After blowing up onto the scene with 2015’s Classic Man, Jidenna has finally brought us a full-length album, The Chief. This is also the first full-length to come to us from Janelle Monae’s promising Wondaland Records label, and they couldn’t have picked a better debut than this.
The Chief, like most of Jidenna’s work so far, is a breezy, enjoyable time, bookmarked only by heavy-hitting tracks like “Chief Don’t Run,” “Long Live the Chief,” or “2 Points,” that showcase Jidenna’s superior lyricism. The album overall, though, is better characterized by the recent singles “Bambi” and “The Let Out,” with their easygoing flow, light production, and addictive hooks.
The most commendable choice Jidenna makes here is in his distinction from typical pop stylings. Jidenna is a shockingly talented lyricist, with a chameleon-like flow to boot, so when he’s tried to fit himself into a pop-song structure, the chorus usually suffers. Look at the singles that didn’t make it onto this album, “Extraordinaire” and “Knickers,” in each case the verses completely overshadow everything else on the track. “Knickers,” in particular, really suffers because the excellent wordplay of the verses set a bar too high for the chorus to maintain.
But Jidenna seems to have realized this with The Chief, compiling songs that all seamlessly blend and blur articulate verses with witty hooks, tight production, and a creative structure. Which, in all reality, is nuts coming from a debut album—usually you have to wait until the second album to see how an artist grows and develops over time. Who knows what the next album is going to look like now? (I’m hoping it’s two hours of him staring in a mirror and gassing himself up via verse, but that’s just me.)
The album opens with the appropriately mythic “A Bull’s Tale,” featuring with a monolog from Uncle Palmwine (MC Chief Obi), before giving way to a great percussive beat. This track is appropriately dramatic, showcasing Jidenna’s lyricism and storytelling abilities and highlighting them with production that sounds like something from a war movie. “A Bull’s Tale” is the opening credits for Jidenna, and it gets its point across—he’s The Chief.
“Chief Don’t Run” was my favorite of Jidenna’s singles before this album, and it still stands out as a highlight of the album. With a feature from Roman GianArthur (who seems like Wondaland Records’ secret weapon), Jidenna goes off here. This type of hyped-up, heavy-hitting track highlighting Jidenna’s braggadocios nature is where Jidenna excels for me. Jidenna naturally has a positive demeanor to him that just works when turned to ten and directed at himself. And it’s not like its hubristic or anything, just look at the guy—he’s fly as shit.
“Trampoline” and “Bambi,” the next two tracks on The Chief, highlight the more feel-good side of Jidenna. The songs, which are all about beautiful women, deftly avoid objectification because of Jidenna’s focus on body positivity and free expression (it’s pretty evident why he’s on Janelle Monae’s label here). Look at the beginning refrain of “Trampoline,” which asserts “The lady ain’t a tramp, just ‘cause she bounce it up and down like a trampoline.” The casual beat underlying each of these songs conveys that sense of openness and appreciation for body positivity, which is so great to hear from a male artist.
“Helicopter/Beware” is probably the low-point of the album, but “Helicopter” boasts some beautiful production. The slow-moving “Beware,” despite being a decent song, seems to just fade out of memory as you listen. “Long Live the Chief” comes right after, giving the album the biggest boost possible. “Long Live the Chief” was the Jidenna single that convinced me of his talent originally, and a year later the song still has that effect on me. The dark, monotonous production provides the perfect backdrop for Jidenna to throw down some of my favorite verses in the past two years.
“2 Points” is perhaps my favorite on this album. It’s a short track that follows in the vein of “Long Live the Chief” and just goes completely all-the-way-in and dresses everything in a colorful tailored suit that tastefully highlights an Ankara print shirt. While “Long Live the Chief” is more about the achievements of Jidenna, “2 Points” focuses on what Jidenna, and anyone listening to this song, deserves. It’s a high-energy anthem for dreamers and perfectionists, especially for those dreamers and perfectionists who feel excluded by typical institutions of success.
“The Let Out” and “Safari” both mesh together the breezy free-flow of “Trampoline” and “Bambi” with the intensity and confidence of “Long Live the Chief” and “2 Points.” They feature a repetitive, hypnotic quality to them, but remain a joy nonetheless. “Adaora” kind of slogs in its length, but still manages to follow in the vein of the previous two songs. “A Little Bit More” is more than likely the most accessible song on The Chief. It takes the body positivity we see in “Trampoline” and infuses it into a late-night bop.
“Some Kind of Way” is another likely contender to break big into the mainstream. This is the most production-heavy song on the album, and the great beat mixes so well with Jidenna’s voice. I’d like to take a moment to appreciate that Jidenna can not only rap with gusto but sing beautifully. His voice sounds excellent here and blends so well with this music to create a terrific fullness in the song.
“White Niggas” and “Bully of the Earth” seem to bring the album back full circle, reminding the listener who exactly Jidenna is by bringing Cheif Obi back into the fray, and making clear what Jidenna is attempting. “White Niggas,” is probably the song I would consider objectively the best on The Chief, addressing the divide between many white rap fans (hello) and the political reality of being black that so many rappers address with their music.
It’s easy for the audience to get caught up in the hype that is so indicative of rap, but, as Jidenna asserts here, it’s key that white listeners such as myself are aware of our place in society when we listen to rap. These songs are meant to inspire confidence, encourage love and positivity, but they are intended to do so for those who don’t have outlets for such things in the predominately white public and private spheres of professional/political life. Obviously, we (and by “we” I mean white listeners such as myself) can enjoy this music, but we must also be able to practice a particular kind of self-reflexivity when doing so.
“Bully of the Earth,” like “2 Points,” hones in on what is deserved, what is to be aspired for, and what is in inherently there in a person’s identity. Shifting focus from the white audience, Jidenna explores black aspiration and action. “Bully of the Earth” highlights the contradictions inherent in blackness as it exists in society—where black people are told to be dreamers and to live as individuals, yet by doing so end up victims of various forms of violence from the state and institutions which were made to protect and aid them. It’s a stellar finale to a stellar debut, and cements Jidenna’s position as an artist to look out for: an artist who can meld the pop with the political, the dire with the uplifting, and supply those in need with anthems to keep them going—or with some moments of needed release.