Revisiting 2Baba’s Face2Face


Music Video of ‘African Queen’ by 2Face Idibia. THE REPUBLIC.


Revisiting 2Baba’s Face2Face

Exactly 20 years ago, 2Baba came into the fullness of his potential on his debut solo album, Face2Face. A masterclass of form and feeling, the album continues to thrill and inform.

Music Video of ‘African Queen’ by 2Face Idibia. THE REPUBLIC.


Revisiting 2Baba’s Face2Face

Exactly 20 years ago, 2Baba came into the fullness of his potential on his debut solo album, Face2Face. A masterclass of form and feeling, the album continues to thrill and inform.

Picture this: a verse four years into the 2000s, emerging onto a populated music scene yet managing to sound like it was everything. Like nothing else mattered. And truly, nothing else did, not while 2Baba, formerly known as 2Face Idibia, rapped that verse that started with the words, ‘I’m coming out straight this time’. ‘Nfana Ibaga’, which was the second record on Face2Face, after a skit-esque intro, signified a new shift in Nigerian music. It showed how a singer could merge his aspirations with that of the larger society, in language true but also technical, scoring associative points from nearby forms. For 2Baba, that form was primarily Hip-Hop. On this album he utilized the stylistic hallmarks of the genre to satisfying levels; his features also keyed into the vision. Twenty years later, deep into the second generation of superstars after 2Baba, Nigerian musicians—consciously and otherwise—are still influenced by 2Baba’s selective pairing of sounds and sensibilities, attempting to paint the human condition with as much verve.  

In the late 1990s, the need arose for local record labels to fill the void left by their foreign counterparts. Previously operating in Nigeria, labels such as EMI and Sony had left that decade and the one before due to the social instability caused by successive military governments. Among a few others circulating was Kennis Music—founded by Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D1’ Adeniyi—and which scouted 2Baba and signed him after he left Plantashun Boiz in 2004 to pursue a solo career. Both music executives were groundbreaking in their understanding of superstar potential; early visitors to the Grammys, they saw how the African musician could approach the global market, not as second-fiddle but as legitimate sensations, their unique cultures working towards their branding. 2Baba represented this ambition; emerging from a beloved boy band, he already had one foot in stardom; with Face2Face, he put down the second, becoming, essentially, the first superstar of this modern era.  

Perhaps the most instrumental factor behind 2Baba’s ascension was the fact of his timing; that he had no predecessors. This does not connote a lack of influences—rather no other Nigerian artist before him was cut in the same fabric, musically and visually. Timing plays a great hand in music, especially for an album released at such a pivotal period of our musical history. Arriving just five months into 2004, it captured the totality of what it means to live anywhere in Nigeria. Indeed, there’s a certain nationalism the album thrives in, in its first record pulling the Efik language into its chorus and elsewhere, the Idoma (‘Odi Ya’) and Yoruba (‘Thank U Lord’) languages, this linguistic summation achieving artistic balance through the primary usage of English and its Nigerian Pidgin cousin. Why does a consideration of a pop album care about language?  

The simple answer is that 2Baba cared. In ‘Nfana Ibaga’, its most-piercing lyric, and one of its most relatable, is ‘Just because of say I no finish school, some people dem take me for a fool’. Being Nigerian is to constantly peruse one’s place in the world, and to break through certain class struggles, a major determinant is the level of one’s education. A broad stroke separates the educated and the uneducated; the latter’s children view the other’s children with a certain longing, understated and sometimes dangerous, the dangling of what is there but is not, really. Still, we’ve had people make the long journey from the less beneficial to the more beneficial, sometimes not through formal education but the dogged insistence on being street smart, which, to some is actual knowledge. On ‘Higher’, the singer opines that, ‘To be civilized, you don’t have to be educated’. The quality of this civilization is found across 2Baba’s catalogue and particularly in that sterling debut, where he was tasked with establishing himself as a solo musician. 


