Actually, ‘Illegal Music III’ remains MI Abaga’s most vulnerable moment as an artist [Pulse Anniversary Review]

It’s not a coincidence that he tried something totally different on Rendezvous and went to therapy on A Study on Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl.

MI Abaga - Illegal Music III. (Chocolate City)

If you’ve met MI Abaga, one of the things he echoes is simple, “Superstardom is sweet and amazing, but one of the scariest things any artist will endure is when superstardom starts slipping away while a new generation takes over. The worst part about it is that you will know.”

In 2016, and after six bodies of work, MI Abaga’s place as arguably Nigeria’s greatest rapper of all-time was sealed. He had released two classic albums and two classic mixtapes.

But in 2014, he released The Chairman album to good commercial reception but mixed critical reception. You could argue that it was the first time that cracks in MI Abaga’s superstardom started to show.

You see, his launch superstar coincided with the golden era of Nigerian Hip-Hop - 2008 - 2010. That era ended with the formulation of Nigeria’s contemporary pop sound, which was sealed in 2008 and 2009 with Wande Coal’s Mushin To Mo’hits and D’Banj’s The Entertainer.

What followed was the 2010 generation; Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Olamide, Yemi Alade and Burna Boy and Nigerian music never remained the same again.

2009/2010 was arguably the last time we saw Nigerian rappers - like Abaga, Ikechukwu, Naeto C and Sasha P - win major continental awards in categories that are now dominated by popstars.

When Abaga released ‘The Chairman,’ in 2014, it became clear that something had changed. It was also clear that a new generation was in town; that old rules had changed.

Abaga evolved with it, but it just didn’t quite happen critically.

On April 22, 2015 at the 2015 Nigerian Entertainment Conference, MI Abaga and Audu Maikori announced a merger of Chocolate City with Loopy Records. This was one of the first public actions as Audu Maikori was preparing to step down from his role as CEO of Chocolate City Music and become just the CEO of Chocolate City Group.

On June 30, 2015, Audu officially stepped down as CEO of Chocolate City Music and MI assumed the role.

What followed were moments of crippling - public - moments of doubt from the Nigerian media - some of them unfair. And Abaga, like who he was, would respond like he had something to prove. It also didn’t help that the longstanding MILLI saga dragged through 2015 before coming to a close in January 2015.

It’s safe to say that Abaga was going through a lot at the time.

On February 29, 2016, Abaga heeded the call of fans to release Illegal Music III, the third and final instalment in his acclaimed series. After episodes with NotJustOk and other high-profile figures, critics didn’t particularly receive the mixtape well, once again. He had a reputation and it wasn't particularly savoury.

You could argue that people judged that reputation and not the music.

The headline of a review by Pulse Nigeria reads, “M.I’s paranoia is rampant in egotistical ‘Illegal Music 3’ mixtape.”

Let’s be honest, fans had been used to a different Abaga on previous ‘Illegal Music’ instalments. He was always ebullient; boisterous. There were even moments on Illegal Music I and Illegal Music II where he would drop a bar and follow it with a cocky grin; a vain recognition of his own greatness.

An example is the Studio Magik-produced ‘The X.O Bit’ featuring X.O Senavoe.

Fans wanted that MI; they yearned for their happy king, but he had been replaced by a darker version with a palette for morose occurences.

His mood was gully and his energy was sappy. It also doesn’t help that he reserved something for his online critics of the music. Case in point, ‘NotJustOk’ where he had words for the Nigerian publication and the Headies, over the Lyricist on The Roll category.

For fans, that was too much of a cocktail and it left a sour taste. Like critics, they still give the project some tough love and they are not entirely wrong. But there can be two versions of the truth and both can be compelling.

The fans have their version of the truth, but the actual truth was that Abaga was being himself; an imperfect human being who was dealing with a lot in his personal and professional life.

He was also a superstar, grappling with the earliest hints of an OG status that he seemed ill-prepared for. A part of him still craved the bright lights of superstardom like anybody else.

Thus, he wasn’t being morose, he was being honest and true to himself. Ergo, he was being vulnerable. He finally had the success he dreamt of at Coolidge College, and it all looked to be slipping away while awards, the media and fans weren’t giving him the plaudits and respect he felt he deserved or had earned.

Make no mistake, ‘Illegal Music III’ was more than the rant and the negativity. He also offered insights into his mindstate.

‘All Falls Down’ featuring Poe should be remembered for a very instructive line, “No matter how high, we all fall down…”

On ‘The Box,’ he sounded like a man bidding farewell to something, albeit with hints of self-pity. Yet, he still tried to fight for the Hip-Hop community and reject the concept of the ‘box’ while Tay Iwar’s song reverberated in the background.

On ‘Remember Me,’ he once again sounded like someone bidding farewell to something - presumably his peak superstardom. Additionally, the mixtape literally opens with a track titled, 'The Finale.'

He was also keen to be remembered for his excellence and journey, not his imperfections. He even urged fans to, “Remember how I started...”

More importantly, he urged fans to, “Remember when I was pure…”

If that is not the height of vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

However, he realized that it wasn’t his end , “This isn’t a eulogy, I just feel the pressure of time and those pursuing me… At least, give me the respect you know is due to me…”

On 'NotJustOk,' he also asked if he had to die before his respect was accorded him.

At the time, he was perceived as paranoid and egotistical and maybe he was. Even though he excessively focused on the negativity and ignored the positivity he was also getting, the other truth that he wasn’t totally wrong.

Above all, Abaga’s demeanour on ‘Everything I Have Seen’ was one of fatigue from holding on and fighting an unwinnable battle.

Yet, that track and other braggadocious ones like ‘Numbers’ and ‘Black Bill Gates’ sought to dilute his vulnerable moments - and maybe invalidate them - to some people, but he was just being a human being who was trying to remind people of his capabilities.

Above all, he highlighted and embraced family, ‘Head of The Family.’ He even reminisces about his journey and that of his comrades, Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince. That is why the betrayal - most likely from MILLI and less likely from Brymo - that he addressed on ‘Savage’ had poignant venom.

What Abaga needed in his most vulnerable moment was empathy not cynicism. However, some of the cynicism he suffered was of his own making because, human beings are sadly built to react to perception over product.

In a lot of ways, ‘Illegal Music III’ was Abaga’s plea to be understood, he was telling his side of the story. Perhaps, that story could have been better digested without those vain moment of defiance, who knows. But what we know is that it must have taken strength to be that vulnerable. His paranoia was never unfounded.

Look at what Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Olamide and Yemi Alade have gone on to achieve.

‘Illegal Music III’ was his most vulnerable moment. It’s just a shame that his ‘problematic’ perception and the expectations of fans formed a molotov cocktail.

It’s not a coincidence that he tried something totally different on Rendezvous and went to therapy on A Study on Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl.

Some will argue that ‘Yxng Dxnzl’ was more vulnerable, but they would be wrong. Issues were perused on ‘Yxng Dxnzl’ while they were attacked in-depth on ‘Illegal Music III.’ There was also raw authenticity in how he addressed issues on ‘Illegal Music III’ over ‘Yxng Dxnzl’ which seemed more polished, with better execution.

‘Illegal Music III’ was also the forerunner to ‘Yxng Dxnzl,’ which is arguably Abaga’s best - not greatest - album.

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