While it’s a joy to see that cypher culture is alive and well, thanks to consistent efforts such as Hennessy’s long-standing, annual cypher, these efforts in Nigeria don’t always hit the mark. In the past two years, fans have been graced with the good, the mid, and the awful, which makes it abundantly clear that there’s room for some growth.
Launched early last decade, the Hennessy cyphers took this pre-existing mode of informal rap collaboration to a higher level of popularity, becoming one of the marquee events many rap fans in Nigeria look forward to each year. In the last few years, however, the organisation and production quality of the cyphers deteriorated, and with that came a slump in interest from formerly excited viewers. Last year, however, things got a bit interesting for the scene, as a lot of people expected things to step up, on the heels of warning shots from another cognac brand, which eventually snowballed into the biggest rap beef in recent times.
Following an uninspired turn of events, however, the stakes were clearly higher for this year’s edition, and anything other than a fine showing would question Hennessy’s commitment to the growth of rap music in Nigeria. Fortunately and thankfully, they put in a commendable showing this time around. Last week, Hennessy shared three cyphers over three days (Wednesday to Friday), and it’s easily the best Hennessy cypher series in at least five years.
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Featuring Falz, M.I Abaga, Vector, Jesse Jagz, Phlow and more, the 2020 edition of the Hennessy cyphers brought together 12 Nigerian rappers grouped into apparent tiers. Aided by knocking beats courtesy of veteran producer, Chopstix, each rapper performed their verses in the company of tier colleagues, with sound mixing that kept their vocals loose enough to fit into the freewheeling, showboating nature of a cypher.
From the continued cordoning off indigenous rap artists (CDQ being the only one), to almost non-existent inclusion of female rappers, the Hennessy cyphers still have a long way to go in reflecting the diverse nature of rap music in Nigeria. These are issues that need to be addressed really soon, and while it does affect the enjoyability of the cyphers to anyone who wants more than the same old line-up characteristics, this year’s edition did provide some good verses and memorable moments.
Here’s a ranking of all 12 verses that graced the 2020 Hennessy cyphers.
Here’s the thing, I like Kendrick Lamar, A LOT. The Compton-born rap superstar has grown into one of the most innovative auteurs and lyricists in recent times, so it’s only appropriate that he’s influenced a slew of rappers. But influencing doesn’t mean sounding like a direct copy. Barrylane is a direct Kendrick copy, and it’s distracting enough to put several bumps into his locomotive flow. Maybe it’s little of his fault, after all, we don’t get to choose our natural vocal tone, but at the same time Barry’s schtick seems like he memorised every inflection and vocal tick on ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ and decided to regurgitate them. There’s some interesting schemes in his verse, but… that voice.
(Memorable bars: “I’m assasinator, I don’t knock on doors/I pass the chimney but fully gifted like Santa Claus”)
In a line-up alongside Falz and Show Dem Camp, CDQ seemed like a fish on dry land. Entering the limelight as a make of hit singles, CDQ has never fronted himself as a fang-bearing lyricist looking to shred beats apart with raw technique, so his posturing here seemed a bit comical. As a street-bred rapper, there’s a very high chance he participated in his fair share of rap battles, but it’s clearly been a while since he played in this sort of arena. Don’t get me wrong, his raps are adequate and the growl he employs is occasionally intriguing, but it doesn’t take too much to see that the seams are a bit off.
(Memorable bars: “I move as like, don’t want nobody bringing hell on me/ti’n ba lo ku l’eni, o d’ola won ma p’elomi” [“If I get killed today, someone else will get killed tomorrow])
10. Jesse Jagz
It’s 2020 and Jesse Jagz is still going, “characteristics of ballistics when I spit it/it’s parasitic, acidic, pacific, carries eou with it”. Depending on who you ask, this sequence is either the entry to an unknown portal, or it’s pointless and verbose. Maybe the actual answer is in between, because Jesse Jagz has worked himself into something of a mystical dark knight who only appears to work musical miracles, but if you peek in a bit closer, his lyricism can be winded and vacuous. Jesse’s best weapon is still his ability to traffic in riveting flows, which he does a monster job of on his verse, but his raps don’t have the same compelling effect.
