Vulnerability is Cheque’s not-so-secret Super Power

Supa Group is a cohort of 5 vastly different Gen-Z artists who are consolidating on the territory claimed by the Alte movement which began to gain traction in 2014 and established their rebel movement as a viable alternative to the by-the-numbers afropop movement that preceded them. Chosen for their distinct but complementary approaches to the music business and their individual successes, Clout Mag seeks to celebrate the collective power of a new movement that has married the subversiveness of the alte-generation with commercial viability of Naija music golden age, producing a hybridized template for what it means to be a pop star in 2021. This is our profile of our hearthrob, Superboy Cheque.

 

Superboy Cheque
Photography: Iyesogie Ogierakhi

In a pandemic year that felt like an extended waking nightmare, ‘Zoom’ proved itself a true contender for the song of the summer spent in isolation. It’s charm wasn’t immediately apparent, it honoured none of the long established Nigerian music tropes, had no powerful co-sign and no big budget promotion. Yet, the song wormed its way into our collective subconscious, with a whole nation humming its unbelievable chorus under our breaths like a half-remembered lullaby.

 

‘Zoom’ introduced us to 25-year-old Cheque, who has found huge success with his tender-voiced combination of melodic hip-hop, emo-trap and afropop. The song’s embrace of self-sufficiency while pushing forward against bad odds yielded chart-topping results and a remix featuring internationally renowned artists, Davido and Wale and earned him features on international publications like DJ Booth where his voice was described as “a breath of fresh air. With international press paying attention, and an album on the way, it seemed the perfect time to meet the man behind the deeply introspective music.

 

The week of our interview, Cheque dropped “Rockstar”, the second lead single from his now released debut album, ‘Bravo’. He showed up excited, still coasting on the high of being feted by the industry and loved up by ecstatic fans on social media. His entourage mentions that ours is only one in an ongoing circus of photo shoot sessions, club and radio appearances that has followed the positive response the song got from both fans and music pundits alike. But Cheque still doesn’t think he’s popping. Not yet anyway. “I’m only just about to start to pop,” he explains, “My big vision is worldwide. Right now, to me, I’m still just starting. I don’t let the comments get to me.”

 

My big vision is worldwide. Right now, to me, I’m still just starting. I don’t let the comments get to me

 

Someone from his entourage lets me into the changing room where he, his manager and the rest of his team are jokingly arguing about how to split the money they made from their last show; “N500,000 na small money now. Wetin you wan use am do?” Cheque asks playfully as he puts a diamond studded chain around his neck to match his earrings. We’d been introduced an hour earlier, the artist giving me a limp and somewhat business-like handshake before returning to his phone to cue up “No One Else,” an unreleased track at the time which served as background music while he continued posing for his first ever editorial cover images.

 

He’s svelte, wearing a plain black T-shirt under a cream colored jacket stenciled with letters and a pair of matching pants. He wears his hair braided, in a style that was popularized by American rapper, Lil Yatchy. He has no visible tattoos, just a blank canvas of smooth, hydrated skin, giving the illusion of someone who has time for rest and a carefully curated skincare routine. But in reality, the burgeoning star is busier now than he has ever been in his career.

 

“I’m very self-conscious about my face because of all the issues I’ve had in the past,” Cheque says unprompted. “I hated how I looked before because I had a lot of pimples.” I offer that it’s hard to tell, judging from the quality of the pictures he posts on Instagram account, and he seems to soften with the compliment.

 

photography: Iyesogie Ogierahki

 

If your first brush with him came through his viral hit song, “Zoom”, it’s a little hard to understand why anyone would describe him as a rapper. But that is a manifestation of the growth that has happened since his first freestyle all those years ago on 2Go chat rooms.

 

“I’d never have started making music if the ASUU strike never happened,” he tells me, when I ask about his journey into music. “There was a guy named Zamora that I met at the time and I was just looking at him having fun, battle rapping with others in the 2go chat room and I thought maybe I’d just join.”

