The politically-motivated hip hop single is not a rarity – from Yeezy’s “New Slaves” to Weezy’s “How To Love” and, of course, Jeezy’s “My President”, the overtly political is more at home than ever in modern hip hop. Janelle Monae’s Wondaland collective, however, is something else entirely – a group not only committed to Black excellence in art and life, but to anti-racist activism as well. It’s that marriage of excellence, style, and the singular experience of one Nigerian-American that makes Jidenna’s long-awaited debut album so complex. The fact that it also manages to have bangers that come close to the level of his 2015 mega-hit “Classic Man” proves that this stylish emcee is ready to make an even bigger mark on the music industry.
The speculation about Jidenna’s Nigerian roots ended with The Chief as he opens the album “A Bull’s Tale”. The track starts with a monologue from a supposed family member who warns him of the dangers of coming to America – a tale based in real-life events. Born of a Nigerian father and an American mother, Jidenna said that when he returned to Nigeria to bury his father in 2015, he reportedly had to bring guns with him for protection.
“Chief Don’t Run” draws from the bravery of both his difficult interracial upbringing and his new luxurious lifestyle, and he aptly proclaims that “eat, drink, swing” is his new mantra. Following that track, Jidenna moves swiftly into banger territory with the nearly-flawless “Trampoline”. Declaring that “the lady ain’t a tramp, just ‘cause she bounce it up and down like a trampoline,” this classic ladies’ man once again makes feminist hearts swoon when he lists the types of women this unnamed dance lover could be – she could be someone’s wife, could have a doctorate in medicine, be the pastor’s daughter, or even the president’s daughter. Somehow, I don’t think he’s talking about Ivanka.
The red-haired crooner turns tender on “Bambi”, a track that portrays a lost love that Jidenna wronged. This is one of the best tracks on the album – it mixes a nursery rhyme beat with African-inspired backup vocals and bittersweet lyrics about a woman Jidenna professes to love. The African inspiration continues when he compares himself to a lion that hurts “the dear love of my life.” Jidenna even shows a softer side in this confessional when he sings that he’ll “drink alone in my hotel and cry” over losing his love.
“Bambi” transitions into “Helicopters/Beware”, an inspirational warning to all of Jidenna’s haters. He uses the helicopter metaphor to great effect here, singing that “they’ll shoot you down without warning,” but when the naysayers do what they do best, “they gon’ make them helicopters come out.” Easily one of the strongest non-love songs on the album, “Helicopters/Beware” leads seamlessly into “Long Live the Chief”, which features an intense and spare electronic beat that showcases Jidenna’s strength as a rapper. “Make a fuckin’ move, it will make my fuckin’ day” isn’t just one of the best verses on the album, but one of the hardest phrases uttered by this at-times vulnerable and well-heeled artist.
It’s at this middle-point in the album that the real party hits come out. “2 Points” expertly pairs a horn section with a trap beat, and “The Let Out” would be at home on Top 40 hip hop stations save for its ice cream truck backbeat. “The Let Out” is the most club-oriented track of the album, and its’ accompanying video features Jidenna and friends escaping their strict African families to party all night. Notably, “The Let Out” and the following track “Safari” feature Nana Kwabena, Jidenna’s co-producer from “Classic Man”. Living up to its name, “Safari” employs African metaphors and also features Janelle Monáe and fellow Wondaland labelmates St. Beauty. The simple premise of “Safari” centers on Jidenna and his lady friend getting wild, and the minimalist beat that accompanies it serves as a great juxtaposition to the song’s content.
The simplicity of “Bambi” leads well into “Adaora”, a ballad about another woman who captured Jidenna’s heart. This track about one very lucky lady features Spanish guitars and a surprisingly sincere Jidenna singing about the woman he let in deeper than any other.
After the lovesick “Adaora”, “A Little Bit More” is an African drum dance hit that follows the realistic trajectory of hitting the club after a breakup. This is by far my favorite song on the album, and mirrors the expert use of Afro-Caribbean drums in pop songs such as Major Lazer’s “Bumaye” or Rihanna’s “Work”.
After the jubilant drums of “A Little Bit More”, “Some Kind of Way” is another song about haters, but this time, it’s directed at the recipient of their ire. Here, Jidenna offers listeners an excellent piece of advice – “no matter what you say, or where you go or what you do or how you pray, somebody’s gonna feel some kind of way…about you.” This is the uplifting anthem for everyone who’s drawn criticism for their success, and does so with the catchiest house beat imaginable.
Following the self-love anthem of “Some Kind of Way”, “White N****s” is a spoken word masterpiece that imagines a world of “reverse racism”, where white people are treated the way Black people are today. It’s chilling in its simplicity, especially given the fact that Jidenna is biracial and grew up in majority-white academic institutions and has lived on both sides of the Black/white divide as a Black man.
The album ends on a poignant, intense note with “Bully of the Earth”, a song about realizing the mortality of the parents we idolize. Once again, Jidenna gets political on this track when he juxtaposes his African fathers’ tears at Obama’s election with the frightening political regime he blessedly missed. References to racists showing their “true colors” and increased awareness of police brutality ensue.
Upon first listen, The Chief felt more like a collection of very excellent singles by a fashionable enigma of an artist. But the more I listen to it, the more I understand its narrative as one that’s both deeply personal for Jidenna, and that chronicles the rambling life of a newly-famous child of an African immigrant and a white American who went to school with the Kennedys. His story is deeply American and unabashedly Black, and as that narrative became more apparent, so did the genius of this album.