While the word "classic" is often synonymous with reliability and consistency, it can also be a fixed and predictable state. And that's a facet of creativity far removed from the man that is Jidenna Theodore Mobisson.
Classic is just one glistening trademark of an alluring gentleman anxious to share the details of his multiple unpolished experiences through opulently-packaged and produced songs on his debut album The Chief. It's a debut album that's come nearly two years after the release of his breakout single, positioning itself far from expectation - away from a glamorous vantage point attributed to the dapper genre-fusing artist and instead, within the intimate current sustained by family and cultural values, with soundscapes stretching from Nigeria to Wisconsin.
It's clear, Jidenna is unbothered by buzz and focused on legacy. It was a gritty past and a turbulent narrative that helped define the artist now donning three-piece suits. And on his debut album, he starts from the beginning. Introducing, The Chief: an origin story.
It's a debut. But it doesn't feel like a debut, really, since you've been around, releasing music. So after all this time of anticipating its release, what does the concept of debut album mean to you creatively right now?
To me, it represents a moment where people will stop looking at me in one dimension and start seeing me in three or four, at the very least. Fourteen even, as there are fourteen tracks on the album. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to show different layers of me beyond the three-piece suit and beyond my hair being perfectly combed to the side. I like the imperfection that's in me as a person and the vulnerability that's in me. I put it all throughout the album. A debut album for me means a chance to tell my whole story and not part of it.
A lot of times when an artist has such a smash, break-out song like you did, it's all about taking advantage of that buzz. But once you listen to the album, it's clear that you're not interested in a buzz, you're focused on writing a legacy for yourself. How would you put that legacy into words?
I really wanted to tell a story that spans my life on this project as opposed to maybe a moment in time or this time right now. There have been a bunch of stories and adventures that I've been on in this quest to understand my manhood, really. The idea of legacy is definitely important to me. I don't react just to buzz. It's great to have when it's around you but I know that when sunlight shines on you, it passes over your head and casts shadow on you as well. And then it's dawn before you know it. So it's the same with the spotlight and the media. I'm not one vying for attention all the time. I actually don't want it all the time. What I would rather have is a much longer time in this industry and on this planet. I remember when Jay Z was comparing people sprinting but to him, he was running a marathon. I'm definitely in that marathon race.
And when it comes to that marathon and the steps you needed to take with your new music what was your process of turning those experiences into tangible music through your songwriting and production on The Chief?
I was really looking at the turning points in my life. The turning points where I would no longer be the same person. The album starts off with 'A Bull's Tale'. When I buried my father, the circumstances surrounding burying him - our family at that time was experiencing some turbulent crime. Sometimes that happens in your neighbourhood. And because that was such a dangerous time, I took the necessary precaution and I knew that I was ready to kill for my family if need be. That changed me from that day on. I also reference a moment in that same song of when I was a child and some of my family members were kidnapped and beat and I was shot. That obviously, as one of my earliest memories, changed me as well.
Then you have other moments like 'Bambi' where the love of your life, she will no longer let you into her heart. So that is a turning point. And then it really moves on throughout the entire album. Even just little moments like 'The Let Out.' To everyone else, it may just be a simple party record. But to me, it actually was the moment - especially younger but I still do this - going to the let out, that was our rebellion because we didn't have enough money or we were too young. But what we could do is fan out in the parking lot and what we used to call parking lot pimpin and we would experience the party for free by coming late to the party. So, it was liberating for me. Those moments and those circumstances all changed my life bit by bit and the story that I want to share and that's how I organized the album based on crucial moments.
What I enjoy most about the album is how detailed those stories are yet rather than bogging down the energy with moody production, you elevate them with it instead. You have somewhat serious accounts of real moments with such opulent and bright production. How conscious of a choice was that for you when putting together the album?
Contrast makes for the best art. Some of the best photographs happened when the contrast between the light and dark is the most vivid. To me, life is yin and yang. I don't believe in a good and evil world. It's such a narrow view of what it really is. I can take a person who thinks they're good and put them in a circumstance where they will do what they considered evil, easily. So for me, it was natural for me to make songs with a conflict and a contrast and always be in the middle and never too much on the sides. To paraphrase Trevor Noah, anybody who has lived life in the middle knows that life is more in the middle than it is on the sides. It's not a black and white world.
It's also great that you inserted the symbolic voice of the elders in your life through both wisdom and paranoia as I thought it was both hilarious and relatable for anyone that's ever had family or community in their ear. What's the best and worst advice you were ever given as a creative trying to carve that path you've been on, for yourself?
The best advice that I've received is that the thing that you feel is weakest in your art is actually going to be the peculiar thing that's going to make the strongest artist. If you look at any artist, let's say, Prince. Prince is short. Initially, he was insecure about it so he would wear the platform shoes. He also wore high-waisted pants sometimes to make him look taller than he was. But all that gave him a fashion sense that made him iconic. Nina Simone had a moment where her voice cracked and she could never sing above a certain high note. Her register remained low. But that lower toned alto voice that she has is so signature. But she was very embarrassed by it when it first happened. But now, we know her for that. To me, I look that things that I felt like damn, there's a part of my voice that I don't really like. Or, I'm a kind of awkwardly tall lanky guy. But over the years you mature and come to embrace it. So I'm known for tailored suits and a slim cut, whereas a few years ago, I was wearing baggy clothes to hide how skinny I was. Then, I used to hate my singing voice. I was like, I really can't sing. I'm just a rapper. Now, I'm known for melodies. The only way I knew how to sing was a very nostalgic way and I hated it. I didn't think I sounded like a modern singer. So that advice really shaped my career as it does, I think, every artist.
The worst advice, I would say is just when people tell you that you that you need to make a hit song. You need to make your next hit. It's not a good way for someone to enter into creation. You're going to get a very processed song that sounds like something that already exists. That's not furthering your growth as an artist. It may get you a paycheck but it will be short money and it won't get you legacy.
I wanted to end off talking about your father. He was a Nigerian professor, a computer-science expert and a former activist. And it's very evident throughout the project that you released it as a tribute to him and his influence. How would he be responding to this project and your stories if he were here to experience this?
Oh man, I don't even know how he would respond. He was never a huge fan of me doing music. But he did say, once he finally realized that I was serious about it, that "your eureka moments will come late at night when you're sitting there with your beer, smoking." He was right. He said, "make sure that you're innovative, though. Do not do anything that anyone else has done." And then I come out with an image unlike anybody else with a song unlike anybody else. So, that was my father's advice. I would hope that he would hear it and enjoy it. I also know that he was a man of excellence and in that, nothing ever met his standards. He encouraged me to be number one. He may listen to it and say I have more work to do. He was always pushing me. And I appreciated it.
Jidenna's debut album The Chief is out now.