 

This is a familiar story for most new artists from Africa. Social media has become the arena where talent is discovered and in Cheque’s career, a confluence of Nigerian incompetence and expanding digital universes led him to music. He got involved in 2go rap battles during a particularly lengthy ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) strike which left him and his peers bored and desperate for something to do.  Zamora gave Cheque his rapper alias, KYLE B, inspired by Cheque’s government name, Bamidele and the popular TV series, “KYLE XY”. Those were the embarrassing days when he would copy and paste lines from American rappers and get caught and laughed at.

 

“I didn’t understand what I was doing,” he says about his early rap experiments. “You know when you’re terrible right now but you can see the potential to get better.”

 

His friends in uni laughed at him and some of his punchlines, but he kept going cause he started meeting other aspiring artists like Blaqbonez and Fireboy DML who were also just starting out in their music careers.

 

“Blaqbonez was very instrumental at that time because he was a rascal,” Cheque explains about their days as students of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). “I was a student that was just in school for music, but he was %100 music. We became very good friends and it was like a motivation that at least I have someone doing this and they will always ride for me.”

 

As a Chemical Engineering major, Cheque started out quite serious about his studies. It wasn’t till he started going to studios to record music in his 3rd year that his attention fully shifted to music and he started going late to classes or skipping them altogether.

 

“All my classmates thought I was falling off. They looked at me very weird. Even in my class group’s chat they never wished me happy birthday at the time. Now they want to wish me a happy birthday.”

 

Thankfully, he only had to grind a little longer before he got his big break, an industry cosign that came after he joined a social media challenge that Reminisce launched in 2018, a year after he graduated from uni. Although labels started showing interest in him after the freestyle, he took a risk and retired his rap career, refining his sound into a melodic blend of indigenous and international influences tailor-made for piano-led trap beats. He adopted a new stage name, Superboy Cheque and not long after was tracked down by Phyno who signed him to join his music label, Penthauze Music in January 2019.

 

All my classmates thought I was falling off. They looked at me very weird… Now they want to wish me a happy birthday

 

Being laughed at; getting rejected; dealing with heartbreak; feeling unsatisfied and wanting better. To some, it’s just pain. To others, it’s something more: fuel for an anthem, a declaration, a song. Cheque channeled the negative response he got and evolved his sound into a pastiche that honours his experiences and pays homage to his early sonic influences. Unlike his brasher peers like Blaqbonez, Cheque is not afraid to show vulnerability, to admit he is still figuring out how to navigate his newfound fame. He tells me he’s happier staying at home where he can watch his favorite anime, Naruto.

 

“I still go out in public,” Cheque explains when I ask how he deals with fan love in unexpected places, “I wear a lot of masks and the head warmer makes my head look big, but it’s cool, I’d do it anyway.”

 

Today, he has established himself as an outlier who’s not afraid to explore outside the conventional genre lines and embrace emo themes that are still considered strange within our climate. It pays off on his newly released debut album, ‘Bravo’, where he shows off versatile artistry as he explores love, loss and heartbreak while rewarding his core fandom who fell in love with him because of the rawness and emotional vulnerability of his outstanding melodies.

 

One of his biggest strengths as a rapper had always been his emotive, melodic voice which he would bend and twist like rubber on “Hollywood”, one of the standout tracks from his debut EP, ‘Razor’. Although other Nigerian artists have explored emo trap music, the success of “Zoom” confirmed the commercial appeal for the emo-rap wave in Nigeria. “I didn’t know if it was going to be me, but I felt like someone was going to start rising and then others can rise too,” he says about how his music helped shift the popular sound in the country.

 

 

“It was the beat I heard”, he says explaining how he figured out his distinct style and emo-trap identity. “When I heard the beat for “Zoom”, I knew. I’ve always loved pianos but I never envisioned that I’d make trap music that connects with pianos. I found the melodies straight up and instantly recorded a bunch of piano shit. I knew I was so comfortable making this type of sound and my next two projects would sound like this.”

