Label: Uprok Records
Rating: 7.5 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
As the vice-like grip of the majors squeezes the world of Hiphop music ever tighter, you can be certain that when one artist has a success with a certain style or look, before long rival labels will have their clones rocking a carbon copy style while wearing distinctly similar clothes. And so, just as DMX spawned Ja-Rule, and Onyx spawned the Hoodratz (remember them?) any rapper who comes out with a… lets say, paler, complexion is automatically seen (by the popular press) to be riding the coat-tails of a certain Mr Mathers. Its an accusation that has, over periods of time, been levelled at Cage and Necro, who have ultimately proved that they are more than capable of rocking mics without any help or hindrance from Mr Shady. Now the target is KJ-52. Perhaps there are more grounds for the accusations here than with other cases though, considering the fact that KJ has a track called ‘Dear Slim’ on here… so what’s the real story?
Lets start with the facts about KJ-52. Real name Jonah Sorrentino. A Florida resident. Coming from a broken home, he cites his turning to Christianity as a highly positive event in his life which rescues him from the ghettoes of Tampa. After a stint as a member of the group Sons Of Intellect, he makes the difficult decision to give up his job as a full-time inner city youth pastor, to follow his dreams of schooling people with his music instead. In 2000 he releases his debut album “7th Avenue” which is fairly well received in independent circles. KJ-52 then signs to Uprok and releases the follow-up “Collaborations” featuring um… collaborations with labelmates (Mars Ill, Playdough) as well as with several other artists.
And now here we are, with said “Collaborations” album opening with a dry humoured diss towards those “leave-a-message” phone skits that seem to be popping up on everyone’s albums nowadays, before launching into ‘Do That.’ After reading the press blurb, and doing a bit of background research on this cat, I have to admit by being surprised by this opening cut. Let’s get one thing out of the way first though, KJ-52 DOES sound remarkably similar to Eminem… as for the track, well its a lot more commercial than I expected. Very bouncy indeed, with a chorus that would sound at home on a Mase joint, its one of those tracks that will stick in your brain for weeks. Following this is one of the OTHER talking points of the album, after the Eminem argument has been done to death… covering a classic is risky, especially one as well-loved at Black Sheep’s ‘The Choice Is Yours’, but that’s what KJ has chosen to do. Here he links up with John Reuben to rewrite Dres and Lawnge’s anthem, but although the updated version is a good attempt, it just doesn’t pack the same energy levels as the original. Plus neither of em say “And you can’t beat that with a bat!” And that will never do. While we’re on the subject of familiar, ‘Rise Up’ features the same drumbreak that the Beasties grabbed from Harvey Scales’s for ‘Shake Your Rump’ with a ton of bass effects and electronica remnants scattered over the top. The chorus is almost indie-rock though, and actually only succeeded in bugging the shit out of me. It’s really quite grating. Next…
Ah… the infamous Slim track. Bearing in mind that Canibus already tried and failed to pull off a ‘Stan’ type answer track to Em, one wonders what KJ is trying to achieve by having a go himself. He admits that its almost close to a diss record, though its done with the intent of making Eminem examine his career, and where its heading… but then why should that bother KJ? Its Eminem’s career not his. KJ’s explanation – “In his first record, “Infinite” he has a line about Christ and being a Christian. I believe somewhere along the line, he lost his way and got caught up in the things of this world.” Ah, so its an attempt to PREACH to Em, then? Its really the first experience I’ve had of an Uprok artist almost trying to FORCE their Christian viewpoint onto others, and its not something that I feel at ease with. Enough debate though – what of the track itself? Well, its actually pretty good. As already mentioned, it takes the format of KJ writing a letter to Eminem (a la Stan), explaining his thoughts and hopes to the Detroit superstar. Musically, it carries exactly the same vibe as the Dido-sampling original – a beautiful acoustic loop with understated drums pattering underneath, whilst lyrically KJ is on-point – hitting his targets, and dropping some interesting points of view. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all the motives for dropping this track, I do concede that it is very very good indeed. (Check out KJ52.com for a chance to hear it.
