To celebrate the veteran rapper's 40th birthday, we look back on his sophomore album and what it meant for Nigerian rap.
Before Nigerian rap descended into a state of questionable decline, it’s often said that the period between 2008-2011 retained most of the genre’s legacy. Undeniably impactful, those years saw a transition from braggadocio rappers like Ruggedman and Eedris Abdulkareem to emcees possessing cooler demeanours and storytelling prowess: M.I Abaga, Naeto C and Dagrin. That period spawned notable songs, notable artists and notable albums.
From the remarkable bunch of outstanding projects, M.I Abaga’s MI 2: The Movie was an undeniable standout. Emerging from the shock virality of his debut hit, “Crowd Mentality”, M.I rode that success to even greater heights. His first studio album, Talk About It, laid down all there is to know about the diminutive star from J-town. His easy-going style was simple yet packed a punch.
While Talk About It unravels the mystery around his artistry, on MI 2, the rapper reinforces one sentiment: he’s peerless. For most artists in the Nigerian music space, albums are like major statements. The first album often serves as the first introduction to their lives, versatility and capabilities. Though the production might be average, the songwriting and delivery are what earmarks most successful debut releases. Although M.I admits his debut project, Talk About It, was his weakest album, the stats and achievements that followed its release differ.
As such, whatever doubts listeners still had about his artistry were dispelled upon the release of MI 2. The album came with an elevation, in its stellar production ably suited with MI’s smooth, gentle flow on most of the songs.
On the album, M.I sounded at ease and in tune with himself, elucidating the inner workings of a rapper who had finally stepped into the man he always aimed to become. Even after the success of his debut album, M.I still faced criticism from detractors and industry peers alike. This resulted in industry feuds with fellow rappers Iceberg Slim and Kelly Handsome. And while it kept him in the news, lingering beefs are known to highlight one artist’s status while leading the audience to doubt the opposing artist’s talent. For example, the beef between Drake and Meek Mill exposed Drake’s ghostwriter use. For M.I, after being involved with back-and-forth feuds with Kelly Handsome and Iceberg Slim, it was pretty understandable that he would use his forthcoming album to steer clear from petty quarrels and lay claim to Nigerian rap’s throne.
Hence, from the first track, “Action Film”, you could feel his menacing energy and ferocious delivery. He revels in his wins, career successes and prosperous life shift. With Brymo aiding the story with a well-crafted hook, “Action Film” is where he addresses industry competitors.
In retrospect, his previous album was barely thematic. It was his debut offering utilized as a showcase of his talents and artistry. But in between that and MI 2, a trove of successes trudged in for the rap star. A BET nod and bagging the Best Hip Hop Act and Best New Act awards at the 2009 MAMA Awards certainly informed the themes of MI 2. Throw in his clashes with fellow rappers Iceberg Slim and Kelly Handsome, and you have an ample lyrical armory for this new release. And from the start, you could relish this seasoned firepower.
So the album was built on a three-pronged thematic approach of self-confidence, love and societal ills/misconceptions. Shortly after the emotional blues in “Slow Down”, the Flavour-assisted “Number One” comes on. Again, M.I turns to his book of accomplishments to bask in his new title as Africa’s number one rapper. The awards confirm him, his distinct flows affirm him and he vividly points to that. The short speech on Action Film wasn’t enough. He needed to make it clear once again: “Checking my car/Checking my show/It’s simple, I am better and better than you.”
Asides from the sonorous quality of the “Number One”, M.I got the collaborations right for this album. There’s a perfect understanding of what he wants from his collaborators. There’s a way the story is enhanced with a new input different from MI’s delicate deliveries. A flip through his discography confirms that. There was a spot for Wizkid on his debut where Starboy shone with his dazzling croon. And Waje did just that on “One Naira”. With his verses, M.I describes the assured quality of love untainted by external factors like money. Yet it’s Waje with her calmly perfected hook who depicts the track’s story.
However, when M.I pulls away from love and self-aggrandising, there’s a place that stirs up pain. When he recorded the album, MI’s town, Jos (which he references in most of the songs) was a bloodied shadow of itself. Religious clashes were a norm in the city and “little genocides” drove many from living there. M.I ensured he In a manner not seen before, M.I emotes. An indigene of the city, M.I talks about the unrest and the peace that once enveloped the city.
At some point on the project, it seemed clear that M.I wouldn’t deviate from portraying himself as Nigerian rap’s messiah. No one occupied the throne at the time: the old guard, Ruggedman, 2shotz, and Eedris Abdulkareem were on the fringes of mainstream music. In fact, the audience gravitated more towards the tunes of D’banj, 2face, P-square and less of rap. But the likes of new lyrical heavyweights like MI and Naeto C had struck a balance. Nigerians could enjoy rap music as if it was pop. The alluring zeal Naeto C exuded on “Kini Big Deal” was a distinct quality most listeners had not heard before in Nigerian rap. For M.I, he was the complete package: flows, punchlines and his classy delivery.
And it was clear on MI 2, particularly on the album’s twelfth track, “Undisputed”— he won’t stop boasting of his greatness. Coasting gently on this smooth blend of melodies and soft kick drums, M.I makes it known: no one can come close to him, talent-wise. His fiery energy is calmed here but the way he flexes, bounces on this delightful beat pleases you that you want to hear him again.
For MI, MI 2 helped position him as an authority to reckon with, not only within his native music space but as a respected figure in African rap music. Even till now, when thinking about the best rappers in Africa, hey, don’t be surprised if MI’s name pops up. He’s undisputed. Perhaps the boasts and enormous claims on this album still aids his prominent status. Throughout this album, M.I proved he’s one of the best to ever do it.
At this period, he made rap a satisfying genre to lend your ear to. By the end of this truly sublime project, it felt like a movie in true fact. We got to experience his accomplishments, learn his detailed angle about love, and enjoy his tackles with his competitors. By the end, a listener can attest to the greatness of the diminutive rapper from J-town.