It is disconcertingly rare, these days, to find an MC whose primary mode is self-effacing, and not self-aggrandizing. Modesty and humor are two almost lost arts in the world of hip-hop. Is it a sin to crack a joke that doesn’t involve some sort of misogynistic or scatological punchline? Of course, most rappers would rather be caught dead than perceived as “whack”, even if that means carrying themselves with the grim assurance of morticians. There was a time, as long ago as it may now seem, when rocking the mic meant rocking a party. Nowadays, most mainstream rappers are more likely to be rocking a funeral, for the grim and purposeful way they carry themselves.
With that in mind, I like J-Zone. He’s not afraid to laugh at himself and to call out his so-called peers for being pompous, self-important punks. He also manages to achieve this without sacrificing a whit of skill or musicality in the process. He’s a funny man but he’s no “Weird” Al—more like Weezer, maybe, in that he manages to retain his wry and sometimes wacky sense of humor while still maintaining a compelling musical edge.
You get a pretty quick feel for where A Job Ain’t Nothin’ But Work is heading when the album begins with a skit/song called “Zone-ettes”, featuring an off-key chorus (the Zone-ette singers) singing “J-Zone, he’s our man, greatest of them all, / If you disagree, you can lick the balls”. This leads into “Spoiled Rotton”, which begins an album-long litany of complaining and insults. It’s obvious he feels less than appreciated by the rap world at large, surrounded by people who want to borrow money but no-one who wants to play his videos.
“Friendly Game of Basketball” takes on the trend of rappers trying to be basketball players—and basketball players trying to be rappers—promising to take on Master P, Kobe Briant and everyone in between. He’s not very happy with radio programmers who keep sleeping on his records, so he records “Edit This”, the first song in the history of rap to have the verses flipped and reversed, leaving the cuss words intact.
J-Zone seems to be the living incarnation of the slightly-fictional Madd Rapper (you remember, the guy who used to hang out on all of P-Diddy’s records and jock the talent?), but with the crucial difference that J-Zone actually has the skills to pull off his ego trip. He knows he’s pretty good, and in any event he’s a far sight better than most of the MCs on the radio these days.
Nothing ever seems to go right for J-Zigga. He goes to the disco and breaks his leg tryin’ to step on the dancefloor. He’s always hooking up with women who just happen to be bald under their weaves. He has to buy a tuna sandwich without the tuna, and a big gulp with tap water. He’s had better days.
The thing that really sets J-Zone apart from his blinged-out peers on commercial radio is the fact that not only is he perfectly aware of his ample shortcomings, but he is willing to step behind his braggadocio in order to illuminate his own harshly self-critical nature. “Zone Report” is an attempt to pass judgment on his own records, and not simply with a fatuous listing of non-existent platinum plaques. He is not above slagging his own beats in retrospect, and he’s also not above lambasting his own fans for sleepin’ on underrated discs.
J-Zone represents an interesting look at an alternate universe where humility and humor are more important than the chrome on your rims. J-Zone doesn’t have any spinning rims, but he does have a unique skill and eminently likeable, charismatic way with words that marks him as a long-term survivor in the notoriously fickle world of indie rap.
// Notes from the Road
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