 

 

His improved confidence in his sound makes his voice song even more convincing on ‘Bravo’. However, he admits that he still doesn’t have the most cohesive recording process as he just records a bunch of songs, taking inspiration from emo-trap artists like Roddy Ricch, Rod Wave and Lil Dirk, and blending it into the afropop sound of the moment and slyly riding the wave to the top. “The songs are always there for all purposes. Then when it’s time to release a project I pick the ones I want. I knew I was going to make a project this year cause I need anybody who’s coming after to see that there’s light in this place.”

 

 

It worked.

 

 

“It would seem that Cheque has perfectly mastered trap music” Wale Oloworekende wrote in his 1-listen review of the album for NATIVE. In a Pulse review, Motolani Alake wrote, “Beneath the talent and the music lies an unlikely blend of hunger, confidence and timidity. A lot of that seems to come from his years of proving people wrong as the police kid who came from Ondo State and his excellence on an outlier genre, in a landscape dominated by Afro-pop/Afrobeats.”

 

 

As a fan of Japanese anime like Naruto and Bleach, Cheque appreciates the value of the hero’s struggle with pain and sorrow. Although the album features some romantic songs like Olamide-assisted “LOML”, most of the tracks are emo as Cheque isn’t afraid to proselytize about betrayals and hurt. The result is an intimate album, well suited to the solitary, contemplative listener. It’s precisely the sort of project that thrives during these moments when a pandemic leaves us immobilized with existential dread. Music you can throw on while you’re playing video games, cooking or scrolling through a week’s worth of tweets.

 

 

As afropop continues to grow in popularity and dominate global music charts, Cheque is positioning himself to plumb the untapped depths of inspiration that lie at the intersection of emo-trap and Afropop. While other labels might have made him water down his emo-trap influences, his unconventional sound is encouraged at his current label, Penthauze.

 

“I’m really grateful that God has helped me meet people that give me the chance,” he says. “This is the first of its kind around here. I feel like some people might ask if Nigeria will accept it but I’m feeling very optimistic about it. It breaks my heart when I hear only one genre of music in a country of 200 million people.”

 

 

This is the first of its kind around here. I feel like some people might ask if Nigeria will accept it but I’m feeling very optimistic about it. It breaks my heart when I hear only one genre of music in a country of 200 million people.”

 

 

To hear him speak of his career this way, you might be coaxed into assuming this change happened in decades not years. Before streaming terraformed the music landscape so digital artists could thrive, radio and club DJs dictated what sound was hot. The only way for aspiring artists to get mass listenership was to conform with the trends and make upbeat, going-out-partying anthems or push their music to the mainstream using illegal means like payola. Today, young African artists like Tems and Rema are free to make creative explorations that defy norms on genre and subvert pop stardom tropes. Introspective tunes about internal quandaries can now reach millions of streaming platform users who discover new music through superb algorithmic playlists curated to resonate to their specific mood and tastes.

 

 

“Music is crazy, it just goes, and people will hear you all over the world,” he explains. “I don’t think anyone can really describe the feeling. I remember I’ve also heard songs on the radio, and I was crazy about the artist but they’d never know.”

 

 

Cheque is a vanguard of a new school, proof that the African listener is just as concerned with introspection as they are with hedonistic escapism. For him, Afropop has outgrown the limitations of genre and become a movement by the people. He believes that as long as his music promotes Africa and its culture, it can be categorized at Afropop. He’s not wrong. With the recent successes of Wizkid, Tems, Davido and now CKay on streaming platforms around the world, there’s no reason to believe Cheque’s brave experiments with public vulnerability couldn’t eventually top global charts too.

 

 

It’s a gamble he is willing to make.

 

 

CLOUT MAG VOL. 01