The Everlasting Resonance Of 2Face’s ‘Face2Face’

2 decades of 2Face's inimitable legacy

From the very beginning, Innocent Idibia was feted as the great hope of Nigerian pop post-1999. And if you need proof of 2Face’s exalted reputation from that era, just press play on Eeedris Abdulkareem’s scorching diss song, “Wackawikee MCs,”  off his 2002 solo debut album, ‘Pass,’ where he fired shots at all the leading figures of Nigerian music from the late ‘90s to the early aughts with reckless abandon.  Of all the artists mentioned across the venomous five-minute record – Eddy Remedy, Tony Tetuila, and Blackface – only 2Face was spared the Kano-born artist’s ire. Instead 2Face received a compliment; Abdulkareem playfully described him as the Plantashun – a play on the name of the iconic boy band – with the rest of his band members described as Boiz. 

Something about 2Face always stood out as the heart of Plantashun Boiz, the three-man band that played a critical role in revolutionizing Nigerian pop. Between his boyish good looks, undeniable songwriting chops, and a mellifluous vocal style that ranged between heartfelt crooning and chest-thumping gusto, the Jos-born singer had a charisma  that made him the de-facto poster boy for a new generation of singers not irreparably traumatised by the years of military rule and the economic hardship that resulted from undemocratic rulership. 

At the tail-end of  “Wackawikee MCs,” amidst the bluster of a long-winded post-script, Eedris Abdulkareem would lay down the gauntlet in a way that would have far-reaching consequences for Nigerian pop music in the coming years, daring the Plantashun Boiz to release solo albums to test out who had the most traction of the band’s three members. Abdulkareem’s taunt landed on already-tense ground due to a build-up of unresolved issues among the group’s members, and even the release of  ‘Sold Out,’ the band’s sophomore album, could not stop their eventual splintering. 

Just two years after “Wackawikee MCs,” 2Face would be the first of the Plantashun Boiz to put out a solo album, turning in ‘Face2Face,’ a landmark album released under Kennis Music in 2004  that would reshape the fabric of Nigerian pop from top to bottom. At that time, Kennis Music was an absolute behemoth that was at the pinnacle of the music business in Nigeria while 2Face, undoubtedly talented, was fresh out of a boy band and hoping to make his mark as a solo artist. He desperately needed a win to validate his decision to leave the Plantashun Boiz and ‘Face2Face,’ rich with an almost-diaristic journaling of his day-to-day life, his imperfections, and dreams, would prove an ace. 

While with Plantashun Boiz, 2Face had the steady hands of Nelson Brown who helped the group develop their signature blend of Hip-Hop, R&B, and Soul music imbued with a Nigerian essence. Alone, the singer was going to have to figure out a way to bring his musical ideas to life without the figure who helped guide the earliest parts of his recording career. To work on ‘Face2Face,’ 2Face would team up with storied producer, OJB Jezreel, whose studio in Surulere was fast becoming a well-established destination for some of the most forward-thinking Nigerian music of that era. By the time 2Face sought out OJB to start work on  ‘Face2Face,’ the producer was already widely-regarded as one of Nigeria’s most inventive producers, receiving praise for his experimental work with distinctive percussive patterns and electric riffs that imbued the Hip-Hop they were making with an unmistakable Nigerian flavor. 

If 2Face was undoubtedly Nigerian pop’s biggest star-in-waiting, he was also one of the scene’s most visibly-criticized figures of that era. Reports about his personal life, supposed moral failings, and messy dealings with the Plantashun Boiz  regularly made the news and became national talking points.  ‘Face2Face’ provided an opportunity for the singer to address his critics and naysayers, and it’s an opportunity that he gleefully took on the pensive lead-off, “Nfana Ibaga,” while promising, “I go bare my mind/ I go bare am black and white.” There’s a host of issues being discussed on the song: the ridicule he experienced for not completing his education and the prevailing view that he’d never get married due to his messy sexual history are just some of the most pointed criticisms 2Face runs through. Atop OJB’s percussion-heavy instrumental, the singer delivered a melodic masterclass as he clinically deconstructed the claims against him and gave a window into his future plans for domination. 

While the bigger point about ‘Face2Face’ was 2Face’s grand debut as a solo voice, the subtext of the project was the sort of experimental sonic direction that he could take as he was no longer working within the strictures of a band. A lot of the biggest Plantashun Boiz songs drew from an R&B and Soul template that was both dreamy and lulling. On ‘Face2Face,’ 2Face still draws from that background but with a slight twist. Hip-Hop’s typical form and texture are adapted to assert his independence while relying on the unique tone of his voice, his usage of language, and OJB’s spirited production to translate the Nigerian experience effectively. 

