“The Guy” Review: History Repeats Itself, and so does M.I Abaga

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An aged character in John Steinbeck’s short story, The Leader of the People, annoys another character by talking about “one thing” all the time. Far from deliberate, the character does this because he is old and, as is wont of the aged, rehashes old stories and jokes, convinced they are new. Working in a genre premised on linguistic invention, rappers, perhaps, are the most wary of repetition, far more than their singing colleagues – Wizkid has no qualms chanting Joro from morn till dusk. In a Young Money Radio episode published in 2020, Lil Wayne tells Eminem that while making a new song, he often has to “Google my old lyrics” to avoid rapping an old punchline; to which the Detroit rapper says, “I do that, too”. I wonder if M.I Abaga, Nigeria’s premier English-reliant rapper, listens to his old records to ensure a newer one is repetition-proof. In his just released fifth solo album, The Guy, there is a line from the first song that suggests he does not.

The line goes, “some of you no dey ever hear the message, and that’s on Glo”. It’s neither the first nor second time the rapper has invoked telecommunications technology in a verse. In Beg, from The Chairman (2014) album, he raps, “let’s link up like telecomm”. In My Head My Belle, from his second album M.I 2 (2010), he raps, “if for say things connect like good network”. In Shekpe, from the same album, there is, “mo wa connected than Internet router”. Of course, like all artists, M.I’s references are informed by his environment; and Internet service, as it was in 2010, is still a dicey business in Nigeria. But how about lending new language to old complaints, or avoiding said complaints all together?

Victor Hugo’s aphorism comes to mind: “forty is the old age of youth; fifty, the youth of old age”. M.I, who is forty, is old and spent, as far as rap technique goes. Not that he has ever been a particularly good rapper, his greatness the result of his ability to blend ‘decent’ rap lyrics with a sound that — unlike songs by many Nigerian English-based rappers before him — has a distinct Nigerian character. The man knows it, for he raps in The Hate that his “flows been decent”. Decent, not paranormal. There is the chance M.I intends decent as a self-compliment, in which case it qualifies as both a self-diss and a weak line, given any dictionary would tell you decent means ‘just good enough’. 

There are several weak lines in the album, but here are two: in the first song, he raps that he is “PSG of the rap game”; in The Hate, he raps, “my brother’s the emperor and you are not even the sergeant”. Given the Parisian club is a serial underperformer in club football’s biggest event, comparing yourself to PSG is actually a diss, as anyone who watches European football knows. M.I had a more sensible football simile years back, in Action Film: “I’m championship like Inter”, a line that was timely, even if not timeless. 

And the second line fails as a juxtaposition because an emperor and a sergeant belong to different classes. A better juxtaposition can be found in M.I’s Rich, a song in The Chairman. The line: “from buying food inside newspaper/ to the front page of magazine”. It works because the key words in the setup and punchline – newspaper and magazine – belong to the same genus.

I have fixated on words. How does M.I fare sound-wise? Like his verses, the album’s sonic temperament on the whole is shorn of youth, youth being a catch-all word for boom-bap energy, joy and humour, a triangle of virtues which gives a piece of music a radio destiny. But then, as his last solo album Yxng Dxnzl (2018) proves, the man has since forsworn his pop impulses. While pop music rewards brevity, Yxng Dxnzl has song titles that would compete with any Faulknerian sentence for length. The album’s tone, preachily whiny, is anti-radio as well. 

Some of his last album’s moodiness enters The Guy. M.I is sombre even when he aims to rouse, as in the Tomi Owó-supported Soldier. When he opens the louvres and the fresh air of youth filters in, as in the song Daddy, we catch a transient earful of the humour we have often heard in M.I’s old music, like in the melodramatic Igbo gospel-inflected Monkey, from The Chairman album. 

A typical M.I album gives you much hubris, some social criticism, and some risqué variety of love. This one gives you much lustful love, some social criticism, and some brags. This reapportioning of themes may have an autobiographical basis. The rapper announced his wedding plans in April, so it may be a case of real-life love demanding more love in the studio. It is as John Updike wrote, “an affair wants to spill, to share its glory with the world”. M.I’s affair spills so much, it drowns his ego, which usually takes the centre of his albums.

Something else drowns you: Olamide’s hook, in the song Bigger, which has the American rapper Nas contribute a verse. It’s a shame Olamide did not rap, but his hook is perhaps the most memorable takeaway from the album, which is saying a lot because it’s not a particularly great hook, the ear resisting its sometimes off-track melody. Perhaps a younger Olamide, given the chance to record with arguably the greatest rapper of all time, would have liked to rap as well. And perhaps a younger M.I would have been more competitive with his verse, rather than take a kumbaya approach, a choice that conflicts with the song’s shouts of vauntful individualism.

If youth breeds ambition, middle age tames it. In M.I’s case, not wanting to upstage a personal hero may also have a hand in his tame verse — he did, after all, rap in Short Black Boy (2008) that he sounds “like Nas”. His hero has the song’s most vicious line — “leaving teeth marks on your soul, Alucard”. But then, a reference to a manga vampire character from the 1990s? It doesn’t get more dated than this.

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