Right now you’re looking at this review and thinking the same thing I did when I first got this press kit: “Isn’t Jon B the R&B singer who did ‘R U Still Down’ with 2Pac? That’s cool but I don’t get why Flash is reviewing his shit.” If this were the same Jon I could understand the concern (even though we have reviewed R&B albums on rare occasions in the past) but the Jon of this review spells his name with a lowercase “b” and doesn’t do any singing whatsoever. The differences don’t end there – the crooner hails from Pawtucket, Rhode Island while the producer covered here hails from Edmonton, Alberta… Canada that is. The similarity of their names is a disadvantage given that the singer is more famous (Wikipedia only acknowledges one of the two) but that hasn’t stopped Jon b from setting up shop in Toronto to disseminate his hip-hop projects. If you’re still confused check out Jonb.ca so you’ll have no doubt which Jon is which before proceeding.
Jon’s latest project is “Beat Diarya” and believe it or not that’s pronounced “diarrhea.” One could assume by that Jon’s not-so-subtle intention is to shit on other whack producers with his sick beats. There’s a flaw in this plan though – Jon is intentionally limiting “Beat Diarya” to only 300 copies. It’s pretty hard to change the landscape in hip-hop when there’s a good chance your album will be sold out by the time anyone finds out about it. Then again there’s plenty of precedent for limited editions in hip-hop – I’m still looking for a clear vinyl copy of De La Soul’s “Clear Lake Auditorium” and Kool Keith has certainly learned how to tweak his iconic rap status with bizarre and hard to find album releases. Regardless I don’t have any control over distribution, that’s Jon b’s department, so I can only present to you a review of his work based on the promotional material I received. Jon’s package was pretty thorough – CD, promotional sticker, and a one-sheet that describes a “mission to explore strange new rhythms and seek out new esoteric samples to boldly go where no bedroom superstars have gone before.”
Now comes the unfortunate point where I must cut through Jon b’s hype and offer a little linguistic diarrhea of my own. The concept on “Beat Diarya” does not boldly go where no hip-hop producer OR bedroom superstar has ever gone before, with or without the Star Trek references. Jon b describes the music on this album as “warps – sort of like a mash-up but with unique interpretations.” That’s a very fancy way of saying he put his production skills to use to remix other people’s tracks. On the plus side he gets props for immediately opening the album with “Hip 2 My Game,” a new take on a classic track from Lord Finesse’s seminal album “The Awakening.” The negative side is that Jon b’s production is not better than what F-I-N-E-double-S-E came up with himself – it’s much much worse. In fact the beat only seems to be in sync with the Finesse rap for about 35 seconds before to my ears derailing and going completely off the track. The “warp” gives the originally lush sound of the song a tinny drum track and a two-note computer melody and the whole thing seems devoid of bass.
Perhaps Lord Finesse was a poor place to start since I consider him one of the most underrated rappers AND producers in hip-hop’s history, and it would be damn hard to improve on his work. Jon b does win me over by presenting some of Canada’s deserving artists on “Beat Diarya.” Max Prime’s “What more can I say? The rent bill’s in” rap on “The Update” makes me regret his track is only 2:20 – he’s got a solid flow and clever rhymes. “Beat Diarya” also includes Northern touches from Mindbender, Wordburglar and Corvid Lorax, whose El-P meets Gift of Gab flow on “My Father’s House” is impressive. Without question Jon b does a solid for his fellow Canadian hip-hop artists on “Beat Diarya,” and while I can’t judge whether they are all rapping over the original ish or Jon’s “warps” their tracks seem just fine here.
The problem here is that whenever Jon re-interprets a classic rap song that I love on “Beat Diarya” I end up feeling discombobulated and annoyed. Take Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check” for example. This track has already been done right twice – the original version put Rhymes on the map as a soloist and the remix with ODB flipped a different chunk of the break and made the song even FUNKIER. There’s almost no way one could “warp” this track and come up with anything better. One could take the acapella off the 12″ single and mix it with other beats as part of a dancehall set or turntablism routine, but hearing Rhymes distinctive vocal flow always leaves you fiending for the original. In short – there’s nothing wrong with flipping his song at your party or on your mixtape, but once you replace the original beat with an original beat of your own you’re inviting a comparison between the two. This comparison serves Jon b poorly. He doesn’t trample on Busta Rhymes to nearly the degree he did Lord Finesse – the beat is definitely synced up and the drums don’t grate on the ears – but the warp still manages to remove all the soulful energy of the original.
Jon b’s “Beat Diarya” is ultimately a mixed bag with a few treats and a lot of tricks spread out over 14 tracks. Occasionally these warps do work – Big L’s “Put it On” is juggled effectively – but even when it does you can’t help but notice how little the production technique changes. Hip-Hop may not always appreciate the sample clearance fees but it can’t help but owe a debt to the reggae, funk, R&B and rock records that have made rap classics great – paid or unpaid. “Beat Diarya” sounds like what would happen to all of hip-hop’s great songs if sampling was outlawed in the future and all songs have to be stripped of their soul. The limited variance of the electronic warping technique is by Jon’s own admission a “rap experiment” and I derive no pleasure from telling him that the experiment wasn’t a success. Jon b obviously has some credentials so when he’s done with the Kool Keith phase (both in production style and limited edition print runs) let’s hope that his fame will ultimately rival that of the famed singer.