Beyond the depiction of that personal philosophy, other relevant themes in Face2Face include desire and consciousness. Of varied techniques, the musician entered into these universal subjects and worked his way out, leaving no doubt as to the originality of his artistry. Desire was especially prevalent in the work; how the singer painted sentimental images of love and its absence, which complemented the naturalism of his persona. An important function of popular music is its need to be ‘popular’—that is, to fit into several occasions without sacrificing quality.  

Some other artists have made niche music and coveted niche themes but those are considerably lesser artists since language is a soft tissue rather than hard brick. Across 2Baba’s catalogue, there is no shortage of variance; on his debut, that is the charging undercurrent; only desire as earlier mentioned got repeated considerations. ‘Ole (Thief)’ and ‘Right Here’ are twin records, each different colours from one palette; the former’s evocation of unrequited love merged with the other’s assurance of fidelity, together creating the portrait of the quintessential lover boy. 

We should quickly say then: any other musician after his generation who has since written a love song descends from 2Face Idibia. Among his contemporaries, he wasn’t keenly challenged for the heartthrob position (not that we couldn’t have multiple). His former bandmate, Faze, was quite adept in that department, although his groove tended to get in the way of his vocals. One hears Paul Play Dairo and the boy band, Styl Plus, through the years; assured voices steeped in the conventions of classic R&B, and who undoubtedly enjoyed A-level popularity in the first half of the 2000s. These and so many others; still, one would struggle to place them within the evolved scene of today. It isn’t that the records are lacking grit; rather, the pristineness of the language, sweet without being specific, works against its ability to move between generations. 2Baba doesn’t have that problem; his songs—and particularly those in Face2Face—carry metaphors and turns of phrases that would excite today’s listener, and this is because of his association with Hip-Hop, a genre built on verbal manipulation unlike any other. It’s the reason why Burna Boy is so closely aligned with him in the discourse of musicality; he, too, understands the potential of fusing different sensibilities, operating from an unlikely angle after sustained practice. Both also share Dancehall affinities although the younger artist’s antenna there is stronger.  

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To bring philosophy and love together, 2Baba had to have consciousness. This goes beyond the ideological framing of the first and the sentimental allure of the other; this has to do with point-of-view, how he saw himself as he dispersed of his duties. His spatial awareness creates the album’s magnetism. On the party-starting ‘Keep on Rocking’, he immediately endears the women to ‘Catch a vibe and get the feeling/ Tell your man that you are willing,’ and later, in the first verse, uses a delirious-sounding register to depict drowsiness, applying imagery—point and kill, police protection—that captures the setting of a party.  

His vision and his vocabulary are in alignment. Through his unique skills of narration, 2Baba can be at the party while being outside of it, presenting a bird’s eye view of the revelry. He does this elsewhere: ‘Ole (Thief)’ begins with a complaint to his guest freestyle asking him to help talk with 2Baba’s girl; ‘I need am,’ he says humorously, setting down the contrasting feelings—hurt and love, denial and acceptance—the song espouses. He knows when to be the narrator and when to be the character.  

We reach the perfect culmination of this technique on ‘Thank U Lord’, the album closer, which 2Baba sings in a distant first-person point of view, emotionally charged but chronologically removed, as though the events he sings of are from another time, another 2Baba who’s not him. ‘I did a lot of things without remorse,’ he bemoans at some point, spurring the listener to picture the sad faces of those seated around him, the storyteller who seeks balance as he does so here, switching into positivity in the second verse, affirming that It’s a crazy and beautiful world that we live in, there’s so much sorrow, joy and pain, but still got to thank you Lord…’  

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In Nigerian music history, seldom has an album so beautifully carried several motivations and delivered excellently on each one of them. Twenty years later, it’s one of the standing blocks of the album’s greatness, of which a lot has been said and written about. Still, there’s a lot to be said for the contemporary appeal of the perspective of Face2Face, which is epitomized in two records—‘African Queen’ and ‘U No Holy Pass’—which I consider to be the album’s best songs and also its greatest.  

