ALBUM REVIEW: Jidenna Paves the Way for Retro-Afro-Futurism on ‘85 to Africa’

The Nigerian-American hip-hop crooner continues his trendsetting path.

I have to admit, my ulterior motive for writing about Jidenna’s new album, 85 to Africa, is that I also get to write about one of my favorite tunes from the last couple of years, even though it’s not on this album. “Bambi,” featured on Jidenna’s 2017 album, The Chief, set the stage for some refreshing stylistic forks in the pop music highway, that he continues to travel down today.

By looking backward toward Harry Belefonte-style calypso and other mid-century crooners for inspiration, and layering it over trap-inspired 808s and skittering sprinkler high-hats, “Bambi” offered a new direction for hip-hop and R&B.

What made “Bambi” even more alluring is the inclusion of other African vocalists on the remix. “Bambi Too” featured Sarkodie (Ghana) and Maleek Berry (UK-born Nigerian), alongside Quavo from Migos. I say “other” because Jidenna himself is half Nigerian and spent part of his childhood there.

There are two trends at play in that 2017 song that travel through to this new album, but before I get to that I’d like to point out that Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack (2018) and Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift (2019) both feature a number of African vocalists, making Jidenna something of a trendsetter.

85 to Africa continues down that road, featuring appearances by African artists Seun Kuti (the youngest son of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti) and afrobeat star Mr. Eazi (also Nigerian). The retro-futuristic layering of throwback crooner style with modern sounds is in the mix too. “Sufi Woman” is based on an early ‘60s French pop sample of Françoise Hardy’s “La Fille Avec Toi” with added 808 kicks, over which Jidenna croons a dreamy exotica love song. “Vaporiza” has a classic afro-pop feel while Jidenna sings to a love interest, conflating her with THC consumption. 

Overall, 85 to Africa contains some landmark moments, but is not consistently compelling. The concept of taking the Black Star bus down interstate 85 from Atlanta to Africa can be felt as the album generally progresses from contemporary hip-hop early on to more African-styled tracks in the second half; but there are places where the music smooths out into adult-contemporary territory, leaving me wishing it would veer further off the beaten path.

Jidenna’s influence can be felt across the industry, and it’s a good one. I look forward to more retro-Afro-futurism coming down the road.

Score: 🌍🌍🌍🌍 / 5