Jidenna had already staked a claim to being “cool like Nat King Cole” on “Classic Man,” so he took his sweet time releasing his debut LP The Chief, which finally emerges more than two years after the release of the Top 40 single. One of the more eclectic hip-hop albums to come out in 2017, The Chief is at home with Atlanta rap, West African highlife and modern dance music.
“I have a lifetime of stories that I need to put into the debut album,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve lived in multiple cities, on two continents, two coasts. I was born in the middle of the country in Wisconsin, lived in Boston, in Brooklyn, in Oakland, in L.A. and most recently in Atlanta to work more closely with Wondaland Records. When you have that kind of life, you’re not going to make the same song 14 times in a row. … In those Bond flicks, it’s the same guy, but he might start off in Mexico and then fly to France or the Congo. That’s my life in reality, and that’s why the record sounds like it does.”
Jidenna spoke with Rolling Stone about composing his new album in isolation, playing songs for legendary producers like Pharrell and the ways in which politics affect his music.
When did you start working on The Chief?
A year ago I hunkered down and spent 30 days alone at the studio. Nobody was around at all; I missed the holiday season with my family to work on the album. I wrote and produced the foundation of all the music that people are hearing now. We spent the first six months of 2016 tightening up the sound. The production team included Nate Wonder, Andrew Horowitz, Roman GianArthur; the whole Wondaland crew had a hand in making it a special album. We did have an original release date, a couple, the last one being in October. What happened is, as we were traveling and gearing up for the promotion of the album, I made a second album with Nana Kwabena, and when we listened to the songs, everybody was like, “If you merge those two albums, you’re actually going to have a masterpiece.” So here we are.
Why did you want to work alone like that at the beginning?
In 2015, I was completely focused on the promotion of “Classic Man.” It took me away from the studio. I was on the road so much that year, I don’t think it came back to the studio for maybe six months. And when you [go] from anonymity to this superhero guy in a three-piece suit, for the sake of your sanity and for the sake of the things that actually made you successful and brought you that notoriety, you need to isolate yourself.
Someone asked me two days ago, “Do you fear losing yourself? Losing yourself in the pressures of the label, the pressures of the industry, in the game?” That could never happen to me. I don’t want to say never; but it’s highly unlikely. My fear was that I wasn’t showing all sides of myself, to the point where if I wore a Snapback, which I’ve worn for more years of my life than I’ve worn suits, than suddenly people will be like, “Oh, that’s not him.” I wear T-shirts when I’m out and about sometimes. I don’t sleep in a three-piece suit.
The fusion of different styles on “Bambi” seems like a good example of showing many sides.
To me it’s one of the pinnacles of the album. I didn’t grow up in a very musical household, but during the holidays, my mother used to always play Nat King Cole, good old Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. That song is a product of those moments, when I’d be singing those melodies, those Harry Belafonte melodies, but fusing that with West African Highlife and trap music. I’ve never really made that many love records. That’s a special song to me to dig deep and show that side of myself.
You know what was dope about that record? I took the song over to Stankonia; Killer Mike’s there, Big Boi’s there. Organized Noize is in the room. We’re going through tracks, that one comes on, and they go bananas. You got 20 motherfuckers in that room, mostly men. This is not like, “Oh, yeah, the women love this love song.” This is dudes, and they’re riding hard for it, like, “Please tell L.A. Reid that’s the one.” That was the first big affirmation outside of Wondaland. Janelle [Monáe] played it for Pharrell. She said he literally runs out of the studio when he hears it, like, “I can’t listen to any more, that song’s too unique, too incredible.” Play it for Kanye, same thing. Play it for Kent Jones; he runs out the session, we supposed to work on a song that night, but he’s like, “I gotta go, I gotta go reboot.” I didn’t know people were ready for that fusion. When you have the greats, people you look up to, affirm you, it means everything.
You have a narrator character that speaks to you at the beginning of the record and pops up a few times.
We call him Uncle Palm Wine. In a lot of West Africa, in the Philippines, palm trees produce a sap that, when it ferments, pretty swiftly becomes a potent drink, palm wine. My family were palm wine and palm oil traders during the colonization of Nigeria. We made this character played by Chief Obi, a Nigerian-American comedian, who gives you that drunken wisdom. He’s that uncle who is going to give you real gems, warn you about even your own family. The entire script was taken from real conversations I had with my family.
I wanted to make damn sure that people understand: This is my life. My uncles sound like this. In many ways I’m American, but in many ways I’m a first generation immigrant. Anybody who has a parent or uncle or auntie that has an accent, all those people are going to relate to it.
The in-between worlds thing is a theme. Trevor Noah had a quote that I’m going to paraphrase. He said anybody who has grown up in the middle knows that life exists more in the middle than it does on the sides. That’s to me what I try to accomplish with each song – showing that life is in the middle, it’s not a black or white world. Each record feels like it’s traveling in between these worlds.
You’re politically active as well. How do you feel like that side of you comes out on your record?
I approach it as a concerned neighbor, concerned citizen. I wouldn’t venture to say I’m an activist. I just care about issues. Like most people, it starts with the issues affecting my home and my neighborhood. I’ve lived mostly in neighborhoods around the country that were African-American, Caribbean-American and African immigrants. It’s a natural thing for me to be aware and be talking about these things.
On this album, I didn’t try to make a political statement except in “White Niggas,” which was social commentary. I feel like when they say “be the change you want to see,” if you are that, you don’t have to say too much. I didn’t do that with “Classic Man,” but just the fact that a man of African descent is going to come out and say he’s a man, and not just that, but that he’s a classic man, is a political statement.
My goal was to let it fold in a very natural way instead of being like, “I’m going to make a song about Trump.” But the last song, “Bully of the Earth,” could be the bully in your school, could be your father – a lot of times as a child, our parents are the biggest bullies – but it could also be Donald Trump if that’s your interpretation. I like leaving it open enough so that it doesn’t feel like I’m out here making what people would call “conscious rap”; that’s not my approach.
“Helicopters” to me is for the people who have been marginalized by the so-called President’s remarks and moves. I hope they feel empowered by it. It is a situation now where if you take certain stances, you’re putting your life on the lines. When Janelle Monáe and Wondaland were marching last year before every show we did at every major city in this country, this is a dangerous thing to do. You get threats. I want to make sure that the dirt and the danger is on the album. It’s not like you don’t get your gloves dirty and you don’t have police surrounding you in clubs in some cities because you went and protested in that city.
“Helicopters” to me is that moment where you’re like, “Fuck it – if I have to go out doing this, at least I stand for what I believe in.” It’s a dedication to all the soldiers: soldiers on the street, soldiers that fight for this country, the police officers that are the noble warriors that defend communities, not the ones that are just paramilitary robocops. To the great soldiers in America and beyond, that’s who I dedicate that to.