Long before there were Olamide, Young John the Wicked Producer and the YBNL crew, Don Jazzy, D’Banj and the Mo Hits crew were the culture’s most interesting hit makers. Before anyone else though, JJC reigned supreme. First with Big Brovaz, for a while, together with his 419 Squad, and then alone as a solo artiste and producer. While hunting in the London underground, JJC once served as mentor and guide to a then unknown D’Banj before deciding to move back to Nigeria after his international career stalled.
His life and career- from his origins in Kano state to his stint in London and eventual return to Lagos- would take up at least an album’s worth of space but JJC (born Abdul Rasheed Bello) restricts this narrative considerably to the opening single My Life off his freshly released Skillz album.
Going solo suits him well and with Skillz, JJC has put out one of the most rewarding and enjoyable pop albums this year yet. An industry veteran who has tasted both sides of the fame complex, JJC understands what is at stake and does not flinch on the quality of his recording while ensuring a good time is had by all.
His musical influences are rich and varied and he generously shows them off to fine effect. He peppers the disc with modern techno updates- electro, funk- on anthems like International African and club friendly fare like Handle your drink and Motiwa (with Olamide). In some instances, it appears JJC is trying to overcompensate in his bid to prove his connection with the millennial generation when he throws in the lukewarm Social network, an obvious contemplation of loving and dating in the era of Facebook, Tinder et al.
Skillz isn’t an all-out Hip hop album. It is however what qualifies as one these days when an emotional Drake outsells everyone else and Eminem and 50 Cent are embracing their inner vocalists. JJC raps in most of the songs-and he does it competently too- but he also sing songs some choruses and verses generously.
Seyi Shay is on hand to help out on the bumpy Yes/No and Praiz’s stellar vocal turn is the star of the pseudo-spiritual Forget me not, not unlike his work on MI’s Epic. Victoria Kimani for once, gives a fair account of herself even though she is eventually outclassed by JJC himself on the middling Shikena. Elsewhere a surprise guest Kate Henshaw turns in a shaky verse on the super patriotic See us now, a look-at-us-now comparative analysis in which JJC finds beauty in the Nigerian spirit despite the odds.
There is something for the lovers too. Save the last dance is a playful pop ditty where JJC plays the accommodating lover patiently waiting for the last dance while Somebody loves you is essentially a love note to his daughter.
Splashes of experimentation are sprinkled across the disc. Previously released Eru borrows too much from contemporary Nigerian pop routines to stand out but it is going to be almost impossible to forget the mish-mash of sounds and styles that make up the cut and sew feel good splash of African skank. JJC goes all Naija for Feeling you and it is no surprise that with its multiple refrains of gba gba dun dun, this emerges one of the disc’s weakest cuts.
JJC shows his age as a child of the eighties by updating New Edition’s disco delight, Cool it off, this time with unlikely collaborators in Skales, Vector and a promising singer Justina. This eighties disco flavour also returns in Shikena.
Music doesn’t have to be terrible just because it comes packaged in pop coverings and JJC’s Skillz is here to prove that. For an industry big on youth and always on the lookout for the next flavour of the month, Skillz also offers lessons for artistes on how to evolve musically while still retaining that core feel good sound that is necessary to conquer the pop charts. Properly arranged, well written and tidily mixed and mastered, the songs on Skillz point to an artiste who knows exactly what a pop album is about and how to go about putting together a solid one.
Skillz has its weaknesses but it is a rock solid effort.
- Wilfred Okiche (@DrWill20)