible,” he explains. Ladipoe does not take credit for the concise feel of the album but he rationalizes that “it’s great because when I say new album coming soon, they are ready for me. They are saying, ‘that one was too short, we want more,’ and I’m happy about it.” The success of Talk About Poe led to his first headline concert in Lagos, the city that has borne witness to his childhood, growth, and artistry. “It was crazy to see people come out and rap my songs,” he says about the headline show. “And also, the people that put me on their stages, I’m putting them on mine.” He brought out Show Dem Camp, Tems, Sir Dauda, Boj and Lifesize Teddy – more on her later. Frequent collaborator, Funbi, couldn’t make it because he had a commitment in Abuja but it was a significant milestone night for Ladipoe who reckons that he “ended the year on a high note. First album, first show.”
Unintentionally, 2018 was an indicator of some sorts for the state of Nigerian rap in 2019. In 2018, months before Talk About Poe dropped, the L.A.M.B August happened. Exec produced by MI Abaga, three hip-hop albums dropped in the month of August: Loose Kanyon and AQ’s collaborative leviathan Crown, MI Abaga’s cathartic A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl, and Blaqbonez’s fresh BadBoyBlaq; those albums, plus Ladipoe’s, signaled a rap renaissance that was to take place a year later. The rebirth of the genre in 2019 led to culturally significant albums like SDC’s These Buhari Times, Falz’s Moral Instruction, and the Lost and Found’s Alternate Ending but following the success of 2018 Ladipoe wanted to take another route. “How I ended 2018 helped me set up 2019 in a different way,” he calmly tells me. 2019, for him, was to be a year of uplifting the rap community. At the beginning of the year, he anchored a Triple Homicide challenge – inspired by Double Homicide off the Talk About Poe album. The challenge was hosted only on his website and it got over 1,500 instrumental downloads. “I don’t remember how many thousands of submissions we got, of people rapping to my Triple Homicide challenge,” Poe says. “For me, it was a way of saying we just had this truly amazing 2018, personally as Poe and also as rappers, but I want to show you that there are so many more rappers in this space.” More importantly, there were creative risks taken in 2019, Jaiye (Time of Our Lives), released in March 2019, is one of the more delightful cuts from the previous year. The bouncy tune brings another – sunny – side to the crisp textbook rhyming of Ladipoe. On the song, he seems to be tapping into something solid – with star quality; “I don’t know what a hit record is but I know I like this vibe,” he declared at the start of the Johnny Drille-produced cut. “Jaiye was another step in my evolution as an artist and a writer. I was exploring more of my ability in 2019, I wanted to see what else I could do,” he says candidly. While the quality of his music has never been in doubt, the supply of it has not always been constant and his fans are always in constant demand for more, he urges patience. “I understand how the fans see what they want to see but there’s more going on if you just see the dots being connected. It takes time to create great music,” he says adding that he wants to build something bigger than him.
While maintaining an ephemeral presence, Ladipoe was delighted with the state of rap in 2019 – “I feel like it was one of the best years for rap music; I’m intentionally saying rap music, not hip-hop” – but he still has reservations. He wants rappers to level up: “There’s a part of me that feels like the bar is still a little bit low especially when it comes to lyrical-based rappers. There are some trap rappers, they don’t really need a high level of lyricism and that’s fine. But the ones that operate on a lyrical base, I still think the bar is low and what we think is dope is not dope enough. It can be better.” He is less sure about the place of beef in rap culture, he would advise young rappers to say what they want and have fun but he understands that “rap beefs have a tendency to distract from the focus.” But with operating in Nigeria, he understands the terrain of things, “the nature of Nigerians is that we love drama, we like controversial moments, we like things to distract us from everyday life, and rap beef does that. But I feel like there’s a limit where it goes from exciting to distraction.”
A regular theme that Ladipoe returns to when talking about himself is his place in the larger society. In the true sense of it, he is a product of a rap community. After returning from studying in the United States some years ago, his mother introduced him to Tec of Show Dem Camp and the men who he calls “his brothers” have been instrumental in his career; taking him under their arms and providing mentorship and direction. SDC has taken to putting up a yearly showcase of their – and the community’s – gifts on the syrupy Palmwine Music series – tapping up a number of up-and-comers and wunderkinds. 2019 was no different, Palmwine Express arrived just in time for the holiday season, but Ladipoe was noticeably absent. As I start to ask why he was not on the tape, he begins to laugh, mid-laughter he says “this question” and shakes his head.
