On the Verge: Meet Jidenna, a ‘Classic Man’

Jidenna: This is what a classic man looks like.

This week in On the Verge, USA TODAY’s spotlight on breakthrough artists, Brian Mansfield talks to MC and singer Jidenna.

Street elegance. He has only one single, but Jidenna already cuts a distinctive, dashing figure in hip-hop. With his immaculately tailored suits and full, reddish beard, Jidenna, 30, and his single Classic Man emphasize style and character with a musical genre called, appropriately, Swank. “It’s classy, it’s funky, and there’s an element of magic to it,” says the Brooklyn-based MC. Since its release in February, Classic Man has sold 180,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. It’s No. 4 on USA TODAY’s Rhythmic airplay chart, No. 11 on the Urban chart.

What’s in a name. Though born in Wisconsin, Jidenna spent much of his childhood in Nigeria. In Nigeria’s Igbo language, his name means “embracing the father,” in this case, Nigerian computer tech pioneer Oliver Mobisson. “In music, I wanted to make sure I was innovating,” Jidenna says. “Hence, the emphasis on creating a new, signature sound. I wanted to do right by him.”.

Classic Men of history. Much of Jidenna’s fashion sense comes via his father. “He used to wear three-piece suits, especially in the ’70s,” he says. “He also walked with a cane.” Other early inspirations, either sartorially or musically, range from Malcolm X and Frank Sinatra to Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Bob Marley. More important, perhaps, were the mechanics, the sanitation workers, the military veterans who were respected leaders in the communities where Jidenna grew up. “These men cared about grooming and appearance, but, moreso, they cared about character,” he says.

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The Janelle Monae connection.Monae signed Jidenna to her Wondaland Records label, and he appears on her new single, Yoga. He’ll also be one of five artists featured on Wondaland’s The Eephus EP, due Aug. 14. The EP’s named for a low-speed baseball pitch designed to catch a batter off-guard. “Whether it’s R&B, hip-hop or rock, every act is throwing a change-up pitch through their particular lane,” Jidenna says.

The Willy Wonka of Hip-Hop. Kids in his Flatbush neighborhood refer to Jidenna as “Willy Wonka” because of his fanciful attire. “I’m the guy on the corner that is slightly peculiar but fun and funky,” he says. He’s also known for hosting house parties for his Fear & Fancy art and masquerade society at his brownstone. “Willy Wonka had his chocolate factory; I have my Fear & Fancy Parlor.”.

A classic collaboration. A new remix of Jidenna’s single prominently features another Classic Man — Kendruck Lamar. “He’s a man of the people,” Jidenna says. “He’s a leader; he knows that pressure is a privilege. He has the responsibility, and when you hear his music, you hear the duty and the passion in his voice. I couldn’t find a better person to collaborate with on the official remix.”.

(Note: Video contains explicit language.).