From time to time (oh who am I kidding, quite often) we like to quote from an artist’s own press kit to let them explain to you just who in the blue hell they are. The New Jack Kings both need and deserve that chance too, so in their own words “Two unsung heroes from two of Michigan’s most influential crews combine forces to author a coming of age story inspired by the infamous era of high top fades, eye brow parts, and house parties. The album revolves around life, love, women and fashion as a solute to artists such as Teddy Riley, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, New Edition and Kid n Play who made songs that everyone could relate to.” Or to sum it up in one sentence, T. Calmese and Vaughan T. decided to make a Brand New Jack Swing for the 21st century.
The press release made me a little skeptical. Could two underground rappers from today’s scene really take it all the way back to a late-1980’s slash early-90’s musical frame of mind? It was a very different era for hip-hop, when being commercially successful, pop-friendly or a crossover on radio wasn’t a career death sentence. I enjoy fondly reminiscing on those days in Back to the Lab reviews, rifling through the catalogue for artists like Redhead Kingpin, Candyman and Doug Lazy, but those albums make sense for the era they come from and the nostalgic feelings they inspire. By 2010 standards some of the production standards would be simplistic, a LOT of the rap lyrics would be simplistic (well maybe not compared to Gucci or Shawty but generally speaking) and that whole era of fashion is perhaps best forgotten. High-top fades and Cross Colour clothing don’t seem so fly these days. If the New Jack Kings get too successful in going retro, they could end up either making an album that’s a parody, or an album that’s just garbage.
Happily the New Jack Kings were able to strike a delicate balance between what they fondly describe as the days of “sitting in front of the TV watching Video Soul, just to sit down and see Wreckx-N-Effects, Tony! Toni! TonÃ©!, Al B. Sure” and today’s modern hip-hop standards. Calmese and Vaughan don’t try to reproduce that era’s sound as such, but they do succeed in sampling from it, showing their love for the old New Jack Swing in the beats to their rhymes. “I Remember” plays off a Michael Jackson sample that may be obvious from the title, but what’s surprising is how much producer 14kt creates a sound to be mistaken for 9th Wonder era Little Brother. Vaughan is his equal in reframing the NJS though on “New Night to Remember” though – a coincidental title since what Vaughan samples is New Edition’s “A Little Bit of Love.” He slows it down and funks it out heavily. Teddy Riley eat your heart out:
“Baby you deserve the world, not just a part
A smile permanently on your face, but caught up in your everyday to day
got you stressin over things big and small
Emotional you take a lot to heart
I bet you got a long list of things that turn you off
Picky who you spend your time with, talk with, share your thoughts with
Some call it bitter but you call it bein cautious
Cause when it comes to matters like this, you played it smart
Been, in and out of love, high school into college
Dates that only end in broken hearts and broken promises
It’s gotta been a minute since, then I think it’s ’bout time
you let yourself just exhale and maybe breathe once again
You got a lot to give, I can see it”
No lie, this shit is fly. The lyrical flow is uncompromising, not willing to settle for simplistic rhymes or platitudes, and both emcees deliver their vocals effectively. I hate to make the Little Brother comparison again but fuck it I will – the chemistry and the way their pitch compliment each other is just like Phonte and Big Pooh. If anything they’re not ripping off the old New Jack Swing sound, they’re ripping off the modern day LB flavor that has been so beloved in hip-hop and so missed now that they’ve vowed to retire the group and move on in different directions. Guest producers set them up perfectly for the nostalgic sound they’re going for on this album. Nick Speed’s “C U Smile Again” jacks up Bell Biv Devoe to chipmunk proportions, but amazingly “When Will I See You Smile Again” works perfectly this way in a hip-hop context. Zo! and 14kt work magic on “Ask of U,” and if you know and remember this era then Raphael Saadiq just popped in your head. If not you can enjoy the beats & rhymes anyway:
“Uhh, butterflies in my stomach
Thinkin I’ma die if she doesn’t
Uhh, maybe I should try runnin
But that ring was fifty-five hundred
So ain’t no way that I’m goin back
Plus I love her and pray that she know it’s fact
So I’m in the mirror kneelin on one knee
Practicin my speech and how it’s gon’ be
My single friends say ‘Dawg you better than me’
My married friends say ‘Are you sure it’s better to be?
Take it from me, I love my wife but
relationships are ruined when you hop that broom’
I’m thinkin ‘This is my encouragement?’
Nigga, how should I interpret this?”
If you listen to the track, you find out just how, but suffice it to say the doubters don’t break the stride of a New Jack King. Let me just go on record as saying I was such a doubter, but after listening to all twelve songs on this self-titled (and free) album I was convinced this Michigan hip-hop team has come up with something dope. It’s clear that Vaughan T. and T. Calmese can pay tribute to the New Jack musical era without being corny or mocking the sound – it’s genuine respect that’s still mixed with a nod to the modern era of rap and rhyme. The nice thing about “New Jack Kings” is that you can appreciate this album even without having been of high school or college age to remember the samples from back in the days, but if you are you’ll enjoy this album that much more.