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."
Unfortunately, the remaining half of Then What Happened? isn't nearly as smooth a ride. The album falls to its floor on "What You Holdin?" as J inexplicably spews gibberish in 6/8 time over an equally disjointed drum track. The downright head-scratching choice of backdrops continues as J explains the dissolution of his marriage on "The Last Third" [click to read]. A mismatched patchwork of an electro bassline, jazz trumpet, creepy strings and a cartoonish sound effect make for a track simultaneously quirky and moody, but ultimately just plain weird, completely distracting from J's pain-wrought detailing of the disastrous affects of divorce.
The confounding soundscapes take a turn for the even stranger on the dragging Spanish guitar and trumpet anchored "Ole," which finds J competing with Sean Price for the "brokest rapper alive" title as he laments the financial realities of post-separation life without his kids and wife: "My bank account, credit and self-esteem ravaged/I'm one ham sandwich away from going savage."
Although a supreme storyteller, the rather unremarkable tale of a one night stand on "Ooweee" that concludes the narrative which began on "Ole" with that track's guest, Oddy Gato, inviting J to a party apparently to forget his troubles, is surprisingly both a sonic and conceptual disappointment.
Equally surprising and disappointing is listening to two A-list audio suppliers smothering J-Live's creativity with underwhelming production on the tracks that open and close his new offering. The album opens with the conceptual gem, "One to 31," in which J poses a series of personal questions to himself, replying with brutal honesty while addressing his Five Percent religion, his Haitian father's abandonment, the meaning behind his new album's cover, and maybe most notably revealing that all of his combined album sales total a mere 100,000 copies. That potent confessional is unfortunately pulled down by DJ Jazzy Jeff's halfhearted trackwork. The other rather shocking throwaway comes from Nicolay, who provides J with one of his signature smoothies on "You Out There," but clearly not one of his standout creations.
On that Nic-produced album closer J confesses that he's "got a long way to go in this Hip Hop shit." He doesn't have to go too much further than where he went on his new release, but hopefully what will happen after Then What Happened? is J linking with the producers who've proven themselves capable of crafting tracks equally as awe-inspiring as his lyricism and making J-Live whole again, and not just an exceptional emcee who's music is halfway hampered by his sound providers.