Say the words “For underground metaphors” to any head from the 90’s and they’ll undoubtedly respond “You can scrape an inch below the turf, for what it’s worth, my style’s been developed in the core of the Earth.” Doesn’t matter where you came from – New York, L.A., Chicago, the Lou’, Houston, Seattle or anywhere in between. J-Live’s “Braggin’ Writes” is one of the most influential hip-hop songs of ALL TIME. There are hundreds of tracks that are better known or received more radio play, but J’s track showcased an effortless and ebullient next level lyricism over a banging boom bap beat. The result was an earthquake in the underground, leaving emcees who thought they were on his level in awe, and setting the bar that much higher for up and coming artists to be dope.
What followed was the definitive textbook example of Industry Rule #4,080 – a series of bad record label deals and broken promises that led many observers to believe J-Live bootlegged his OWN album just to ensure it finally got heard. Fortunately for both him and for the hip-hop world at large, these setbacks didn’t stop his success, and in fact led to J becoming an early pioneer in self-distribution through his imprint Then What Happened” proved he is NOT most artists.
2011’s “S.P.T.A. (Said Person of That Ability)” can be pronounced as “spitta,” which at the end of the day is still what people know J best for. That doesn’t stop him from doing it all, but it does acknowledge that he’s recognized first and foremost for his formidable flows on the mic. J plays with the “Triple Threat” concept on this album in a unique way though, changing up his delivery so that he sounds like multiple emcees ON THE SAME SONG – the “Home or Away Remix” being an ideal example. He’s quite literally having a conversation with himself on a lot of this album, but it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want any other emcees getting in the way of the intelligent jewels he’s dropping. It’s not schizophrenic, it’s necessary. J is simply too many levels above most people who could cameo on his LP and not be utterly embarrassed. Phonte, Black Thought, Opio and Posdnuos could hang – but not many others. If you’re looking for thuggery, look elsewhere. Songs like “Half a Glass” are thinking man’s hip-hop delivered over soulful music:
“I was chillin in the Bay, ordered half a glass of OJ and Tanqueray
The bartender did a double take
She said according to the track, she’d have pegged me for a cognac
Said she been a fan from way back and owned every last track
She wish the so so whack cats would put the microphone back
Said she appreciated grown rap
She asked me why I hadn’t blown up yet (word?)
Said she caught the last show, sick set, but not enough folks had shown up
She said she wished that I was mainstream (ahhh)
And when she put her friends up on my songs, they say the same thing
I told her thank you for the love and the support
Glad you’re diggin the music and enjoyed the show you caught
But right now, I’m feelin bigger than I ever would’ve thought
not to mention pockets fatter from the songs you bought
I appreciate the slow and steady climb (y’knahmsayin?)
One fan and one rhyme at a time”
I need to step out of the critic’s role for a second and admit it – I’m one of those fans. I’m that cat who buys every J-Live album and wishes he was as well known as Gucci Mane, Jay-Z or Eminem. I try to tell anybody who will listen how dope he is, only to realize that outside the audience reading this review right now, most folks don’t want to hear it. The lyrics of this song are therefore instructive for me as both a fan AND a critic. J is cool with where he’s at right now. He’s doing good, making a living, making good music. He’s not sweating being at the top of the hip-hop playlist, number one in the club, or the background music for every segment on Jersey Shore. That natural confidence comes through in every bar – he knows he’s right where he should be doing right what he should be and he doesn’t need the throngs of the masses to say so to know he’s good. In a world of insecure artists who beg for approval from the public, J needs none. That’s a measure of self-success that can’t ever be measured by platinum plaques.
“S.P.T.A.” is 13 songs of that cool, calm and composed confidence being exuded all over his tracks. It would be one thing to simply laud him for the bars, which he has deserved praise for now for decades, but the tracks he’s putting down for the sound are a revelation as well. The brassy horn, cool bass, hi-hat and cymbals of “Watch Sun Watch” are carefully mixed and EQ’d to match the lyrics perfectly while being dope enough to stand alone as an instrumental. Some tracks this good could take your attention away from the rhymes (and some DJ Premier tracks are guilty of that) but the Triple Threat proves why he deserves that accolade as much or more than any baseball player in the last hundred years:
“I am that I am, it’s not what it was
I do what I do cause it does what it does
I was here when you got here, I’ll be here when you born
I’m just gettin started like I’m just gettin on
I build my legacy slowly but surely
My very first single titled “Longevity”
Now that’s approximately 15 years ago
The lyrics resonate for four score and seven mo’
I stay cool as a fan and I oscillate for sales
Real recognize real, and real will prevail
And steel sharpens steel, so I stay on the real
with my ear to the ground, I’m Eastbound and Down
Load it up and truck it, sweat by the buckets
If I didn’t love it I’da been said fuck it!
You shine like your earthly jewels, I wear none
The brightest it can get is a reflection of the sun – watch!”
At least one reader asked me recently by e-mail why I don’t review every single track on an album when I write about ’em. “S.P.T.A.” may in a sense be the answer to that question – you could single out almost any song on the album and still find dopeness inside. The heavy keys and me/myself/I conversation of “The Authentic” are just as fresh as the whimsical tone and tenor of “Great Expectations” are just as fresh as the cardiac intensity of “No Time to Waste.” It might seem like something is being overlooked if we didn’t name check your favorite track, but in turn I would say anything not mentioned by name is just as worth your time as anything I did. That’s not often true of many albums, but J-Live is not often what you find on many rap compact discs and digital downloads either. He’s something that evolved out of inner confidence, incredible hustle and intelligent lyrics – and that’s as much a Triple Threat as anything “S.P.T.A.” can offer.