Jidenna is glowing. The edge of the summer sun creeping into VIBE’s New York office highlights the 34-year-old’s purple hues and cantaloupe-colored prints that adorn him. His mustard kufi, sitting snug atop his braids, is more than just a “cool hat.” It’s an introduction to who he really is. “I am Jidenna, the Un-Classic Man.”
Jidenna didn’t rigorously exfoliate that persona off—it shed on its own. The 2015 release of “Classic Man” helped usher him into the mainstream game under Janelle Monae’s Wondaland roster. The track provided the artist his first Billboard Top 40 hit, a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and a chopped and screwed version featured in the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. But the boom-trap feel of the record is nowhere to be found on his sophomore release, 85 To Africa.
Instead, the Nigerian-American gives life to hip-hop’s current identity crisis by stamping its passport across the African diaspora. “I want the album to integrate the African diaspora with the continent,” he says of the LP’s mission statement, which features a polished display of Afrobeat(s), R&B, psychedelic soul, funk and raw bars from an artist many haven’t figured out yet.
“It’s [like] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you look at him, that generation’s mission statement was to integrate people of color and mainstream society, but mine is the diaspora into the continent,” he adds while elongating his goals. “I’m living and dying for that. There’s nothing more important as black people as that. Nothing. There’s plenty of things we gotta work on because if we do, a lot of other things will actually change. The economics in the hood, the idea of it being gentrified, the positions of power with women, the LGBTQ+ community worldwide. You have to deal with all of that to integrate the diaspora and the continent.”
Trap music is African. When we're hip-hop historians, all old and grey, we’re gonna say, 'Migos was doing to the platter platter platter.'
Jidenna’s big ideas aren’t without merit. The son of a West African scientist and chief, the artist is not only knee-deep into social issues that plague the African-American community, but has strong ties back home. It’s enough to overwhelm any online revolutionary but Jidenna isn’t built that way.
“Someone described me as an aux cord for the diaspora to the continent,” he says. The album takes listeners to his once-humble abode in Atlanta—a cultural hub for black excellence in its own right—to sounds currently taking over Afrobeats and trap-themed parties. Horns blow with endurance on the album’s title track with special guests like GoldLink and Mr. Eazi shining on “Babouche” and “Zodi,” respectively. Jidenna’s sonic road trip is laced with good intentions, legendary producer Young Guru says.
“Jidenna’s album is sort of a bridge, that’s why it’s 85 to Africa,” he says when asked about engineering the album.“It’s bridging those gaps, but not only bridging those gaps musically but [also] bridging those gaps politically, bridging those gaps business-wise. That’s the general purpose and the idea, along with very mature subject matters. I don’t know if the average American knows what a ‘Sou Sou’ is.”
A lot of times you don't get to see the full scope or run the gamut of what that artist can do and I think that on this album, he's shown you his full gamut of what he can do as an artist.
Throughout the album are odes to Caribbean and African culture like on “Sou Sou,” an offhand way of saving money in West Indian households. However, on the track, Jidenna compares the practice to a night in Ankara sheets. “Sufi Woman” plays to any soul sister keen to Yoruba, Brazillian Candomblé or whatever intensifies the spiritual vibrations. The lustful vibes continue on “Zodi,” which masterfully samples Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
“If we are to be stewards of what this culture is, we have to allow it the space to evolve,” Guru mentions of Jidenna’s marriage of Afrobeats and hip-hop. It finds a calming balance on the album’s lead single “Tribe” with a psychedelic video to match. “And that means sonically, subject matter wise and style-wise. That means us as 45-year-old parents of the culture allowing our 16-year-old children to express themselves. All of that is inside of this album. That’s why you hear the direct nod to an old Busta Rhymes record but still making it new.”
He’s humble about the notion, but Jidenna and in-house producer Nana Kwabena were some of the early U.S.-based artists to blend the sounds of Afro House and Afrobeats into hip-hop’s obsession with trap beats. He points to “A Little Bit More,” one of four singles from his debut album, The Chief. “That was the first time on the radio you were hearing real pidgin from a U.S.-based artist,” he recalls. “Nobody was saying ‘Wahala she no dey give me.’” (Translation: She doesn’t give me any trouble or worries.)
But Jidenna admits he’s not fond of his first studio project. He points to industry suits clamoring him about the “Classic Man” ethos. The pressure to be a gimmick only fueled the need to return to his roots.
