Album: All Of The Above
Label: Coup D’etat
Rating: 9 / 10
Social commentators is what a lot of today’s emcees fancy themselves as. Needless to say, there are very few rappers out there who haven’t attempted to carry tracks with some quasi-political material. Nas tries it almost every second song these days, and Sage Francis and D-12 have recently received plaudits for spitting their post-911 feelings on the mic. However, sometimes when an emcee tries to broaden his lyrical horizons, it goes badly wrong. For instance, Ghostface Killah’s rather crude 911-addressing verse on the Wu-Tang Clan track ‘Rules’ – in which he orders Mr Bush to “sit down because he’s in charge of the war” – was far from being refined, insightful or indeed, dope. However, when it comes to social commentary, it seems hip hop’s best kept secret, J-Live, is the man most capable to speak for all of hip hop in the aftermath of September 11 on his new track ‘Satisfied’ –
“Now it’s all about NYPD caps and Pentagon bumper stickers
but yo, you’re still a nigga
It ain’t right them cops and them firemen died that shit is real tragic
but it damn sure ain’t magic
It won’t make the brutality disappear
It won’t pull equality from behind you ear
It won’t make a difference in a 2 party country
if the President cheats to win another 4 years
And don’t get me wrong, there’s no place I’d rather be
The grass ain’t greener on the other genocide
But tell Huey Freeman don’t forget to mow the lawn
and uproot the weeds, cause I’m not satisfied”
He rallies his audience to “throw their fists up” if they feel the same way, and as they should already be completely captivated by his razor sharp lyrics and the exquisite beat, they should do it obediently.
However, although this insight into a topic which has affected us all is a handy access point for outsiders to get into his music, J-Live is a man far from being totally caught up in tedious politics and social issues. In fact, he’s one of hip hop’s most complete emceeing packages, and one of its best kept secrets. His monumental, astonishingly ill debut album, “The Best Part”, was never officially released due to record label fiascos and gained its much deserved exposure through industrious bootleggers. However, his new LP “All Of The Above” carries with it the weight of all the respect J-Live has gained since the release of his debut, and great things are expected from the freshest Brooklyn emcee to bless the mic since Mos Def.
There is a lot of fabrication and lack of humanity in most of today’s hip hop, what with every man and his dog jumping on the I’ll-be-a-rapper-today bandwagon. J-Live himself even provides a remarkably distinct quotable for this very occurrence (you’ll find he’s the kinda emcee who has a quotable for just about everything) – “too many people using hip hop as a get rich quick scheme.” However, when he gets on the mic, the presence that’s put across is one which oozes humanity, honesty – and in a nutshell – realness. “I rarely recognise the rude ramblings of those random riff-raff cause they just rap and I…emcee” he spits on the upbeat track MCee, which outlines what it means for J-Live to rock the mic today, over a beat which has clean guitars nicely layered over a bouncy bassline.
Carrying on the rough theme for the title track, he addresses the listener directly – “right about now your mind is mine, and my mind is yours” and lays down exactly what this album’s about with some fresh, flawless lyricism – “the recital is recognised, and hip hop will never be idle when it’s right about now.” Once again, he’s matched up to perfectly with adept, raw production, consisting here of a stripped down but highly atmospheric slow-paced backdrop to the track.
Life in Brooklyn is also expectedly reflected in J-Live’s raps – on ‘How Real It Is’, he rails against its ignorant thugs, and his lines berating kids who abandon schooling to take up crime are particularly on point – “The illest weapon ain’t your nine boy, it’s your brain” and “trade booksmarts for streetsmarts, but ask yourself even if you got one target, ain’t you better off with two darts.” ‘How Real It Is’ is serviced by a beautiful beat, with distinct, intense varying guitar loops. And of course, when it comes to lyrics which provoke thought and that have the listener dwell thoughtfully on them, the aforementioned ‘Satisfied’ is perfect, with J-Live mixing 9/11 references with lines like “to eat good you gotta swallow your pride, but ditch that game plan cause I’m not satisfied” over an extreme headnodder of a beat. The beatmaking here is exceptional, being handled by J-Live himself, sleeping giant DJ Spinna, plus Jazzy Jeff and Usef Dinero.
