There’s a place in New York…well New York is the place. There is a feeling that Feels soo NY in some hip hop. I’m sure many people who have observed hip hop from it’s inception would say that when “the East Coast” was running hip hop it sounded it’s most musical and possibly lyrical. NY…the Bronx in particular is the origin of hip hop. I make reference to all this because if you were to describe what “Hip Hop” feels like based on what’s played on the radio and in the clubs today…lyrical…nor necessarily musical would come to mind.
We live in a day in age where music is played but not felt, where people hear music but don’t listen to it. As a music producer I know that there are certain musical elements, such as dynamics, that contribute to this loss on the sonic end…or in terms of what you hear, but the message, the lyrics has also changed drastically in their content…Music now is better heard while intoxicated than sober.
Fortunately for hip hop fans of old Jean-Jacques Cadet or his stage name, J Live was somewhere disconnected from the mainstream sound working on something vintage. Since his debut album “The Best Part” dropped in 2001 J live has had a relatively quiet but steady career. He has always been a fan of “classic” hip hop and soul samples. On his 7th album he is not a stranger to the game though fans of the game maybe strangers to him..
“His Own Self” is an album that has the feeling of old hip hop musically with the issues of today. Unfortunately the problems aren’t new…just still relevant. And while this album may not be “relevant” in terms of modern music…it’s a body of work by a seasoned veteran who has wisdom to share both about the world and how to be a craftsman at what you love…He not only speaks to us through his words but he is the sole producer of all the tracks…
Track By Track Breakdown
1. Peace, Be Still:
Good albums are the equivalent of audio cinema…audio theatre if you will. Peace, Be still opens with an Up right bass being plucked with a staccato bounce…it feels like the beginning of something. Simple but commanding soft wood wind work with a hit hat and crash give a it a cinematic feel as J Live says ” As I / Travel 360 looking down on older stories. / Flights of stairs Laughing at what used to be my cares. So / Reflective. Iâ€™ll provide the food for thought and the perspective.” A great opening line. And only the beginning of an impressive lyrical display, the track didn’t need much musically.
2. Mic Singletary:
This is a percussion heavy track. Syncopated bongos with all a James Brown type drum pattern… It has an old school bounce. J Live opens the track saying “From the US to the White Cliffs of Dover.â€ / 20 years strong and I never crossed over.” Affirming both is longevity and his “underground” sound. He later even uses the word estuary… partly enclosed coastal body of brackish water; or for the purposes of the song…that underground flow. While musically I didn’t get a lot from this track He has 3 very solid versus that are worth listening to.
3. Pay it Forward:
Has that late 70’s early 80’s feel. A sample track with east coast hip hop drums. If anyone heard his first album “The Best Part” you’ll remember he had production from greats like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. While I can’t say this track is on the same level as one of their beats it’s very reminiscent of that time in hip hop…
4. Old Shit:
J Live shows his age, in a good way. Old shit is about being parsimonious and not a “baller” who spends cash for the sake of “keeping up with the jones” The verse musically have a real nice bounce, I’m nodding my head as I type, I’m listening to the song as I type. He does a very good job rapping about something that people should honestly hear. Notable lines? “I might go broke but I won’t go poor”. He also expresses that he was familiar with shopping at thrift stores way before Mackalamore was “rapping” about it. Classic vibe and good content make this a very strong track on the album…
5. I Just Don’t:
Well I’ll keep this brief, this easily my least favorite song on the album. It’s rather monotonous. He does this rappy singy thing that I’m just a lil put off by. It’s the same rhythm and melody for just over 3 minutes. There is latinish dissonant piano that only adds to the uneasy feel. He says “I don’t not give a fuck” several times…and I think that notion is apparent on this song.