It was a trick that worked even when he was emoting about the redemptive powers of romance as he does on “Ole.” Sing-rapping about a woman’s hold on him, 2Face sounds genuinely at a loss, mouthing off lines like, “You don’t even make me feel like your number one.” Well-regarded rapper, Freestyle, contributed a verse to the song that’s a clever wink to the 2Face-against-the-world narrative that bleeds through ‘Face2Face.’ By this point in his career, 2Face already had a well-earned reputation as a lothario of sorts and, on ‘Face2Face,’ he attempts to do away with that perception with a variety of romantic slow burners. “Right Here” is a throwback to the boyish charm of his Plantashun Boiz days but it was the guitar-laden ballad, “African Queen,” that captivated a generation of listeners. 

Amidst the hyper-machismo and lyrical competition of post-1999 Nigerian pop, not many had attempted to make a song dedicated to – and made for – women. Everything about “African Queen” course-corrected that gaping hole. From the opening guitar strums to 2Face’s breathless upper-reaching vocals and the tenderness of his syrupy lyrics about the abiding appeal of African women, it was a song unmistakably made for and about one primary audience. Rather than alienate listeners due to the specificity of that approach, “African Queen” eventually spread beyond the shores of Africa and became a rallying cry for black love everywhere, earning 2Face international acclaim and the MTV Europe Music Award for Best African Act in 2005 – an important liftoff point for the global assimilation of Afropop. 

For all of the celebratory motifs on Face2Face,’ it is still primarily a product of its society and a reflection of the time period it emerged from. 2004 was just five years from the end of military rule and there were – and are – still visible signs of that era’s trauma. Everyone with a gun in early 2000s Nigeria effectively existed as judge, jury, and executioner; no one displayed this inherently brutal trait more than the Nigerian police who had built a reputation for heavy-handedness and reckless behavior. The skits on ‘Face2Face’ reflect the time and, one in particular, “Police (Skit),” shines a light on the duplicity of the police and the widespread distrust many Nigerians have for the police force. Twenty years on, not much has changed from the exact scenario described in  “Police (Skit).” The Nigerian police still lurk in dark corners and are broadly indistinguishable from armed robbers in their manner of operations and demeanor.  It is a sobering fact that lends another layer of prescience to ‘Face2Face.’ 

Five years out from a brutal military dictatorship, Nigeria was on the path to healing but things were still far from perfect. Poverty and institutional rot still persisted but music was a salve; and in 2004, 2Face was there to administer it.  Across the 11 songs on ‘Face2Face,’ he was urging his audience to love deeply, find a semblance of peace, or just get on with the groove in the middle of whatever problems were besetting them. Keep on Rocking is an instructive listen in this regard. It is an urgent party floor summons that both entertained and reassured with the opening line, “Nothing dey happen.” It is the sort of bacchanal-invigorating jam that a plethora of artists would aspire to create in the year to come even if their creations would never touch the dexterity of 2Face’s original.

For all the angsty energy that birthed ‘Face2Face,’ its closing stretch seemingly sees 2Face in more relaxed spirits as he settles into a meditative state. A Yoruba panegyrical stretch leads to soulful supplication onThank U Lord,” a heartfelt tearjerker that revealed 2Face’s spiritual inclinations as he attributed his success to a supreme being while delivering part of his second verse in his Udoma native language. The final song of the album,Odi Ya,” is similarly sung in Udoma and features a verse from erstwhile Plantashun Boiz co-member, Blackface. 

The release of ‘Face2Face’ heralded a new epoch in Nigerian music as 2Face lasered his way to the top of the scene’s taxonomy thanks to slick melodies distilled from the skeleton of Hip-Hop, R&B, and soul that bore an easily distinguishable Nigeria marker. Working with OJB Jezreel, the album launched 2Face’s solo career and instantly placed him in rarified air. There was no doubt that the songs on the album were good but what stood out was the narrative of an eminent talent inviting his listeners along for a project-length incursion into his life while dealing with the maladies of a nation rising from ashes. Without ‘Face2Face,’ there is no integrated vision of Afropop that directly leads to the lineage that births Wande Coal’s ‘Mushin 2 Mo’Hits,’ Wizkid’s ‘Superstar,’ or Rema’s ‘Rave & Roses.’ In 2004, with his back to the wall, 2Face returned with a genre classic for the ages that created a template for the present and future of Afropop–and cemented his legend for all ages. 

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]