‘African Queen’ was the first record aired on MTV Base Africa, affirming 2Baba’s place as his generation’s numero uno. Quite tellingly, few of his videos before then were well done. We attribute their appeal to the passage of time rather than visual quality; though it’s also worth remembering that few Nigerian music videos of the early 2000s impressed on those scales. This was however not an issue with ‘African Queen’—impressed over a white background, the artist and his women dressed in colourful outfits which would now be referred to as exotic. As part of the soundtrack of the American movie Phat Girls, the song earned a global reputation that made it one of the biggest songs—from Africa or anywhere else—of its era. Completing the audio-visual cycle before most of his contemporaries mastered their sound, 2Face Idibia was obviously ahead.  

Ehis Ohunyon was a teenager when Face2Face came out, a devoted reader of music publications. An edition of a beloved magazine, HipHopWorld Magazine, dropped just before the release of the album and one of its writers—Efe Omorogbe, who would later manage 2Baba until recently—expressed his doubt in the now-defunct magazine that 2Baba could maintain his popularity coming from Plantashun Boiz. ‘I was mad curious about how the album will fare,’ says Ohunyon, now a veteran music journalist and former music editor at Pulse Nigeria. He adds:

And from the very first single, I kinda knew he was setting himself streets apart from every other person at the time. I never believe that ‘classic’ by way of longevity is stamped on every album that came out in the early days of any genre’s formation. Irrespective, it is earned. And while sound wise, the industry has shifted from what Face2Face represented, its lyrical quality and impact were foresighted to be ahead of time. You can still fit a song like ‘Ole’ into a Fireboy or Lojay album and it will stand out. ‘U No Holy Pass’ can never be dated, and ‘African Queen’ will always be ‘African Queen’.

And for me, the greatest legacy is that 20 years later, 2Baba has not strayed in music and personality from the guy who spoke on that album. He stays a lover boy (despite the controversies), there is a playful side to him and then the consciousness of his messages.  

I cast eyes now to the past, hue-filled images of communal living emerging before me. In those frames there is activity, soft bobbing of one’s shoulders, and in those frames, there is sound, the familiar lilt of 2Baba’s voice. Clean, purposeful, ‘African Queen’ was parents’ favourite, and its acceptability was a propulsive force in the eventual widespread acceptability of Nigerian music throughout that decade. Before 2Baba and shortly after P-Square, local audiences could trust our musicians: that essential pairing of heart and dance was perceived. In an interesting titbit about this album, Chuka Obi, a veteran rapper and advertising executive, mentioned how a popular Alaba marketer simply known as Tjoe bought all the 500,000 printed copies of Face2Face, selling them for N10 more and, through massive demand, selling all of the copies within some hours.  

More than the presence of quality art, it is the knowledge of quality art by the general public that matters. Through this, other artists can be influenced and the bar for criticism raised. Such an influence is found in ‘U No Holy Pass’, a song which reveals the singular perspective 2Baba brings to the Nigerian rhetoric. With a phrase such asno look Uche face’ preceding Ayra Starr’s ‘if I cast, I cast’ 2Baba has long been a champion of individuality. Everyone’s journey is unique to them but at the same time, there are universal markers of love and respect. Approaching the nuance in this perspective are latter records like ‘Only Me’ and ‘Spiritual Healing (Higher)’, both songs which emerge from ‘U No Holy Pass’. The only song on the album whose production abandons measure, there’s an incandescent mood cast, jumpy synths punctuated by alarm bells; urgently calling, the singer has something to say, and he wastes no time in getting to it: 

Some people be acting like they know it all. well, everybody knows that people rise and fall/ Some rise up again just to stand up tall, and wiser and stronger/ No matter how long you live, you cannot learn it all/ You only do your best, because you no go fit do all/ So if you want to criticize me, talk small small, cos you no holy pass my brother’.  

