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Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

The Abagas (Jesse Jagz and MI Abaga) have always had a special case of megalomania. Each one has declared superiority over his environment on several records.

Last year, Jesse took the family pride off music. "Me and MI combined, there’s no bloody musician, I don’t care who your father is, that can be better...artistically," he said in an interview. Considering the early work of the Abagas, this was hardly arguable.

If MI’s The Chairman from 2014 was a misstep, his younger brother has never faltered. At the end of his career Jesse will have produced an exceptional body of work in several directions. He has made excellent pop (‘Wetin Dey’, ‘Pump it Up’); he has given us good hip hop (‘Jargo’, ‘The Greatest’); he has given us excellent reggae (‘Sativa’ and ‘Redemption’); he did something unique with Afrobeat (‘Sunshine’); he has even made exquisite esoterica (several songs off Jagz Nation Vol 2: Royal Niger Company defy genre classification). Jesse Jagz has an ear for pleasurable sounds and quite a mind for arranging words.

His new album, the 10-track Odysseus, went through several delays before its release, but the product is worth the wait. Excellence takes time. And quickly Jesse shows his production and songwriting are as fine as they were in the past. He may have learnt something new, too, with regards to delivery. Consider these lines from ...

The Abagas (Jesse Jagz and MI Abaga) have always had a special case of megalomania. Each one has declared superiority over his environment on several records.

Last year, Jesse took the family pride off music. “Me and MI combined, there’s no bloody musician, I don’t care who your father is, that can be better…artistically,” he said in an interview. Considering the early work of the Abagas, this was hardly arguable.

If MI’s The Chairman from 2014 was a misstep, his younger brother has never faltered. At the end of his career Jesse will have produced an exceptional body of work in several directions. He has made excellent pop (‘Wetin Dey’, ‘Pump it Up’); he has given us good hip hop (‘Jargo’, ‘The Greatest’); he has given us excellent reggae (‘Sativa’ and ‘Redemption’); he did something unique with Afrobeat (‘Sunshine’); he has even made exquisite esoterica (several songs off Jagz Nation Vol 2: Royal Niger Company defy genre classification). Jesse Jagz has an ear for pleasurable sounds and quite a mind for arranging words.

His new album, the 10-track Odysseus, went through several delays before its release, but the product is worth the wait. Excellence takes time. And quickly Jesse shows his production and songwriting are as fine as they were in the past. He may have learnt something new, too, with regards to delivery. Consider these lines from ‘Best in You’:

“Never make love girl unless it’s you
Every minute everywhere I never want less of you
Girl I promise that me and my ex are through
Never gon mess with you
Just tell me—in the middle of the night who’s texting you?”

Taken singly, each line could be written by a weaker songwriter—but the song’s delivery, slurred and semi-comical, takes some imagination. Also, notice how the lines go from romantic declarations to assurance to doubt and paranoia, a movement you’d expect comes with the insecurity love sometimes cultivates. That compression takes some skill, and there is some admirable lyrical cohesiveness when on a different song Jesse Jagz says, “Love and jealousy is the same now.”

Since his crowd friendly first album, Jesse Jagz has gotten denser, packing references on his albums, sometimes on a single song. On Odysseus’s brooding opener ‘Genesis’, he channels Drake and seems to riff on Descartes’ cogito: he raps, sings and a voiceover says, “Doubting is also a kind of thinking…”

This behaviour is understandably frustrating for a listener who just wants to dance as Jesse’s music once made him do. So when on ‘Genesis’, Jesse says, after alluding to the 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, “the outcome is only hit songs on my album” surely he’s kidding. Jesse Jagz no longer makes stadium songs. Odysseus hasn’t even received the promotion lesser albums get. Some have been confounded by his apparent indifference to the commercial aspects of music-making.

As he approaches his mid-30s, Jesse is looking at the past with some longing: The album cover is a photo of young Ma Abaga sitting among other kids. Besides that cover, which captures a past Jesse Jagz can have no memory of, Odysseus’s flawless first half is the most eloquent expression of this nostalgia, which is driven home by his use of the English nursery rhyme ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and the chorus from Lighthouse Family’s ‘Ocean Drive’ on ‘Best in You’.

Longing for the past on Odysseus is not limited to looking westward: Jesse Jagz Nigerianises his nostalgia by featuring old R&B group Styl Plus on ‘Alright’, and on the percussion-dominated, bass-heavy hip hop highlight ‘Dirty’, newcomer Hot Ice makes the most of his appearance, spitting rap so remarkably full of punchlines and gravitas it might exist in a Nigeria where a group of rappers are yet to conceive of the song ‘Local Rappers’, which famously claimed, “wordplay o jawo mo” (rap with wordplay no longer makes money). And where others have gone after trending sounds like trap, Jesse Jagz goes back to boom bap on ‘Wide Blue’, which closes out the album’s first half.

The heights of that half prove hard to match over the next few songs—except for some ornate rhyming on ‘Awake’—until the last song ‘Violation’ featuring Burna Boy, who is perhaps the only Nigerian act with taste and talent as varied as Jesse’s. Both are also interested in sounds from the past, with ‘Violation’ itself recalling G-funk, a hip hop sound that attained peak popularity in the 1990s. The song is a fitting close to an album looking back.

Jesse Jagz once rapped, “You can love this or hate this, but it don’t really matter to me ‘cos I’m the greatest.” He has not made a perfect album this time, but almost a decade after he said those words, no other artist has made good music on his own terms album after album after album. In a world where greatness is nearly indistinguishable from hype, Jesse Jagz is the real deal.

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