(Memorable bars: “Can’t shake it, the flow is jaded/apparel for those who naked, hope for those who didn’t make it/the flow is initiated, body and spirit, take it”)
9. Ghost (Show Dem Camp)
As far as pure technical brilliance when it comes to lyricism, Ghost is near peerless in all of Africa (Stogie T is the only one I put on the same pedestal, IYKYK). In less than 60 seconds, the Titanic wordsmith packs expected brilliance into his verse, leaning into the commanding baritone of his voice as he drops a phenomenal Frank Lucas reference, and takes aim at mumble rap, calling it “shenanigans” like the chastising uncle that he is. (Disclaimer: I like “mumble” rap.) Usually, Ghost is adept at bending a beat to his will, but on this occasion, there are a few moments his flow is choppy, almost like he can’t control his aggression to stay perfectly on beat.
(Memorable bars: “All these artificial intelligence rappers/claiming they making moves, mistaking motion for action/this is rap vigilantism from the African garrison, far from your mumble rap shenanigans”)
In a male-dominated English rap space, Str8buttah affiliate, Phlow used to feel a need to justify her place as the only woman amongst the guys. Having eased herself out of that pressure, she’s a lot more confident and comfortable playing by her own rules, and she sounds very much like the rejuvenated artist in the cypher. Right from the moment she opens her mouth, her verse unfolds like a Michelle Obama speech: articulate, poised, and dripping with so much swagger, Soulja Boy would grin with pride. She flips between casual livewire schemes and insouciant pidgin-infused raps, taking Chopstix’s groovy beat on the ride of its life.
(Memorable bars: “I mean, it’s obvious I shoot for the kill/I couldn’t care for the way the rest of them feel/two hands to the wheel, driving them crazy/been unfair with the skill”)
7. Payper Corleone
Payper Corleone’s “Don” shtick can come across a bit over-flogged, but when he’s at full tilt, he can sound quite engaging and entertaining, as he does in this year’s cypher. A regular name at cyphers and freestyles, Payper is a highly respected lyricist amongst peers and rap fans in the country, partly because he hearkens back to the “real hip-hop” ideals of the ‘90s. As last year’s ‘Fly Gangsta from the ‘90s’ showed, he’s evolving into a mix of those sensibilities and something more recognisable to the average Nigerian. For his verse, he shows how far he’s gone into that evolution, spinning a verse marked by loose, infectious flow, without slacking on the bars.
(Memorable bars: “Real life, we don’t go off hype/no pressure, dropped jewels and the flow caught nice/all my collabs dem dey go alright, because the flow so smooth like breeze wey dey blow from bike”)
6. Teeto Ceemos
Teeto Ceemos’ cypher verse is a fever dream for rap fans who understand pop culture and hip-hop-related references and can appreciate when they’re used impressively. He opens with a sinister summon of the Michael Jordan-centred documentary, “The Last Dance”, later going religious, then switching to a “Game of Thrones” callback, which eventually transforms into a sequence involving mentions for some of the greatest rap diss tracks of all time. With all of these inspiration sources, there’s an indelible directness leaking out of his bars, with Teeto’s commanding voice ensuring that every line rings out as loud as the preceding ones. Hope Hennessy paid that 2k.
(Memorable Bars: “My comments and my mentions filled with unworthy opponents/an idol to my rivals, this is your moment of atonement/Ice Cube with the flow, stay focused it’s higher learning/take your sandals off, you can smell the bush burning”)
5. M.I Abaga
M.I Abaga is a man who loves making moments. Following his viral beef with Vector, and his very public denouncement of the shoddiness of the Hennessy cyphers, his return was another moment for a rapper who’s maintained well over a decade of dominance on Nigeria’s rap scene. In the last two years, M.I has taken to cyphers and freestyles his means of airing grievances, but with no rivals to swing at, he takes the opportunity to address several pertinent issues, namely: the end of his beef with Vector, why we should all be feminists, Black Lives Matter, and the need for the #EndSARS protests to snowball into change via election polls. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but there are very few rap artists adept at being topical than M.I. While he sacrifices the clever edge he usually brings (e.g. that Ruga line on ‘Martell Cypher 2’), it doesn’t prove detrimental to his performance.
