In the years since he first dropped Ghost Mode and first tasted mainstream success, Phyno has ridden the crests and troughs of the local rapper movement and has emerged triumphant, easily recognisable as one of the biggest stars in the country. The fact that he raps or sings predominantly in the Igbo has been of no impediment to his rise to the top of the music food chain.
But as Phyno’s stardom has risen, the same cannot be said of the quality of his music. Sure he is presently at the height of his popularity and songs like Connect and Fada Fada have been relentless in their total takeover of radio, clubs and every single pop chart of note.
But the difference in quality between Ghost Mode and say, Fada Fada is as different as night and day. Where Ghost Mode is easily recalled as a hip hop classic, hard hitting and punchy as a shot of vodka, the latter is diluted commercial fare without even pretensions to the decent song writing that the former aspired to.
His sophomore album, The Playmaker is aptly if conventionally titled. Phyno is more an entertainer these days, a certified hit maker who can breathe life and conjure up listenable status to the blandest of songs.
Structurally, The Playmaker is not really a rap album. For as Phyno’s star has grown, so has his musical tastes. His sound has widened to accommodate other influences and he has dedicated himself to making Igbo Folk and Highlife music appealing to the widest audience that he possibly attract.
Not an ignoble mission but purists and fans of the rapper in Phyno cannot help but be a tad disappointed at his choices. From time to time, Phyno will remember that audience and will throw them a bone. He does so at irregular bursts on The Playmaker and by God does he still have it. The problem is, hard core rap is unlikely to summon up the riches and fame and Phyno makes a decision that is perfectly understandable.
Phyno’s name isn’t likely to come up in best rapper discussions these days but clearly he hasn’t gotten the memo. Over a Major Bangz throwback beat, he flexes some rap muscle before cheekily describing himself the Best Rapper. Beyond the empty brags though, Phyno makes a case for his career choices. He picks money over awards and prefers the comfort of staying local to the unknown Badlands of going international.
Link Up is a wank fest featuring the skills of MI and Burna Boy who holds his own amidst two solid rap heads. Abulo goes by way of Alobam to serve a fantastic head bobbing throwback to power rap verses. However, past the halfway point, The Playmaker begins to suffer diminishing returns and the less than inspired fare like I’m a fan and So far so good follow in quick succession highlighting weaknesses in the arrangement.
The opening cut Yes I Pray sets a hopeful tone that the rest of the record builds on. It is a sweet sing song spiritual highlife ditty thanking God for graces received. Phyno sings and raps his way to a reckoning with the almighty. It also follows the routine my-life-up-till-now narrative that artistes have decided must form part of their records.
E sure for me mixes prayer, Afrobeat and Highlife in an intoxicating blend that begs to be performed live. The excellent gyration stunner Obiagu instantly transports you to the warm embrace of the East and recalls days spent soaking in alcohol and watching masquerades glide by.
When a title like Financial Woman comes to mind, one can easily imagine Psquare singing the chorus and bragging about spending themselves silly over a girl that was just made to chop their money. The song itself is pretty uneven but if anyone can turn a hit out of subpar material, it is Psquare. Oh and Phyno too.
Phyno tries for the love songs with Pino Pino and sings his way to the heart of his lady love. The electric guitar and Phyno’s uplifting delivery are a fine mix. He lets his guard down and apologises for bad behaviour on the heartfelt Mistakes. The Elegant Stallion herself, Onyeka Onwenu is a surprise guest on Ochie Dike and submits soothing if uneven vocals to this love letter to mama.
The Playmaker is a big sprawling, glossy, messy but ultimately worthwhile outing. It is a project that can only come from a star at the peak of his fame, confident that his audience will be quick to forgive his excesses. And they are many. The disc does not aspire to perfection, wears it flaws proudly and seeks legitimacy in its failings. Do not be afraid to be human or to take risks, Phyno seems to be saying. And have fun while at it. The Playmaker is plenty fun.
Download/Stream the full album here