“Shit, me and Beni B opened the game in the first place”, seethes Defari in “The Hop”, a single from his collaboration record with DJ Babu, The L.J.‘s. The statement, rife with that familiar hip-hop duality of self-congratulation and self-reflection, stands out for being a splash of vinegar in a generally sweet, soul-drenched meal. While Duane “Defari” Johnson, Jr. (a.k.a., Defari Herut) adds the seasoning in recognition of the lack of recognition (i.e., press) or thanks (i.e., record sales) for his contributions to the West Coast “underground”, Babu too—a man who is owed his share of credit for the widely appropriated term “turntablism”, at the very least—could have easily seconded the savory flavor. However, no such luck here; no Freddie Foxx f-bombs, just a chorus of “Oh Baby”‘s. That this DJ has rarely, if ever, asked for his due only paints Herut’s line as a careless and obstructive zinger, as well as illustrating the character chasm that exists between the two. On one hand a man with a quiet voice who frequently speaks bold and brass, on the other a quiet man who samples brass, strings, and kicks to kick the shit out of your speakers. The pairing indeed works in a functional sense, but is uneven in terms of synergy. Defari and Babu’s respective gifts result in a number of tasty morsels, but their personalized touches are not enough to make The L.J.‘s a complete and memorable feast.
The record opens strong, establishing a warm sound, engaging with an accessible tone, and suggesting a measurable accomplishment for the two. Capitalizing on Defari’s recognizable voice, Babu eases in with the low key “L.J.‘s Anthem” which places emphasis on the MC’s measured and lucid flow. Herut’s slight nasal tone has always stood out, but he has also had to push it to break past passivity; hence, the advantage of a quiet and reflective track. Here, his voice is in familiar territory as the headphone headz set can nod their heads to grown man lines like, “Paper soldiers fly away when the wind blows / Real soldiers stay around while their kids grow.” The track attracts with familiarity more than innovation, a fair move for an opening course.
This maturity blossoms into full-blown optimism as the record’s lead single “One Day Away” condenses artistic hope into a lucid pop nugget. Both Defari and Babu take a cautious but welcome step forward by experimenting with new rhythms, thus embracing the heart of the song: the former rolls out a double-timed flow, but with enough ease on the cut to remain confident and in his element; meanwhile, Babu pumps a danceable track filled with strings, acoustic guitar, and a thundering bass to imply a bouncing beat. The track is melodramatic, all sunsets and sea breezes, but hardly hackneyed as Defari reflects, “I’m one day away / From givin’ it up / All the liquor and all the bud / When a nigga like to drink and smoke so what / Please don’t let me go, it has no love.” With this apparent step away from Dre cameos and Kanye collabos, the two appear to be on the crafting their own brew of hip hop.
“The Hop” and “Salute” begin to veer from this notion as the two tracks big up familiar West Coast anthems. The former embraces South Central livin’ and Hollywood Swingin’ to the tune of a hilarious English Horn-type loop and soulful boom bap; Herut appropriately opens, “L.A. inner-city stuff / Car wash, nails buffed / 40 of O.E., Hennessy, get drunk”, embracing this Mid-city Los Angeles love affair. The latter paints hazy and halcyon images of “the Golden State / Famous for Venice Beach, they rollerskate / Bounce, Rock, Slide; Stop / Pancake if you up high; Drop” over a Mason Vaughn-gone-dub of piano licks, echoing guitars, and handclaps. Each of these tracks embrace the aesthetic of cruising the 1 under the golden sun (in June or December), strolling the Promenade, lift’d and gifted with the presence of friends. Certainly, these California salutations are rife with Dub C fantasies—“I’m doin’ it tonight, I got a suite at the W”—yet, Babu’s attention to detail—subtle bass bubbles to move “Salute” forward, the juxtaposition of instruments on “The Hop”—is the only edge.
While the Junkies begin with a degree of synchronicity, the expansion of their palette leads to a lack of clarity and increasing slips. Babu laces the Just Say No-style morality tale “Change” with an appropriate “Bionic”-type beat, but the familiar story of physical and drug abuse quickly spirals out into an unfocused attack on everything from parental neglect and religious indiscretions. What is worse than good intentions are redundant ones. “The Good Green” smells ‘60s psych with whiffs of Iron Butterfly-like keys atop plucked Rickenbackerish bass, but the weed ode gets old, dragging under well-worn tropes. Similarly, “D.G. Skit” fades in on a Minnie voice being sailed on a Felucca down the River Caramelo, but quickly runs afoul of its own tricks; Heru’s hackneyed lines about making a girl “wetter than walking in the rain” are as believable as a Vivid model’s “natural” figure.
Such inconsistency is especially frustrating because The L.J.‘s presented an opportunity for two underappreciated yet continually growing artists to shine. Chemistry in the form of a functioning, working relationship is in place as the record rarely sounds awkward or forced. Babu produces the entire record with aplomb and a sense of fun, securely adding production to his utility belt, while Defari spits some of his most spirited material since Focused Daily. However, The L.J.‘s could have used a few more pre-planning sessions (to weed or not to weed? I often ask myself the same question), in addition to another round in the editing room (how many records need to be 70 minutes long, let alone an hour?). In spite of the record’s inconsistencies, it is a promising platter for both artists, be it as individual efforts or future collaborations. Certainly no last supper here.