Wow, what a diatribe. Let’s get back to talking about JUST the music – an easy thing to do when ‘Dear Slim’ is followed up by the rubbery bassline of ‘Nursery Rhymes’, where Ill Harmonics’ Playdough comes through to trade verses with KJ. The chorus again is a little preachy, but when the beats are this nice, then I’ll be nice right back, and won’t go off on another rant.
Or maybe I WILL have to… you see ‘Sonshine’ is again musically perfect – very chilled out with an almost live instrumentation feel and a throaty female vocal chorus. Again though, its one of those joints where for me at least, I felt I was being preached to. I’ll leave stating my full point of view until my conclusion, as I’m starting to get the feeling that I may repeat myself too much otherwise. There are however, OTHER messages on here, which ARE important to all you younguns… ‘Wait For You’ has a similar feel to ‘Sonshine’ – a very mellow, Roots-influenced warning to teenagers on the pros and cons of promiscuity. KJ presents a rational and well-thought argument to abstinence, (hence the title), and the superb backing makes this one of the strongest tracks on the album both musically AND lyrically.
There’s a little stumble however with ‘Revenge Of The Nerds’ which features Pigeon John from LA Symphony, and is underlaid with a Latin salsa break that neither emcee seems quite comfortable with. A weak chorus doesn’t do it any favours either. Luckily ‘5th Element’ provides the first steps of recovery, climbing away from mediocrity while tipping its hat to the growth of Hiphop in a major way by recreating beats from various eras of the music. Things start with an Electro beat, before switching to a beat straight from ’88, then a scratch heavy break, a “modern-day” break, and finally, a futuristic “mood” type, spoken word closer. Its an interesting blend of old-to-the-new which works very well.
The sequence of tracks following ‘5th Element’ that take the album through to its conclusion ensure that things end extremely strongly. Kicking off with a two minute acapella / spoken word rhyme called ‘Industry’ which hits its targets HARD, (“We live out our dream to make the crowd scream, but turn to yell at the soundman / Since where and when did we stop checking the word, and begin to start checking the Soundscan”), the intensity level goes through the roof with “Why” featuring the ever reliable Mars Ill. The beat is straight up fire, DJ Dust’s audio backdrop sounding like a close cousin of DJ Premier’s production work on Screwball’s ‘FAYBAN’, and Manchild’s rapport with KJ obvious and dope. From there, things progress with the amazing ’47 Emcees’ where KJ, over a simple beatbox, drops the names of 47 other rappers in a similar style to Jigga’s ’22 Twos’ or GZA’s ‘Labels’. Its extremely well-thought out and executed, and props have to be given for how well its turned out. Rounding things off is the bouncy ‘ABCs and 1 2 3’s’, and the heartrending examination of child abuse that is ‘Where Were You’. The latter track has so much detail in the lyrics, it really must be heard and also features KJ linking up with his old Sons Of Intellect homie Golden Child.
An overly-long review perhaps? Not really… there’s so much stuff on here that had to be commented on, that a shorter review would not have done it justice. As I’ve already mentioned, at times I did feel that the Christian message was pushed a little too much, and while its admirable that an emcee is trying to push a positive message of something he believes in, I feel that things always have to be balanced. Sure, the message may be easy to grasp and appreciate by those who already live a Christian life, but for those who are unsure or followers of nothing but Hiphop, it may be a little TOO much. Although the purpose of dropping the message in the rhymes is to spark interest, and hook people into checking out Christianity, it might serve to do the opposite. “Damn – too preachy, toss me that Em cd.” You KNOW this is how some people are gonna react.
Overall though, I have to give credit to how this has turned out. KJ is an excellent lyricist and a skilled rhymer, and he’s obviously taken great care to ensure that his tracks sounds tight. He also has to get props for the excellent execution of those tracks with OTHER messages and topics. Conclusion? Despite not being in total agreement with how certain things were pushed on the album, I still feel that this is one that would benefit your collection. Look out for this.