Retro Modern “Modern” Pick: Jidenna’s The Chief (Album)
Introduction: Jidenna Mobisson is a singer and hip-hop figure who featured prominently in the Wondaland clique founded by singer / songwriter / actress Janelle Monáe. He first appeared with his single “Classic Man,” one of the biggest R&B singles of 2015; he later followed “Classic Man” with an appearance on Monáe’s single “Yoga” the same year. Both songs were included on the Wondaland EP showcase, Wondaland Presents: The Eephus (2015, Wondaland / Epic).
Known for his suave and pointed vocal / emceeing style, Jidenna quickly made a name for himself. Following behind “Classic Man” and “Yoga” is The Chief, Jidenna’s first full-length record on the Epic label and Wondaland subsidiary.
Synopsis: The moment R&B and hip-hop intersected, it was equally problematic and forward-thinking. In regard to the former notion, there were those who opined that the emphasis on sampling, emceeing, and the beat-driven approach of hip-hop would denigrate R&B’s musical principles. Conversely, on the latter tip, hip-hop, like disco before it, helped push black music further along its evolutionary track. As the 1980s closed, the New Jack Swing movement proved, to a degree, both sides correct. There was a harder sound that edged out the lush orchestration and session work that epitomized R&B up until the mid-1980s. However, hip-hop benefited from this merger too ― soul music lent formal song structure and vocalizing, sometimes via the mentioned sampling, to the then-burgeoning genre.
In 2017, hip-hop and rhythm and blues intersect more than ever. Emcees croon and singers flow, with Jidenna rising as a quick study of this longterm hybridization. Jidenna’s smash “Classic Man” reformatted the R&B lothario archetype in 2015, a black music culture axiom that had stood steadfast through the stated tides of disco and hip-hop. Was Jidenna the portent of a craftsmanship renaissance in the modern R&B / hip-hop field, one crowded by equally talented contemporaries like Bryson Tiller, Drake, and The Weeknd?
His debut, The Chief (2017, Wondaland / Epic), is a frustrating or rewarding listening experience, depending on the individual partaking in its offerings ― but it leaves the question unanswered. The LP is fit at 14 tracks, its production and songwriting divided fairly between Jidenna, several Wondaland luminaries (Nana Kwabena and Monáe, notably) and some new blood (Best Kept Secret, Andrew Horowitz, etc.).
On the whole, the record lives up to its title thematically, serving up mesmeric machismo that Jidenna wields fearlessly, as heard on “Chief Don’t Run.” Sonically, this is expressed in broad swathes of neon, urban club couture ― crisp, brittle beats and murky-to-skittering synths abound. Jidenna stays in this lane for most of the record, leading to a sense of sameness throughout until the album comes upon the four concluding cuts of the set.
There’s a playful touch of world music aimed for the floors (“Little Bit More,” “Some Kind of Way”) which pierces the monotony musically, but he takes it a step further lyrically, exchanging braggadocio for whip-smart social commentary on “White Niggas” and “Bully of the Earth.” The latter two songs address current social and political climates in America and abroad, the latter with a lyric that seems to summarize Jidenna’s artistic mission statement: “Too many rebels just follow convention, I thought it was all about breakin’ tradition?” The irony of those words hang over the sleek, but safe sounds of The Chief.
Yes, The Chief plays it safe, rarely elevating itself out of its addictive, but ultimately drowsy appropriation of chart-driven R&B / hip-hop that everyone is doing in 2017. However, if the listener is seeking that, then the record is a winner, without question. But, the four-song suite that closes Jidenna’s debut LP shows that his songwriting and musical appetites are voracious. If this ambitious young man takes his own advice to heart to break from the standard pack of urban chart lotharios, Jidenna could truly be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
The Chief is available via Amazon.