(Memorable bars: “And by the way, we all should be feminist/no man should be offended by women empowered and outspoken/who try to fix the country that rapes them and leaves them broken/we should fight for all our women instead of trying to provoke them”)
4. Vader the Wildcard
At full tilt, Vader the Wildcard raps like he’s annoyed by the notion that there’s any other rapper better skilled at weaving words and entendres together. Since winning the Hennessy VS Class competition in 2017, he’s been playing around with varying facets of his creative skill-set, but his head rattling cypher verse reinforces the notion that he’s at his most viscerally dazzling when he’s ripping through beats unencumbered. Vader’s verse is like watching Thor casually pulling down thunder with Mjolnir in order to smack the shit out of an opposition army. For about a minute, Vader sounds casually invincible, and in that duration it does sound like there’s no better rap lyricist around these parts.
(Memorable bars: “It’s the wildcard making sure you niggas have a bad day/band aid ripping gorrila, I’m on a rampage/champagne sipping with chicks that look like Tinnashe/sashay through opposition like the apache”)
3. Tec (Show Dem Camp)
Tec raps like he’s in a constant moment of clarity. Fewer rappers have the ability to say what they mean in exact words while sounding downright imperial. Partnering with a rapper who’s lyrical technique is near insurmountable, Tec has mastered the art of being artfully plain and constantly intriguing to listen to. Coming in after Ghost’s slightly fumbled rampage, Tec enters with the assured poise and nimbleness of 2012 Lionel Messi bearing down on goal. He employs a staccato flow that hugs Chopstix’s drums at the beginning, and peels away for an eye-widening salvo in the second half, culminating in a masterclass on being self-reverential without the need for unnecessary embellishments.
(Memorable bars: “With the pen I’m Joe Pesci/imagine me tryna spar with the best rapper in Lekki/that’s like, young Iwobi trying to measure with to Messi/it won’t gel”)
The best line of the entire cypher belongs to Vector tha Viper. “My neo-Black movement will slow bullets” is the sort of phenomenal entendre that will crack your jaw open, but maybe the best part is that Vector raps the line so casually, almost as though he’s jogging past so you can catch him. A lot of the time, Vector has a thing for overcomplicating his simplest lines, and overdramatising the complex ones. What’s stunning about his verse is that he does neither, unspooling each line with the same unceremonious vigour that makes the entire thing feel instantly special. Darting from pro-Black sentiments, to jibes at the colonial effects still plaguing Nigeria, and plain old self-exhortation, Vector’s verse is loaded without being tedious to listen to, covering a lot of ground while remaining enjoyable.
(Memorable bars: “Don’t get lost in my English story, shebi Naija na English glory/I may decide to rap in English only, the slave master pushed English on me/your weak shots can only miss me/Twitter hate won’t ignore or free me…dem carry V for head lime Don Jazzy DP”)
Very often, rappers get so carried away with extolling their greatness in cyphers, that they forget there’s listeners on the receiving end not only looking to be wowed, but also looking to be entertained. This the reason Falz’s verse is the best of the bunch in this year’s Hennessy cyphers. On more than a few occasions, Falz has shown he’s comfortable on the “traditional” rap tip (see: “Chardonnay Music” and much of Moral Instruction), but it’s his comic persona, complete with the Brother Taju inflections, that pops up on this cypher. Without mincing words, it’s instantly refreshing and thrilling.
Falz has always carried himself as the people’s rapper, and on a platform where other colleague is trying to prove they’re a rapper’s (or hip-hop head’s) rapper, this distinction differentiates him. In his verse, he’s as playful as he self-assured, coming across like he was genuinely having fun while rapping, instead of trying to prove any unnecessary points. He doesn’t fall into the trap of feigning aggression, choosing to assert himself through a familiar, entertaining route. For a moment, Falz considers his legacy, a weighty topic to broach in a cypher; but if there’s any encapsulation of his best self as a rap artist, this phenomenal verse is the moment.
(Memorable bars: “I’m classy to my taste buds, my choice of brown is Hennessy/I’m the type of man to buy a house before I buy some necklaces/I no dey brag, I dey show wetin I back”)
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite mumble rap songs @dennisadepeter