I still remember my very first album review. It was 2008, MI Abaga was new on the Lagos scene and “Talk About It” was the rave of the moment. It was a beautiful moment for Nigerian hip-hop and music in general and my long-winded review tried to translate this into words.

Hip-hop over here has evolved a lot ever since then. Several artistes run those streets now. MI has dropped several albums including mixtapes in between, “Illegal Music 3” being the latest, four years after the previous one.

For those who do not know, “Illegal Music 3″ isn’t really an album. It is a mixtape of uncleared samples and it goes for free. MI has repeatedly called it a labour of love and this is supposedly his last. Hate to disappoint you guys, but this also is not really a review. Just a bunch of disjointed observations, analyses and comparisons.

Most of MI’s projects have the same strong themes and MI deftly explores them. “Talk About It” was an introduction, opening up our consciousness, laced with tales of love, redemption and longing as well as the usual rapper braggadocio and taking shots at perceived haters and critics. Over these same years too, MI has evolved, still chasing these themes but focusing more on the hype, the bling and the jostle for the throne and less on social commentary. We listened to the “Chairman” album and for a moment, he was all so familiar and yet so distant some of us couldn’t recognize him anymore.

When I tweeted “Who else is looking forward to Illegal Music 3? (Of course we all know those are the “real” MI albums)” my sentiments echoed the anticipation of those who were lost during the last album. Thankfully, he has delivered and all is right again. IM3 is “real”, realer than whatever preceded it. Interestingly, most of the delivery on this mixtape is mellow, like rage restrained. And maybe because MI doesn’t have to focus on commercial beats, we get to hear his ‘voice’ more.

There is a lot to like about this project. I like the cheekiness in IM3. “The Box” is a tale of love and hip-hop with C.kay shining on the hook. “Sedi”, the Nina Simone sample is an ace. From the caption on the cover art that says ” We stole this picture from Tumblr” to the inclusion of Greg Hardy’s rude slap-down interview from YouTube on Track 5, clearly someone was having fun on this mixtape.

The samples are clean, they fit into his themes, but MI isn’t hungry anymore. He seems resigned, he is a king now, he’s just irritated. Rather than challenge us, he focuses on mild fury. There isn’t much experimentation. Little on here compares to the graceful production on Illegal Music 2’s “Lost” for instance or the lyrical gymnastics of “6ft 7ft”. Something doesn’t quite add up.

For nearly every track on this mixtape, there is another that bests it on his previous projects. Even the collaborations lack the diversity and versatility of IM2. Rather than let a bunch of young’uns run riot on our auditory senses, these feel like a bunch of elders nodding alongside the king. The only breakout star here seems to be Kaligraph Jones. We didn’t know who he was, now nearly everyone is noticing him, the same magic MI wrought effortlessly with a whole pack of firebrands on IM2.

IM3 is good, still chasing those extolling themes of encouragement, pleas, resentment and outright disdain. Nothing prepares your more for this than Tracks 1 and 2, intros to the finale. That subdued anger mentioned earlier explodes only in “Numbers” and then it fizzles away.

It is somehow fitting that one of the most recurring auditory motifs on IM3 is the ringing sound of a coin hitting a surface. Depending on where it pops up, it has various interpretations: a lyrical don disdainfully tossing coins to beggers, a rap god dispensing the monetary equivalent to what he thinks his critics’ opinions are worth, a guy down on his luck who tosses a coin and is so overcome to check the outcome. But the imagery I like most is that which comes to mind with that very same metallic ringing sound at the end of the last track “Remember Me”. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” wails to an end like on a jukebox and then it pops out, rejecting the coins we paid to listen at the start.

“Illegal Music 3” is free and the jukebox doesn’t want our money. It is a slap on our musical conscious. The artiste has dropped what he considers a masterpiece and the art is free. You can choose to be happy that he spares you the cost or offended that he shoves your pittance back to you (some of us still download legal music for free anyway). He just doesn’t care and I like that.
Except he does.

On “Imperfect Me” off his second studio album, MI includes a vocal montage of interviews where people talk about him. It is endearing in its honesty, he is willing to lay himself open on that dissection table. But if you take away anything from that clip, it is his underlying vindictiveness.
This by itself is not a flaw – we all have shades of this in our character. But where we would rather plot revenge and resort to machetes and arson, MI slaughters with his words. He doesn’t let the hurt go. Exhibit A: “F U” on IM2. Exhibit B: “NotJustOK/Savage” on IM3.
That track 5 is brilliant. I think it captures the production prowess I’ve always loved in the IM series. Even better, it samples a Nigerian song – the only one on this mixtape. We all know who he is talking about on that track. He excuses the bosses; the usual Ovie and Demola disclaimers apply. If you ain’t a hip-hop writer, a hip-hop DJ or hip-hop producer, he doesn’t respect your opinion of his craft. His very own words, not mine.

Funny. Guess who has been retweeting all the commendations from the very same people whose opinion he doesn’t respect? But don’t get me wrong, I am not beefing him for this. Like George Hardy, MI is saying “No comment, any other questions?” to everything that we say, and then closes it all with “Thank you guys for coming. I appreciate this all very much”
He’s saying “Here’s have your coin back”, paying you back in it as it is. Make no mistake, MI takes no prisoners. But in his haste to annex the landscape, he destroys the artifacts.

He will say this once and one time only. MI doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. And by not talking about it, he has got us talking about it more. And maybe that is the plan. Like a compliment in reverse.
IM3 keeps growing on me but it is no IM2 which still keeps revealing gems four years after its release. One constant, if you will, of MI’s discography is how in my opinion, his mixtapes have surpassed the albums that succeed them. Maybe I should feel sorry for whatever album comes next, because it will be compared maybe unfairly to this album.

This is not a review. One would need more listens to do it any justice. MI doesn’t care about criticism, so hopefully there will be no backlash from this post. I am after all a minion in the musical scene. Or maybe we are all just damn liars.

You will hear people repeatedly say IM3 is “faya” but let’s not forget that even cheap butane lighters produce same. MI is a Nigerian blowtorch. Next time (and there will be a next time, I hope) I expect a conflagration.