Before it got shut down, Cosmos FM was the radio station in Enugu that played the freshest hip-hop and R&B. In its time on the air, Cosmos became the station for the young and happening people. For that audience, the rise of a young MC who made Igbo rap cool was very exciting.
After he moved to Lagos, Phyno delivered No Guts No Glory, a critically-acclaimed project that made the edgy rapper break out on his own terms, not the industry’s. Everyone wondered how long the Phyno phenomenon would remain unchanged. The answer was, not very long. Even though the mountain of fame and fortune was already moving toward Muhammed, Muhammed started moving toward the mountain.
Shortly after his collaborative album with Olamide in 2015, Phyno 2.0 was born. Dark and gory themes would give way to bright and Godly music, his sophomore album even starts off with “Yes, I pray” a prayer in song form. Phyno, once a hardened MC, now performs a polished hybrid of hip-hop and Eastern hi-life and has no qualms letting you know that he made a play for the money. “Best Rapper” perfectly summarises Phyno’s thinking nowadays – financial security over everything.
“Osiro gi n’obi, hold your applause… you better hold that (If it’s not coming from your heart, hold your applause)
Give me the money, hold your award… you better hold that
I just want to see my future be assured.”
Phyno sounds like he’s having a heated debate about the direction of his music with some people, among them is the Cosmos FM crowd and hip-hop purists. But the rapper doesn’t want to hear a word they have to say. Afterall, Nigerian hip-hop is notorious for not taking care of its rappers and Enugu is more than just its sophisticated people. “Obiagu” speaks to the other side, it’s named after a part of the city where it’s generally a bad idea to walk around at night, but the song is also an acknowledgment of the kind of people that come from those conditions. It’s more chanting and hailing than rapping and singing, more gyration music than hip-hop music but having said that, The Playmaker does have its genuine hip-hop moments.
On the super-aggressive “Abulo”, Phyno gives an invisible opponent a lyrical smackdown, while on the anthemic “Mkpotu”, he introduces upcoming Igbo rapper Tidinz and adds more wheels to Zoro’s movement. There are also songs like “Joy Comes in the Morning” and “Mistakes” where Phyno reminds rap heads that he can still snap over beats that don’t have local drums and the ogene playing underneath. The Joy beat was made by Major Bangz, but with its regal horns and soft keys, it’s reminiscent of something Just Blaze would have made, while “Mistakes” is more or less a remake of G-Unit’s “Changes”. The beat selection on most of the album, however, is very melodic and infuses a lot of hi-life but this should definitely not come as a surprise.
Phyno 2.0 may have been born in 2015 but it was conceived earlier, smashes such as “Fada Fada”, “E For Sure” and “Connect” are the natural progression from songs like “Nme Nme” and “Authe” off the first project. I had a harder time tracing the roots of “Pino Pino” though, Phyno resurrected a sample from the Oriental Brothers, and I appreciate the fact that he’s reintroducing music from the 70’s to a younger generation just like he’s done with Onyeka Onwenu on the brilliant ode to motherhood “Ochie Dike (Mama)”, but “Pino Pino” sounds like the musical equivalent of watching Atiku trying to dab. Watching a 70 year old pandering to young people is almost as painful as listening to a one-time hardcore MC trying to do the same to the ladies. The off-key singing is another thing but isn’t as problematic, afterall a lot of Phyno’s music will be sang in beer parlors around the East, not reproduced by Project Fame contestants. Expect feel-good, easy to sing along records such as “Ino Nma” and “So Far So Good” to keep those unplanned karaoke sessions going well into the small hours of the morning, as those gentlemen work out their best excuses for not going home to see their wives. Yes, Phyno now has fans much older than the Cosmos FM crowd and listeners of hip-hop music, and they love him as much as we do.
Phyno is now actively bending genres and bridging generations, accolades are nice but acceptance pays better. Unless you view The Playmaker from these different lenses of expectations, you might not appreciate why Phyno created an album that’s so musically diverse and why he’s challenged himself to rise to all expectations of him, rather than the expectations of one or two.