What’s evident throughout this album is that there is very few emcees out today who sound like J-Live, and he stands like a shining light amongst his compatriots in the hip hop nation with his unique brand of in-your-face, straightforward energetic emceeing. The sheer number of outstanding lines on this album is bewildering – he drops the line, and it strikes the listener, who thinks “Now why didn’t I think of that?”. It’s stating plain common sense, disguised as dropping knowledge. Quite stunning.
Creativeness is something which has been missing sorely in recent years from hip hop records, with most of rap riding comfortably on different variations of the NY Don/gangsta/thug template laid down in the mid 90s by Nas, Mobb Deep and Biggie. However, for true inventiveness and imagination, “All Of The Above” is almost on a par with records such as De La Soul’s “De La Soul Is Dead” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “36 Chambers”. ‘Stir Of Echoes’ is very interesting indeed ; as you might guess from the title, it’s got a multitude of echoes punctuating the end of every line, each of which is delivered in a appealingly old school yell. The incessant rhythm, lucid scratching, bizarre but utterly brilliant spoken interlude, burbling distortion of the last verse’s voice effect and the beat’s other eccentric sounds all add to the glorious outlandishness of the track.
The mood is lowered to a chillingly atmospheric, mysterious state for ‘Nights Like This.’ The ambience created both by the graceful, beautifully sung backing vocals and the extraordinary synthesised background noises (which come off both eerie and appealing at the same time) is masterfully used to carry J-Live’s very low key raps. In fact, it’s easy to be mesmerised by the production and have your mind led away from what the emcee’s actually saying, which is invaluable, mystic wisdom. A truly awesome song. ‘Travelling Music’ features straightforward – “rain might stop but that doesn’t mean the water’s gone, that’s kinda deep huh? Well this is that sort of song” – but remarkably potent lyricals over a delicious melody and gently rumbling bassline – this track has a similar mood to ‘Nights Like This’, except the pace is amped up, and probably mostly as a result of the even more extraordinary synths in the background combined with the simple melody, it sounds even more off the wall. The production is even more mind-boggling on ‘One From The Griot’, – a storytelling joint – which features a truly captivating myriad of instrumentation, all individual sounds intertwined expertly with one another. This is hip hop which will stimulate the mind, rather than merely satisfy its craving for music with some of the latest generic product. The mind is a place rather neglected by most hip hop artists, and going by the evidence of the clever, imaginative final product of “All Of The Above”, J-Live is here to give it his full attention.
What other emcee would have the audacity to take rhyming delivery style right back to the true old school for a track (‘All In Together Now’)? Remember I’m talking Afrika Bambaataa and Sugarhill Gang style here – “Save it for the flava, do yourself a favour” is his idea of it. Fortunately, and unsurprisingly, J-Live pulls the whole thing off absolutely masterfully, giving it a shout-a-long chorus and a beat whose bassline is cleverly reminiscent of true old school production fads.
Perhaps expectedly, “All Of The Above” does slip up at points. ‘Like This Anna’, a breezy but low-key track that J-Live directs at his significant other, is strangely insipid, with a flat beat and bland lyrics delivered in a – for J-Live – uncharacteristically uninspiring manner. ‘The 4th 3rd’ is in the same vein as ‘Like This Anna’, and the raps again are applied to the music poorly, but at least here the lyrics are much better and the beat has some delicately layered, soft guitars. However, these two oddly disappointing tracks are easily overshadowed by the huge amount of superlative, distinguished, creative hip hop on this LP.
Before J-Live even gets into the main bulk of “All Of The Above”, he describes his rap agenda as “I just grab on the mic, jump on the stage, soak up the crowd, hittin them with page after page of blood, sweat, tears, saliva, sperm, snot, shit, piss, throw-up, everything I got…” Now, as the crowd, if you look deep into all that mess J-Live has just hit you with, you should able to see the workings of a man who embodies all the qualities required in an emcee. Humanity, wit, creativity, imagination, emotion, insight, presence, charisma, fluidity, and attitude are all rolled into one and presented over the course of this LP in exquisitely smooth fashion. J-Live is like a new oasis developing out of the arid, dry desert that hip hop has become. It’s hip hop, plain and simple, at its most REAL.
If this astute Brooklynite does not achieve adequate recognition for this album, it will be a true affront to hip hop. as yet again, a talent which could lead the art into the next millennium will be neglected and left to meander through a career in the dry reaches of the upper underground. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.