Preliminary query: there’s this guy, right, who’s obviously hugely well read, intelligent, mature, thoughtful and imaginative as a person, and as an MC is technically the total package of flow, verbal dexterity, punch lines, message and power. Heck, he’s also a great producer and turntablist to boot, which puts him one up on Roc wearers. He’s been around for a decade and has put out several albums, one of which got stuck in distribution hell and became arguably the most bootlegged thing ever alongside Fantastic Vol. 2, he’s been all over the planet collaborating with some legendary producers and several of his cuts are bona fide classics, yet the general public are only slowly beginning to know and respect him. By this time you’ve guessed whom I’m talking about, and if you haven’t you’re intrigued, so let’s add a final cherry to the cake: the bloke’s a white supremacist. Still interested?
Repulsed shiver duly enjoyed, we can laugh this unfeasible creation off with relative ease, yet a tiny prickle of unease remains. That prickle is always with me when I take in a J-Live cut, be it the street sharp allegory “Wax Paper” from aforementioned bootlegger’s mecca The Best Part, which featured beats by DJ Premier, or the stellar social salute “Satisfied” from sophomore LP All of the Above (whose jaunty DJ Spinna beat was later used by Paul Nice to underpin an entire “White Lines” acapella), or his wonderful guest spots on albums by the Lifesavas or the Nextmen… Why do we accept 5%er beliefs so easily when they’re no less distasteful than any other form of racial prejudice? Perhaps because we don’t associate them with a long history of terrorist acts or the cause of any World Wars (hey, I’m German, and three other ways white, too). Perhaps we feel that these beliefs are an almost reasonable backlash against centuries of institutionalised racism, and that white people deserve it a little…
My disquiet aside, belief references on this third opus remain limited to the innocuous likes of “dedicated 5%/represent the G/-O-D on a dope B-E-A-T” from opener “Here”, where he juggles alternate rhyme patterns over a steadily barrelling funk missile of a Soulive jam and is basically irrepressibly impressive. Using your best beat as your opening track is always a double-edged sword though, and the live wire energy thus unleashed is missed thereafter on this mature and frequently unhurried record, especially when J-Live can fluidly break vocally and still drop social awareness to the tune of:
Man listen, while you dissin’
we go from transition to fruition
it be the same ol’ mission
with a new vision, an’ I see CLEAR
to a place where knowledge of self
is promoted by the records being
pushed by the people with wealth and
the bass ackwards young fool rappers
ain’t the only ones recognised up on the shelf
and the people in the club got a chance to
dance to something that maintain self respect
cos the people in the booth
with they ears on the youth
really care ’bout the music that you HEAR
J-Live’s well aware that he’s got flow and rhyme construction for years, and indeed despite “confident humility” the main theme of this album seems to be his skills and the fact that his sales in no way yet equal them. As such various obstacles get taken to task, be they criterati tagging him as one sound and limiting his appeal (“And if I had a quarter/for every so-called journalist/with a tape recorder/claiming my style is old skool and it takes it back/I’d be the richest mu’afucka in the laundromat”, off the end of the amiably bouncing “Aaw Yeah”) or the general public’s equating of “realness” to gangster stereotypes, which he demolishes with irritated authority on concept cut “The Sidewalks” — the in-joke being that its dark electronic beat echoes “C.R.E.A.M.” whilst J-Live reps both Philly and home city NY; for anyone, anywhere in any city, the predominant force remains the same.
As a father of three, J-Live probably feels those pressures more than most, and he’s all too aware that his middle class, middle-aged existence isn’t the stuff of vicarious thrills and illegal blood spills seemingly required for financial success: closing cut “After” and “Coming Home”, with Dwele, cover the contrast between the rewards of a demanding working life and those of comforting domesticity, “Weather the Storm” waxes political in dramatic, quotable yet considered fashion and “Brooklyn Public Part 1” gives the former school teacher the chance to depict his gruelling experiences as a veteran of New York inner city classrooms and hallways. Counterbalancing the side of him that enjoys swapping poetic rhymes with his wife about how much they love listening to life, famous singers and each other (“Listening”, with a hand from James Poyser) therefore requires J-Live to up the aggression on other cuts, which yields “that hardcore kick ’em in the throat shit” convincingly on “Harder” and its Fishbone-style guitar climax, but also the album’s weakest track, the posse cut “Do My Thing”, which calls to mind no-one so much as D12 with its collection of hapless cohorts and simplistic, menacing beat.
Whilst I’m bitching, “Audio Visual” has a great futuro-cinematic beat that’s begging to outline some graphic imagery, which makes J-Live ducking out of the title’s challenge (by musing on points of view instead of actual sights) an annoyance despite the otherwise satisfying result. Oh, and “Brooklyn Public Part 1” ends just as things are beginning to get illustrative and personal — splitting the whole thing between two albums rather than just two tracks is asking a bit much of anyone’s attention span.
Some answers to close: does this album manage to reconcile being credible, enjoyable and mature? Yes; for although things dip into Rootsish respectable-yet-unexciting territory at times, and in general it’s more understated than hip-hop heads might be used to, overall it’s a promising blueprint for intelligent hip-hop that could well appeal to the majority of its ageing (and therefore hopefully maturing) birth generation. Well, just how good is J-Live then? It’s hard to deny that, as he frequently claims, he really is one of the best MCs ever. So The Hear After is hip-hop album of the year? Well, better than anything else I’ve heard bar the Sage Francis, whom fans of more straight-up hip-hop won’t rate as highly anyhow; it’s more finely honed and consistent than J-Live’s first two yet just as accessible for first timers, and if I’m not in raptures about it, well, his potential is so enormous that anything less than 45 minutes of “MCee”s, “Here”s and “Satisfied”s — his Illmatic, basically — seems like a disappointment. And there’s my prickling misgivings… still, 10 years into the game, with a trilogy under his belt and another decade on the mic promised, we can only look forward to more from a man who continually raises the bar without ever besmirching his beliefs or the guiding tenets of hip-hop. Respect him? Damn right I do.