Being alive is a beautiful struggle. The pursuit of happiness is a centripetal odyssey through layers of pain that stand between you and joy. In his latest album, his fifth, seasoned Nigerian rapper MI Abaga peels through these layers.
The album, A Study on Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl, sees the man facing his demons head-on. The opening song, Do You Know Who You Are? Take Some Time and Meditate on You, is broad in scope as it speaks about racism and self-hate among black people, and their root causes. He raps, “See, for generations we perpetrated psychology. Divide and conquer each other, Willie Lynch policy.” Not a unique sentiment there.
What makes the album stand out, however, is that the 37-year-old rapper doesn’t leave it at pointing out the problems. He goes on to give some solutions, as an elder in the game. A solution he offers to the “Willie Lynch policy” is: “You cannot build each other up. How would you build economy? How you think is how you are. It’s just basic neurology.”
On the song “+-“, the MC speaks on rap’s competitive nature, which, at times, can get to an artist. As an elder of Nigerian rap, MI reminisces of his come-up days when “these niggas brought they popcorn out so they can watch it flop.” His solution: “Me, I’m all about the ‘get that money, get that money’. Get it, honey, show yourself like you’re a playboy bunny. All I got is hustle, focus, they can never take that from me.”
Most of the song titles on the 10-track album, which are deliberately long and read like click bait headlines, come with a call to action. For instance, You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives, Another Thing! Do Not Be a Groupie, Stop Never Second Guess Yourself and I Believe In You, You Should Too, Believe in You.
While in most of the songs his tone is suggestive of an elder brother who gets it that life is tough for everyone, and aims to empower, on the song You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives, he gives young rappers tough love.
He doesn’t mince his words as he expresses his feelings about the state of Nigeria’s hip-hop scene. On the song, he’s derisive, sneering at rappers who forsake the essence of rap for pop fame. This is a common stance from rap OGs— how new-school rappers approach rap doesn’t make sense to the older generation as they believe in abiding by the rules of MCing, which the new crop of hip-hop artists seem to be living to break.
The song Last Night I Had a Dream About a Hummingbirdintroduces another barricade to our happiness, how in the era of social media we are constantly comparing ourselves with the thousands of people we see succeeding in our chosen field.
In the song, the artist speaks directly to the hummingbird, which is a metaphor for those of us who feel caged and held back by boundaries of our own making. As black people, we are psychologically enslaved by our history. Even though some of the limitations that were thrust upon us have been lifted, we still operate under slave mentality. That notion speaks to the layer we encountered on Do You Know Who You Are? Take Some Time and Meditate on You.
His tone is didactic but not judgemental when he raps: “Hummingbird, the door to your cages has been broken for ages and open just take it you’re moping and hoping on hope that you make it just float to that opening and go.”
The album, which lasts just 39 minutes, features skits between most of the songs in which the listener is treated to MI’s therapy session. He vents to a therapist, who helps him make sense of his frustrations. For instance, she tells him he can’t afford to take criticism personally and must expect to be shot down by his own protégés, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.
Even the most talented of MCs eventually fall from grace. MI reveals he’s been told he is not as good as he used to be. He’s ambivalent. On You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives, he feels he can’t hang up his mic, as there aren’t any rappers of this generation that he feels comfortable passing the baton on to, even though he feels he needs to retire as he has run his course.
He says rappers are bogus because they gas people up online for favours instead of working on their craft, as expressed in the song Another Thing! Do Not Be a Groupie. As much as the internet has virtually given all of us a voice, it has also turned us into pretentious individuals who massage the egos of those whose favour we seek.
But, like most of us, MI doesn’t have all the answers. He might have the coping mechanisms — self-love and positivity — on-lock, but he still hasn’t been able to pull himself out of the sunken place.
After peeling back the layers of the onion, exposing hints of mental illness, he spells it out on the second-last song of the album, The Self Evaluation of Yxng Dxnzl.
“I got some shit that I’ve been hiding,” he raps. “If my fanbase knew about it, it’d divide them. Cause I’m the one they put pride in. It’s exciting when they cite him. But they’d be different if they saw inside him. Here goes… I been battling a deep depression. I been pretending I can handle all of this pressure.”
In the same song, he reveals that his material possessions don’t fill the void in his life. He says that when the depression hits, he turns to vices, he doesn’t want to do interviews, he wants to take his bae to the beach, phone’s off, smoke, drink and fuck and party the pain away.
He admits his condition has made him an unpleasant individual, saying, “I can be the worst nigga sometimes.” Which is one of the least talked about aspects of mental illness, how one ends up hurting those around you, but in many cases, fail to take responsibility for your actions.
A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl speaks to the various factors that contribute to the rapper’s depression — our dark history of dealing with oppression, celebrity in the era of social media and the self-doubt that comes with it.
The album tells us that behind one of Africa’s finest lyricists is a vulnerable human being who’s just as flawed and troubled as many of us. And that there’s no shame in seeking help, as he does in the therapy sessions during which we are made to be a fly on the wall. We must, through everything we go through, carry our burdens and try our best to enjoy the joyful moments that life endows on us.