“It was a timing thing,” he answers seconds later. “To be fair to SDC, they did holla at me about the tape, and I knew they were working on it, we just didn’t have the opportunity to link up as we did on These Buhari Times. But also, by the time they sent it to me and I was ready to record it was too late, they had already submitted the tape. My timing was off, but it’s all good because the tape is doing amazing.” He also thinks that, in the grand scheme of things, his absence can have a positive impact, saying with confidence that, “when the next one drops, people would be looking for the Poe verse.” He is keen to shine his light on newer stars too. Days after our talk, Ladipoe shares a picture on Instagram standing next to Tems – who he collaborated with on his album – that he captions: “Make music with friends and it will last forever”; during our talk, I tell him about people I know who describe listening to his music as getting a double package. For them, you get Poe’s music and discover new amazing musicians. “When you see something you like, do you share,” he asks. I nod. “That is how it is with me too.” To buttress his point, he tells me about Lifesize Teddy: “When I did Ladipoe Live, there was a girl – Lifesize Teddy – in my DMs among people I wanted to bring to my show, and I saw this girl, read her message, it was touching. I checked her page, sick female rapper.” He pauses for a bit. “Rapper, not a female rapper, rapper! So, I told her if she was at my show, I was going to bring her on stage. She went on stage, and killed it. 16, 32 bars, whatever, she shut it down. And I was thinking to myself, ‘people need to see this.’”
That consuming desire to showcase the best of his community brings us to his newly assumed post as the Leader of the Revival. The Revival dates back to the last song of Talk About Poe, aptly titled Revival, and an emotional outburst at his first headline show where he first declared himself the Leader of the Revival. Looking for a song to round off Talk About Poe in 2018, he hit up Spax and Ikon, Spax got back with five beats telling Ladipoe to listen to Revival last. And once he heard it, he knew it was tailor-made for him; following the declaration at Ladipoe Live, the mantra took a life of its own. “In June/July 2019, I officially dropped the LOTR verse to position myself as the Lord of the Revival. It was just to show fans, young rappers, and artists that your style of music is valid.”
Is the Revival strictly a sonic thing? “It is everything. What it means to be an artist is to be all of who you are. All the experiences you had when you are young, all the fights you had, the great conversations you had, the girls you met, the people you didn’t meet. Everything that made you into who you are as an artist and you put that into your sound. And a lot of people are going to tell you that it’s not going to work, that thing you as an artist is wack, but it’s valid.” He seemingly shares a personal example, while creating his rapping style, a number of people told him that “Nigerians would never hear it,” but, he adds with a smile, “I’m here talking to Culture Custodian about my rap music.” For the Revival Sunday series, they came about as a challenge to himself. Since he would not be doing anything major for the end of 2019, he wanted to release a song every week. “It made sense because Leader of the Revival and Revival Sunday,” he says. “In terms of the themes, some of them were songs I’d been working on before like Come Alive, I didn’t really pick the themes they picked me. They were already in my head.”
For now, Ladipoe just wants to enjoy himself. He has a project planned for 2020 but “I won’t call it my second album. Most likely, immediately I drop this, I’ll start working on my second album.” He is clearly enjoying the thrill of creation, acknowledging that he has heard some describe him as a “serious rapper” and he wants to have some fun on the upcoming project and put out different vibes. “I did Talk About Poe in 2018, it takes a lot out of a person when you are saying real shit,” he explains. He is currently in a refueling process: “You need to go and live life again before you can say real shit. But before I say the real shit, let me have a good time. So that’s what this project is about, playing around having a good time, and exploring my skill as a writer.”
Even when Ladipoe is talking about having fun as a writer, there’s still the foundation of it all coming from his base as a rapper. I ask if he’s wary of rap purists who prefer 16 or 32 bars over the new sheen that is visible in his new releases and he doesn’t skip a beat. “I feel like there would always be people who are scared of evolution and the artist is always going to evolve faster than the listener. The sound of the artist would always evolve faster than the listeners’ ears so I expect that a lot of people would be shocked and have a lot to say but I also expect that there would be a lot of people that get it. In fact, I take that risk every time I put out a song and I’m fine with that because I’m an artist.” To be fair, he understands risks and taking chances. Earlier when I first meet Ladipoe, he balls a paper and aims for a basket but misses, barely. After a brief pause, he picks up the paper again and aims for the basket once more. This time, he makes the aim and shouts, “Kobe!”. Now, he sits up to make his point, the emphasis visible in his voice. “When you listen to my project, if you’re a hip-hop fan, I’ve got Voices, Double Homicide; and if you like RnB and vibes I’ve got One Step Closer but I’m still rapping, still putting lifelines in that shit. And if you can’t see that, are you really a Poe fan?”