Artist, producer, actor, and fashion icon Jidenna is a bit of an amalgam in the modern hip hop scene. The Nigerian-American musician is a rare blend of new and old world; a sophistication that permeates both his professional and personal lives. While there are many hip hop musicians whose music is intelligent and powerful, Jidenna raises his art to a slightly elevated plateau, creating tracks that are all at once intellectual, primal, cultured, and honest. Even though he received his first music award nearly two years ago, Jidenna’s debut LP, The Chief, was released yesterday and has quickly become a breath of fresh air to modern music. However, to fully understand the melding of so many influences and styles, it helps to know a bit about the journey that led Jidenna to the cusp of his impending celebrity.
Jidenna Theodore Mobisson was born the youngest of four siblings in Wisconsin Rapids, WI to an American mother and a Nigerian Igbo father. Jidenna is Igbo for “embrace the father”, and highlights his close relationship with his father, Oliver, until his death in 2010. His parents met while his father was attending M.I.T. just before the start of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. While Jidenna was born in the U.S., he spent time as a child in Nigeria while his father founded Nigeria’s first computer technology university and ignited a technological revolution in the aftermath of the war.
The Mobisson family moved back to the U.S. in 1991, eventually settling in Milton, MA in 2000. It was while attending high school at Milton Academy that Jidenna joined a rap group named Black Spadez. At that time, Jidenna’s cultural influences mirrored his musical influences, favoring rappers like KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane, as well as Nigerian Highlife music. Highlife itself is a blending of traditional Akan music with Western structure and instrument, particularly jazz-style horns and multiple guitars.
Upon graduating high school, Jidenna was accepted to both Harvard and Stanford Universities, but ultimately chose Stanford. While he initially majored in sound engineering, he soon changed his focus to the study of ritualistic art (art included in rituals as part of a religious ceremony). During his studies, Jidenna learned about the power of fashion from his psychology professor, and discovered the advantage one’s personal style could give them in day-to-day life. Much like his music, his personal fashion style is a marriage between the Harlem Renaissance style and West African design.
After graduating in 2008, the aspiring musician worked as a full-time teacher while moving around the country and pursuing his career in the recording industry. Eventually, he was discovered by kindred spirit Janelle Monáe and signed to her Wondaland Records label. His first project with the label was a compilation EP with the label’s other signed artists, including Monáe, Roman GianArthur, and St. Beauty. The 2015 EP, titled Wonderland Presents: The Ephus, featured Jidenna’s first two breakout singles: “Classic Man” featuring Roman GianArthur, and “Yoga” with Janelle Monáe. “Classic Man” quickly went double platinum and earned Jidenna his first Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. While he didn’t nab the win at the Grammys, he did win a Soul Train Music Award for Best New Artist.
In 2016, Jidenna began an unorthodox approach to promoting his music and himself; especially when considering he hadn’t released a solo album yet. The rising rapper began appearing on new, primarily African American television shows, including a performance in the Netflix series Luke Cage, and multiple appearances on Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s HBO series, Insecure. His strategy worked, as audiences and music insiders began to wonder when an album including those tracks would be released.
From the very start of The Chief, Jidenna comes out fighting. The very first track, “A Bull’s Tale”, begins with a monologue by Ghanaian-American producer, Nana “The Writer” Kwabena. Monologues from Nana pop up throughout the album, but it is the initial intro to “A Bull’s Tale”, filled with casual, cryptic warnings about trust and family, that lingers in the mind. Fitting, because “A Bull’s Tale” is all about how his family was assaulted in his father’s homeland when he was younger, and how he brought AK-47s and hired military commandos to his father’s funeral for fear of violence. The resulting track is a seething, dark tale of paranoia accompanied by synth, auto tune, drums, and chants.
The album is heavy with modern, industrial hip-hop tracks infused with a dash of traditional African instruments or style. Jidenna clearly took an overall modern approach to the album, accentuating contemporary hip hop tracks with traditionally African instruments uncommon to the average listener. However, there are a few tracks that stand out as being deftly traditional. A prime example is “Bambi”, where Jidenna infuses modern drum beats to a soothing, traditional African melody and layered vocals. “Adaora” showcases Jidenna’s own vocal capabilities alongside an Afro-Cuban jazz beat, accentuated by lively Spanish guitar. Similarly, Latin beats, lyrics, and drumming shine through on the passionately exotic “A Little Bit More”.
Overall, the album is a tremendous debut album from an artist that truly understands music and has been carefully plotting his premiere. Audiences who have heard his early singles like “Classic Man”, or see Jidenna’s classic style and involvement in posh affairs like Fear and Fancy social club, might get the wrong impression of The Chief. This is a more serious Jidenna than audiences have seen before, and his plotting and dedication show tremendously on the record. The influences of jazz, Latin, and African music take on new life with his matured style and lyrical content, ensuring that this rising star has a serious shot at making it in a competitive music business. If he can continue to evolve and develop as well as he has on his first album, it won’t be long before Jidenna truly will be “The Chief”.