Pop Culture

The Gospel of Ladipoe

by Carl Terver

The rapper Ladipoe has pursued a “revival” evangelism for a while and it appears he has finally put the puzzle together. Puzzle because the rap genre he climbs the rostrum for—especially English-language rap—has always faced a stonewall for its performers in Nigeria. His recent EP Providence, whose title matches his revival-evangelistic posture, is a long-awaited arrival, for him and his fans and, even, one can add, the rapper’s redemption for breaking into the mainstream.

At its current success, we don’t need an album to be convinced of Ladipoe’s gospel which he has brought in this latest EP. Although, he sermonizes that his breakthrough is God’s engineering, since his first outings in features and the eventual release of his 2018 mixtape Talk About Poe (T.A.P.), his genius has never been in question, enough to impress Don Jazzy in the early days to sign him, a rapper, to Mavin Records. His 2019 Lord of the Revival (LOTR) cypher showed his unequivocal mastery in rap music with an incredible symmetry of wordplay—“…I always see the Judas / in people they call disciples . . . Loading up more cartridges / Like an old Nintendo collection”—that if you met Poe for the first time on it you’d give him an award instantly. But you’d be left with a question, too: how to break through with such hardcore, English-language rap. At the end of the last decade, however, our music industry went through an explosion as a result of the international scaling of Afrobeats. In the new decade, our music has sealed its global currency; its celebration, even more at home, in what seems like the final lap of a musical cultural revolution, it is the best of times, and Ladipoe finds himself in a right time and place, to pursue his revival.

Whether it was providence or not, Ladipoe’s lockdown single “Know You” parted the red sea. Always been the lover boy with romantic lines, as seen in songs like “One Step Closer” and “Falling” from T.A.P. mixtape, and “Are You Down” featuring Tiwa Savage, “Know You” was a slight departure from base rap into R&B; its subject matter, the coyness between admiring lovers, held wide appeal and won many. It became a lockdown ditty and its #knowyouchallenge popularised via Tiktok ultimately made the song a hit. But the cinch for Poe is the now household “Feeling” collab with Nigeria’s platinum crooner Buju which has grossed a cumulative of over 62 million streams on Audiomack, Spotify, and YouTube. Monumental for any Nigerian rapper who almost came out of a niche. Quite surprising, we think it is partly what Poe means, unable to explain the turnout, when he says on LOTR II: “I can’t explain my recent moment of clarity.”

Such clarity is what has given us Poe’s slim 6-song EP. A roster of two love songs, Law Of Attraction, and Love Essential featuring rising act Amaarae; an almost gospel-themed Providence, the last track; LOTR II; and the winning, upbeat Afropop Afro Jigga and Running featuring Rema and Fireboy DML respectively, where Poe performs what every rapper in their element are cursed for: dealing punchlines and bragging. The features are well thought out, with two of Nigeria’s finest Afrobeats ambassadors. The track Running has already become a theme song espousing the spirit of the age: “There’s no time, there’s no energy, I’m just running, running . . . .” It seems from these two songs—as Poe says in Afro Jigga, “they say our music is opening doors you can never close,” and as Fireboy DML sings of Afrobeats, which he has taken international—that Poe’s success is a paean to Afrobeats.

The journey of Poe’s arrival sits at the heart of this new EP and it is where I also engage it most intimately. Beneath the sheen of braggadocio and Poe’s great lines and emceeing—as his “crown don dey bend from the stress”—is a humbling experience at success which he, faithfully, only imagines as the work of divine architecture. It is an experience mostly a Nigerian rapper, or writer, braving the tides of non-acceptance in our clime, fully understands. In LOTR cypher, Poe hints at this when he says “Nobody has your drive . . . this is Nigeria, we all know there’s no lanes, only toll gates.” Where is the place of a rapper and an outlier in such jungle? It is such fears that is expressed in LOTR II. In the world of 2020 lockdown which initially appeared as a threat to artistes’ careers, an O.G. rapper like Poe felt he’d miss relying on fans alone to make it in a world thirsty for only viral content: “I hate the irony of COVID-19 arrival / On a generational already obsessed with everything going viral / Think that I’d miss the days when only fans were disciples . . .” The truer irony is that going viral boosted his career in the same year.

Many references to LOTR because the cypher was full of prophecy. So once again in it, we hear Poe: “I don’t see the competition in people they call my rivals.” Rappers may debate him but from his vantage, he has remained faithful to his words and carved a style and persona for himself that has brought him where he is presently. “The secret to longevity is always you write the narrative,” he says. This hints that Poe is ready to sacrifice and deliberately work on his craft to arrive at what works. Thus, for him, there is “no point indicating when I’m about to switch lanes / Man they call it sacrifice, what the hell did you expect?” These words are also his response to discouragement, when he’s told to “abort mission, get a plan B,” and asked why he stays believing his rap career. His answer to them: “It’s like why get a shape up / You know your hair’s receding / It’s like why you show love / You know you never receive it/ It’s like why I pray to God / Even though I’ve never seen Him.” Because in his words, “Faith never needs a reason.”

Poe’s position parallels the Marxist rapper A-Q, who’s had notable success this year with his EP Golden. On the first track “Abraham’s Blessings,” the latter rapper attributes his arrival to God: “Waited for God’s call now it’s game time / Delay was not denial my life is an example / When trials become triumph, kept my faith in the Bible . . .” It is easier to believe A-Q than Poe because of the former’s less mass appeal. Similarly, it is uncritical to sum their success as the work of grace, considering the work and talent invested, and business side of the game of making music; except we borrow their evangelic tongue and agree both rappers are being rewarded by the works of their hands, by keeping faith. To have made it as rappers, is what finally makes Poe’s Providence EP a celebration of triumph against the philistinism on talent and outliers in Nigeria.

Poe’s triumph isn’t just about breaking even in the music industry, but in entirety, of breaking the chains of Nigerian oppression. The songs “Running” and “Providence” embody this spirit more—the former a vent, the latter, praise. In the sprightly beats of Running, which has an upbeat tempo of protest, vexation, and youthful energy, comes Poe’s exasperation having made it this far in his life and career: “Even though the country don dey tire me / I dey catch cruise Eko Miami / If only bad news could be bribed, take all my money.” But even with the gusto and spirit he delivers the lines, there’s really no promise of things getting better in the country; where each man focuses on his hustle, he “really no dey see your face” and switch lanes without indicating. But all this frustration diminuendoes to a sigh when he says, “God, when will I be the one they imitate?” This is where his thanks to God in the gospel-themed track Providence celebrates his triumph; he needs not worry about fears of oblivion or failure. After a brief interlude of gospel rhythm, at the 2 mins 11 secs play time, is the answer to his prayer as Poe rejoices, “I made it.”

And indeed, he has. Poe is the narrative. He has been on a spree of shows throughout December. With this EP, he has shown how to do rap in Nigeria, not only for hip-hop heads, but for the pleasure of a wider audience, even for Nigerian kids bopping to his sound. Providence EP is majestic. An inspiration. A testament. It is a defiance to principalities, be it Nigeria or the cold flames on dreaming. For a rapper who imagined himself as “the last of a dying breed” on Revival, a song from his 2018 T.A.P. mixtape, Providence EP sings and embodies a new gospel as Poe enthrones his much-proclaimed revival. But you knew that.  

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.