As we’ve already warned you, if it hasn’t already, the new single from Janelle Monae’s sidekick Jidenna, “Classic Man,” is about to creep into your life. It may well have already — It’s been around and bubbling since February, but its climb up the Hot 100 charts is just now beginning in earnest, having just cracked #30. It is that song that sounds like “Fancy” as mimicked by Jeremih’s nerdy cousin, rubbed down with a bit of adult-contemporary moisturizer. It is also infectiously catchy, endearing in its bookish lyrical particularities.
But if you thought Jidenna was just an unassuming flavor-of-the-summer croon-rapper with a flair for fashion, you could not be more wrong. It only takes seeing the song’s visual to catch onto the fact that there is more than meets the ear to “Classic Man.” What at first glance seems like a club-kid-like posture — assuming prohibition era-chic for its own sake (pomade, three-piece suits, the swag mined from popping suspenders in the video’s shadowy basement club) — is actually intended as a political posture, with roots that extend further back in time to an even more fraught period in American history.
The stylistic reference point, as Jidenna put it to Vibe, is “Antebellum South, post 1865, all the way through 1965.” This is not just an empty aesthetic; Jidenna views it, in part, as a method of protest. By adopting his clean-cut uniform, he says, he is acknowledging that today, we are living in a “new Jim Crow,” illustrating that things have stayed the same by appearing to be different.
The idea of “dignified” blackness that Jidenna frequently brings up in interviews may scan like respectability politics. The likeness is enhanced by, among other things, Jidenna’s unsympathetic references toward modern-day, impoverished youth who are caught up in a criminal lifestyle. In the song, those whose “needs get met by the street” are contrasted with the image of the “elegant old fashioned man”; in the final verse of “Classic Man, the “breadwinner fill[s] up the pantry/ Now my n**s slang ‘cane like a dandy/ I tell you how it go/ You pull out rubber bands, I pull out an envelope.” During an interview on Hot 97, Jidenna remarked that the “classic man” is meant to be a role model, especially in “these days” when there are “so few men of honor on the streets.”
However, this is a more-than-reductive explanation. Jidenna is pointedly advocating against assimilation to anyone’s standards, especially white ones. “Classic” is meant as a blanket term, falling within vague parameters, advocating individuals to attain some moral, social, and artistic high ground via their own winding paths. In his usage, it’s something familiar and certainly nostalgic, but it is not normative. “A classic man is more concerned with the fit of his clothes than fitting in,” Jidenna recites proudly in a promotional video. Jidenna exhorts us to be ourselves, as much as he does to set an example.
It was necessary for Jidenna to infiltrate the system — to find a big enough soapbox. The signing of Monae’s Wondaland imprint (which her website also refers to, mind you, as a “movement” as well as a label) with L.A. Reid and Epic Records is key to him; in some sense, the medium and the presentation feel more essential to the message than the musical details, which shift in Jidenna’s extant songs; he’s something of a genre-hopper. As he put it, he wants to “bring organic food to Walmart” — to bring his rarefied musical commodity and message “to the masses.”