“I enjoyed songs off it but [it was] the process. I was dealing with a label who wanted me to stick to one thing and I’m not that person,” he says. “It’s not even natural to me. I live in between worlds. So that album, there was like three iterations for it so by the time it was done, I just wanted to get it out. I’m not proud of it and I’m still not.”
With 85 to Africa, Jidenna says he went in with no expectations as he traveled from Atlanta to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Swaziland (Eswatini), and Namibia. “I was just traveling through the continent and that’s why it’s 85 to Africa and not one country. That’s how far I had to get away to make a natural album.”
He might not be a fan of his early tunes but he’s a scholar in trap and African music. “There’s hella genres in Afrobeats, we’re not even there yet,” he says about America’s fascination with artists like Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, and Mr. Eazi. “We’re at the beginning. It’s like when hip-hop started in 1979 and everyone is like, ‘This is hip-hop.’ We’re literally at that point.”
Pointing to legends like Ebo Taylor, King Sunny Adé, Sunny Okosun, Cardinal Rex Lawson and Miriam Makeba, Jidenna hopes students of music listen to these artists in hopes of grasping a better understanding of other genres like highlife and jùjú music. He also believes hip-hop will have to pull a Sincere and head back home to the Motherland.
“I think for the first time in hip-hop history, hip-hop has to look outside of its history to evolve,” he says with much certainty. “Otherwise, it would be boring. I’m glad trap evolved the way it did because naturally, I was a fan because I was in it. I always told people, ‘Trap music is African.’ Those rhythms, those triplets, when Jazz players are talking about, ‘Yeah, Jazz music baby. You know, the 6-8.’ When we’re hip-hop historians, all old and grey, we’re gonna say, ‘Migos was doing to the platter platter platter,’” he says in relation to their triplet flow.
Jidenna’s love for hip-hop was felt throughout his 85 To Africa pop-up listening parties that were meant to recreate the days of The Tunnel (look it up) and house soirees. While playing his album, some fans had their chance to dance with the singer, with others pledging their devotion to Jidenna on social media.
Women are speaking crass and bolder, and that's why they're rooting for Megan and artists like Cardi. Lizzo also represents a certain kind of freedom and I think that kind of liberation is great.
He’s well aware of his sex appeal but no one thought a simple studio photo would turn him into a trending topic—before he even released details of his album. “It’s so funny because it shows that one, you don’t know what will pop off and two, what people find attractive about you, I didn’t like that picture,” he says.
When did Jidenna turn to Zaddy? pic.twitter.com/mAiBWTft6i
— PorPorRee 💫 (@VEJ0ME) July 11, 2019
But for every eye-catching photo of Jidenna comes an appreciation or at least, a respected view of his music. When it comes to his peers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, their talent is often questioned because of their sensuality.
“I’m biased. I think the female form is an unbelievable form. Period. I think that men and women can appreciate that, not to say that there’s no beauty in men, but I do think that human beings really enjoy women,” he says between pauses.
“I know for a fact that a lot of female artists feel the pressure to be more revealing. Men are starting to feel that way, too. The pressure to lift weights, the pressure to put beard oil on, the pressure to get a lineup every week. I’m glad because women put a lot of work in. What’s cool is that women in the U.S. are going through a phase where it seems like y’all are more unapologetic than ever before. Women are speaking crass and bolder, and that’s why they’re rooting for Megan and artists like Cardi. Lizzo also represents a certain kind of freedom and I think that kind of liberation is great.”
While speaking to the double standards of hip-hop’s shining stars, Jidenna believes men have tapped into their vulnerable sides. “With men, you’re seeing what women have done more traditionally and that’s being more vulnerable and admit to mental health and admit to having self-esteem issues,” he says. “I can go across the board from A$AP Ferg to Big Sean to myself. Our journey is that way and for women, it’s the other way.”
From owning his artistry to his masculinity, Jidenna is in a special place of self-awareness.
“I think he’s found his purpose and his sound,” Guru says. “With him and Nana coming together as a group, as a team, I think he was making sure that he was not being pigeonholed into a hit record, which sometimes can be a curse. But a lot of times you don’t get to see the full scope or run the gamut of what that artist can do and I think that on this album. He’s shown you his full gamut of what he can do as an artist. He can rap, he can sing, [and] he put together melodies that are not normal but that completely fit where we are right now. That’s just him as an artist.”
Jidenna is finally where he wants to be and it’s time hip-hop takes notice. Stream 85 to Africa here.