6. Get it Together:
Some songs just feel right to you from the moment they starts. Get it together was that song for me on this album. The sample and drums go together well. It feels introspective…like the inner thoughts of someone reflecting. I would have like for the bass line to have had just a lil movement in it but that’s the producer in me… Lyrically he says some deep things on this record. Many great songs have been inspired by women. He speaks from the mind and heart. Lyrics like “. The earth below could never be so good, without the / Heavens above. The understanding was understood. / But equality was lost in translation. / Ran out a patience. My kingdom was in tribulation.” and “Both going through a metamorphosis, just in / Different cocoons. But I would have made room! I / Guess too much space, without enough time in the / Same place,old energy is replaced” begin to show the depth of his emotions as well as how eloquent a thinker he is. Only someone who feels and thinks deeply could paint a verbal canvas with such color.
7. I Am a Man:
The track feels like the type of track J. Cole would use. It feels like you’re riding through the hood… peering out your window as you watch the faces of the people flash by. More poignant lyrics…”I tell you what I pledge / Allegiance to the people not the flag. The flagâ€™ll never / Represent the people ’til we all considered equal.” I don’t need to bring up any of the many tragic stories that make this song and that lyric so powerful. He plays Malcom X. He speaks on the plight of the black man. Calls out those who sin by commission, Sins committed, and those who are guilty of the sins of omission, not doing what is right. ” Treated less than human by a beast, it doesnâ€™t matter / If itâ€™s the whole beast or nothing but the beast. / If itâ€™s systemic, pandemic and you donâ€™t even / Have the decency to condemn it?” Hearing this song should bring out the activist in all of us and remind rappers of the true reach hip hop can have on the world.
8. Red & The Kid:
Is J Live walking down memory lane. His coming of age into hip hop if you will. He speaks of being awkward socially, and how music was an escape, a feeling I’m sure many of us can relate to. Many songs of the nature have that Tale of two cities type of feel. Or at least the line “it was the best of times it was the worst of times” hind sight often brings this sentiment. When we think of growing up it certainly was filled with some horrible moments but also some amazing times. If you grew up during the house party and dance hip hop era this song will make you feel just that way.
9. I Am A Man (Remix):
Same lyrics as the original version, just a different track. Musically this one feels a lil more militant and less introspective, more aggressive and less passive. Same lyrics, the first version made me want to protest…the remix makes me want to riot. The original makes me want peace, the remix makes me want justice, I like both versions and can appreciate how the different track changes the feel dramatically.
10. Be Still, Peace:
Light percussion and wood winds fade in. The up right bass and a subtle kick make this mellow track the perfect canvas for a laid back in the hammock flow. The Jazzy/Soulful vibe almost makes me want to snap like a beatnik. It’s almost a meditation. With lyrics such as ” I / Always thought love was knowing enough to care and / Caring enough to know… cyclical you / Gotta let it grow a snowballs chance a / Snowflakes thumbprint when loveâ€™s triumphant.” you see yet again how adroit his is as a writer. I should also call to your attention that he spent several years as an English teacher. His command of the English language is well versed and seasoned to a level that few reach.
11. The Greatest Thing:
A jazz sample with a syncopated drum pattern. He offers no verses on this, it’s a musical outro. I would say that I would have liked for him to really break this track down since it’s just an instrumental. it’s vibey but I feel like he could have played with it some more.
I was thoroughly impressed with a lot of the lyrics. Very few people still take the time to craft verses the way J Live does. He says things with eloquence and intelligence. He is one of the few that still break down the stereotype that hip hop is for the uneducated or that it doesn’t contain a positive message. Musically It’s very reminiscent of old school hip hop, which I like. I do feel the overall production could have been tighter. I give him much credit for tackling all the production on his own, the challenge of doing that is one only few have met and done so at a high level. Sampling is an art and sometimes one that isn’t given it’s due it terms of the level of skill, creativity and ingenuity it takes to do. I do feel that this work is stronger lyrically than musically…but it’s something that old school hip hop fans may find a lot of value in. And hopefully some new hip hop hopefuls will embrace the knowledge and responsibility to convey something meaningful through their music. Jean-Jacques Cadet or Justice Allah or J Live clearly took time, effort, thoughts and emotions to show us “His Own Self”.