I had to quote that chorus in full; it is rich and continuous. No shortage will there be, of folks postulating the best way to live, of others seeking the philosophy that drives them forward—and still, there’s so much uncertainty and 2Baba says, embrace it all. One considers especially cancel culture, one of the most divisive social movements the world has recently experienced. Obviously, opinions are hot material right now, Nigeria being no exception. On social media, we’re exposed to a million throbbing voices, with pain creaking from so many places. What to do with it all? What does 2Baba, whose music taught so many of us to be expressive, think about this peculiar itch? The second verse of ‘U No Holy Pass’ puts across a perspective that isn’t simply accepted, but one which a certain kind of person leans into as the shifting tides of life and perception happens to them; wisdom becomes waiting:  

Some people when they see a wrong thing 

They will start complaining 

Until the complaining turn into shouting 

Anytime they see a wrong thing 

They continue shouting 

Until the shouting turn to traditional shouting…. 

Slavery will start to set in like Amistad 

Oya, I know say you seen the making 

And them start to do almost anything, for almost nothing 

Cos instinctively dem need surviving  

But the scavengers would bring them all 

They will push them to the floor 

And to collect all the people them belonging 

But like a goat that has pushed to the wall 

We already ready to start to do the fighting 

So me a go run them down, run dem all around  

Me a go chase them outta we town 

I sabi, we go gun down  

Before them go know, them go dey for six feet under the ground. 

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I have a position: the above verse is the best verse in contemporary Nigerian music. Everything—vocabulary, story progression, length, thought and dramatic flair—works to the triumph of those last bars as 2Baba flips the perspective from the common people to the politicians, giving the verse a touch of allegory by infusing the goat imagery, a faint touch visible of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Psychology is the working device, a knife slicing through the body of conversation, exposing the repercussions of crowd think and the need for more inspired action. Burna Boy’s verses on ‘Monsters You Made’ and Rema’s on ‘Are You There’ take after this level of sensitivity, utilizing language of the involved but adapting some distance in their gaze, with a sprinkle of sentimentality for effect. Socially aware records are often pined over, but the truth is that we have a rich tradition of them. Traditionally, songs were put in service of society, and few songs can transcend the society that spurred them. Language, however, survives because the song considers itself more important than the subjects; and in some way, it is.  

The primary reason 2Baba’s messages landed so accurately was his delivery. It’s in how he frames words, wringing out each line to strengthen the line structure. His singing is also adept, bending into soft syllables with love at the tip of his tongue. For this vocal awareness we must give credit to Babatunde Okungbowa, popularly known as OJB Jezreel, who produced all the tracks on Face2Face. By the early 2000s, production hadn’t been democratized as it is today, meaning few people could afford the relevant equipment and even fewer could operate them creatively. A trailblazer, OJB had begun producing in the 80s and by the time he met 2Baba was a seasoned musician, attuned to the intricacies of composition and cohesion.  

You feel him across the album, whether through his background vocals or his directing, which is similar to the work Martin Scorsese does with Robert De Niro. The latter is the star actor, but his performance would lack soul without the template of the former, whose authorial integrity gives him a closer perspective on the character. 2Baba is brilliant but that wouldn’t have mattered if OJB didn’t give form to his imagination. Together, they move through many seas and emerge triumphant. It is to the mastery of Jezreel that he never allows the attention to wane from his frontman. If one thinks the beats on Wizkid’s seminal Made in Lagos was purposefully kept in the background, then they have to listen to Face2Face; each production works to amplify the vocals, and it was this selflessness that led the biggest stars of the era—Ruggedman, Daddy Showkey, Olu Maintain, and Wizkid much later—to seek OJB’s assured hands. When he passed due to kidney complications in 2016, among his several achievements, including those as a lead artist, we must remember his peculiar successes through this album and its collection of golden moments.  

We remember most, in its 20th year, how much Face2Face speaks to the tests and triumph of being human. Life asks questions of those who orbit this space, and as long as it continues to do so, Face2Face will remain an important work of art. And as sure as a man or woman will wake up each morning to brave the faces of their demons, the album’s many anthems will be there to inspire. Because as far as Afropop goes, there hasn’t been an album whose pairing of music and message has been objectively better than this. Here, reader, is the standard

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