As hard as it is to admit, J-Live is half an artist. The bespectacled former middle school English teacher is unquestionably a master wordsmith [click here for proof]. Unfortunately, the New York native's lyrical and conceptual brilliance has often been saddled by listenable but ultimately uninspiring production. And so a dozen plus years after the '95 Unsigned Hype alum sent a nation of Hip Hop heads racing to their dictionaries to discover the definition of amniocentesis upon hearing "Braggin' Writes," the superb B-Side selection to his jump off 12", "Longevity," the emcee/producer/deejay is still looking for the perfect beats to compliment his almost always perfect rhymes.
While many agree that J found astounding accompaniment in DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Prince Paul production for his sly wit and cocksure delivery on his long-delayed debut, 2001's The Best Part, and subsequently crafted a classic long-player, most everyone who's heard his follow-up releases would agree that they've each worsened sonically, culminating in the disappointment that was 2005's The Here After. Thankfully for his fourth full-length effort, Then What Happened?, J-Live rights some of the production wrongs of his third album but unfortunately still occasionally sees his fluid verbals fall victim to lackluster boardwork.
Thankfully J is the beneficiary of a vastly improved sound on the aptly titled "The Upgrade." The soulful masterpiece is a nearly six minute eargasm of crunchy drums, simmering organ play, vocal sample stabs, DJ J-Live's precise cutting, and a heavenly trumpet putting the exclamation point on guest verses from the track's producer Oddisee, as well as Posdnous, who offers audible evidence of just how much Plug 1 has influenced J's vocal stylings.
While not nearly as exceptional, standout sonics also surface on the DJ Evil Dee helmed "Be No Slave," who's rumbling stand-up bassline creates a deliciously grimey foundation for Live's laments on past dealings with record label politricks and his decision to break free and make music independently. Good music continues to shine through on the xylophone-powered reminder that real Hip Hop is far from dead, "It Don't Stop," and "The Understanding" (which both display J's always impressive turntablism), the latter's bridge-bolstered sweeping strings making for the cherry on top of this bouncy delight.
Luckily, the few aforementioned selections aren't the only highlights on J-Live's latest. Longtime collaborator DJ Spinna provides the sinister soul vocal samples and snapping snares that make "We Are!" slightly reminiscent of when Saigon met Just Blaze. But it's when J meets the powerful baritone of Chali 2na to rock the mic right atop DJ Nu-Mark's thunderous drums on "The Zone" that the man with a microphone swag like none other in the indie rap scene reaches his shit-talking apex, as J sarcastically snipes,"I rock shit like this to give ya flashbacks/ To when rap didn't sound like asscrack/ Back to when you was wack, you got laughed at/ Not souped up and jacked for your ASCAP."