“Classic Man” is such a weird, great song. An ode to dressing and acting in courtly and old-school ways, “Classic Man” rode a sample of the blippy Mustardwave beat from Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” a song that would seem to be the opposite of all of that. Its sound was so bright and sunny that you might not have noticed the crime-life allusions that Jidenna, its singer, was making until maybe the 15th listen: “Breadwinner filling up the pantry / Now my niggas sling cane like a dandy.” This was a song that pretty much ruled my summer 2015; a drunken late-night backyard party where “Classic Man” was on eternal repeat is one of my favorite memories from those months. But as sticky and euphoric as the song might’ve been, it still had things at stake. “Gotta be ready for war,” Jidenna crowed — while, in the video, wearing a bright white suit that made him look not even remotely ready for war.
“Classic Man” is a cartoony song that only hints at Jidenna’s whole story, which is fascinating. Jidenna was born in Wisconsin and spent much of his childhood in Nigeria and then the rest in Massachusetts. His father was a Nigerian professor, a computer-science expert and a former activist in the Biafran movement during the Nigerian Civil War. Jidenna says that he only adapted his dapper style in 2010, after his father died, and that it’s a tribute to the way his father would wear a three-piece suit and carry a cane everyday. When Jidenna was five, gunmen robbed him and his family and shot him in the foot. He formed a rap group called the Black Spadez when he was attending a fancy prep school. He went to Stanford, worked as a teacher, and then eventually made his way to Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland crew. These days, seeing Jidenna dance in the background of Monáe’s old videos feels a bit like seeing DJ Khaled standing around in a pink polo in the “Lean Back” clip.
The Chief, Jidenna’s first album, comes nearly two years after “Classic Man” blew up, a classic example of a major label missing an artist’s buzz window. But in that weird accidental way, The Chief feels like it’s arriving right on time. The album opens with “A Bull’s Tale,” a tense narrative rap in which Jidenna discusses returning to Nigeria to bury his father — riding incognito in the motorcade, surrounded by guns, and jetting back to the airport before he has any time to process what just happened. This is not the way you expect a prospective pop star to begin a debut album. And while The Chief scans as pop music, in one form or another, it’s also a strange and particular album, one that nobody else on the planet could’ve made.
Consider “Long Live The Chief,” the single that, for now, serves as the album’s biggest hit. (“Classic Man” isn’t on the album, nor should it be.) Jidenna tends to blur the line between rapper and singer in ways that make the distinction feel outmoded and obsolete. But “Long Live The Chief” is a rap song in the hard and definitive sense. It’s got no hook; it’s just bar after bar, delivered with spirit and exhilaration. And Jidenna has ways of bragging about his cultured upbringing, not apologizing for it, making himself sound hard and smart at the same time: “When I met Bill Clinton, I was 17 / But dead presidents is all my niggas need.” And he also gives a terse and cutting explanation for his fashion sense: “Now they say, ‘Jidenna, why you dressing so classic?’ / I don’t want my best-dressed day in a casket.”
The Chief isn’t an especially cohesive album; plenty of its songs first hit the internet more than a year ago. And it’s not attempting to be some landmark in revolutionary pop. Jidenna is clearly trying to make hits, and I imagine his label had something to do with the album’s sound, which can feel patched-together. But even in the love songs and the club songs, there’s a personality there that can’t be contained. “The Let Out,” for instance, is a slick and excellent piece of club-targeted pop-rap with a guest verse from Fabo. But nothing about the song feels forced, since Jidenna’s mantralike hook is so confident and since the boasts seem so particular to him: “That lame tryna holler, he a Bond wannabe / He a Roger Moore nigga, I’m a Sean Connery.” Meanwhile, tracks like “Bambi” and “Adaora” recall the organic sophistication of the Nigerian highlife music of the ’70s, while other songs feel like cleaned-up versions of the dancehall-influenced Afrobeats music that’s been thriving in the country in recent years.
Not all of it works. Indeed, the album can get messy. The Afrobeats-influenced tracks, like the clubby “A Little Bit More,” feel too cleaned-up, to the point where they can come off like anonymous global pop music. And as a writer, Jidenna can be a bit clumsy; “White Niggas,” in which he envisions a world where white people are treated the way black people are now, is as well-intentioned but forced as about a million Dead Prez songs. Also, as much as the world needs the sentiment, you can’t write the line “The lady ain’t a tramp just cuz she bounce it up and down like a trampoline” and then build a whole song out of it. You just can’t. But the highs on The Chief are crazy high, and even the lows are at least fun to think about. Jidenna hasn’t made a truly cohesive and powerful full-length yet. But he could. A few years from now, I won’t be surprised if he’s a classic-album man.
Other albums of note out today:
• Ryan Adams’ ’80s-rocking divorce album Prisoner.
• Alison Krauss’ lovely old-school country covers album Windy City.
• Strand Of Oaks’ intense bar-rocker Hard Love.
• Jens Lekman’s sprightly, erudite, carefully-designed indie-popper Life Will See You Now.
• Ought frontman Tim Darcy’s wiry, catchy solo debut Saturday Night.
• The Courtney’s brightly scuzzy indie-pop attack The Courtneys II.
• Grails’ deep, cinematic indie rocker Chalice Hymnal.
• Dutch Uncles’ tricky art-popper Big Balloon.
• Sam Patch’s Yeah You, And I, the solo debut from Arcade Fire member Tim Kingsbury.
• Molly Burch’s sentimental, old-timey Please Be Mine.
• Mozart’s Sister’s upbeat, synthetic Field Of Love.
• Fog Lake’s fuzzy, understated Dragonchaser.
• Rogue Wave’s covers LP Cover Me.
• Hymn’s fuzzy doom-sludge wallow Perish.
• Son Volt’s reliably rootsy Notes Of Blue.
• Animal Collective’s The Painters EP.
• Maggie Rogers’ Now That The Light Is Failing EP.
• Ty Segall’s Emotional Goblin EP.
• Anna Wise’s The Feminine Act: II EP.