Prior to their 1999 classic album, Things Fall Apart, the Roots were in some sort of identity crisis as to their place in hip-hop. They were the alternative to the mainstream shiny bling rap that was popular at the time, acclaimed niche acts who were only popular enough to be novelty acts in the grand scheme of things. But as with any musician or group of musicians, they wanted it to matter on a bigger level without losing their essence.
“We were making music that mattered to us, but we needed to know that it mattered to anyone else – or, if it didn’t, why not” – Questlove (The Roots’ Drummer/Band Leader), Mo’ Beta Blues
In the album review for pitchfork, Marcus J. Moore noted that Things Fall Apart was the album in which the Roots became the group they wanted to be. This wasn’t just good for the sake of the group but also for the good of hip-hop’s mix. The quality of Things Fall Apart was (and still is) undeniable, an eclectic album that sounds all-inclusive and at the same somewhat esoteric.
The diversification of the album was a strategy for mainstream attention, but really Things Fall Apart pulled the world to the Roots. Things Fall Apart was the first Roots album to sell 500,000 copies and eventually went platinum with sales in excess of 1million copies. Through the album, the group found a middle point between who they were and how they could create for mass appeal without ‘selling out’. That middle point is where commercial and critical acclaim converge.
Commercial and lyrical are the two sides of a coin in terms of acclaim in hip-hop. There is the round margin between both sides and that is where any serious artist/rapper aims to tiptoe around. A rapper being a consensus critics’ choice alongside having a cult fan base is an achievement but as I said earlier, they later become novelty acts. Some rappers eventually settle for that.
The divide between niche rappers and highly regarded ones usually comes from impact, which is usually measured in sales. Selling a lot of records is important for an artist’s legacy, people lie but numbers don’t. People buy and support records based on perception which is usually a product of how they view a rapper’s style. It’s a universal fact that has an even stronger grip in Nigerian hip-hop.
Nigerian music has always valued style but these days, it’s the most celebrated component of a song. The objectives of most artists and fans for a song is that it has the properties of ubiquity and a high probability of being labeled a ‘jam’. The lyrics can be ignored if the beat bangs and is danceable hence creating the common style over substance scenario. Major reason why being a hip-hop artist in Nigeria isn’t exactly bankable.
At this moment, Nigerian hip-hop is just a little more than novelty, with very few rappers holding enough sway in the national spotlight. Lyrical enunciation is important in hip-hop and even though Nigerians pay lip service by claiming that there aren’t rapping rappers in Nigeria, many don’t actually seek these artists out or even support when they find them. The truth remains that many people aren’t paying attention and buying records from Nigerian hip-hop artists, selling out – which I try not to blame any Nigerian rapper for – is usually the next thing.
But there are rappers who’d rather die than split from kicking bars. Many of these rappers are respected for their lyricism in certain circles but barely ever reach a visible commercial plateau. Blame the Nigerian music industry but let’s also be consider that these rappers could find a way to spring roll their lyrics with some shiny style, no? It’s a convergence that works for both the rapper and the public.
Style and substance aren’t mutually exclusive in rap music but whenever the elements are right and they intersect, genius is always created. As far as Nigerian hip-hop goes, no album presents this case better than M.I’s sophomore album, M.I.2: The Movie. The album intersects between afro-pop and hip-hop without sounding overly watered down or heavy handed. M.I is a golden exception to the rule of rappers not been commercially viable and that is largely because he found the point between a style of music relatable to the country’s landscape and lyrical substance that wasn’t flimsy.
Many people enjoy dense bars and traditional hip-hop beats in Nigeria but the truth is that the audience still isn’t enough for heady rappers to fully succeed in commercial terms. Bucking back against the Nigerian music system is almost only possible if the rapper uses the rulebook to win the game.
Show Dem Camp have released quite a handful of projects, all critically acclaimed projects. But the amount of fanfare gotten from the release of their latest EP, Palmwine Music Vol. 1 far supercedes the buzz of any of their previous project. Major reason: the vibe. Palmwine Music is SDC’s most mainstream leaning project and it has everything to do with its contemporary afro-Pop based production style. The project doesn’t slack lyrically but it doesn’t exude an air of seriousness – Nigerians almost eschew serious music.
‘Lyrical’ rappers have to find a way to create music that matters to them and shade it with what majority of the people like, or not. Marketing rap music in Nigeria isn’t exactly child’s play, we are groovy people. Dumbing it down is a heavy (and probably necessary) price to pay, but there’s a juicy center and it can and should be found. Over to you, Nigerian rappers.
Words by Dennis, aka Scout, aka @ayo_dennis.