If good things come to those who wait, this album simply has to be good, because dammit I've waited long enough for it. When I first heard Ahmad of "Back in the Day" fame had a new project called 4th Avenue Jones, I made a mental note to check for upcoming releases. As time went on, I came across several promo stories, but music was nowhere to be found. Now it turns out there may be up to four full-lengths available from this band, of which "Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul" is the latest. Named after a location on 4th Avenue and Jefferson in South Central LA where the first jam sessions occurred in 1997, 4th Avenue Jones have undergone various label and line-up changes since their official formation in 2000. They released an indie album, "No Plan B," were picked up by Interscope, only to be dropped again, leaving a revamped version of their debut, "No Plan B: Pt. 2," shelved. The Jones' went the independent route again, put out a LookAlive label compilation entitled "Gumbo" and pressed up "HipRockSoul" in 2003, which may or may not have been released to retail. In 2005, the band finally ended up on DC Talk's Gotee Records, for which they came up with yet another updated album, "Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul."
So who exactly are the Jones'? If you would have asked Ahmad in 1994, he would have pondered: "Let's see, it's a posse, true, and it's a crew / But not really, so what I'm gonna do / is combine 'em all and find a title that'll fit: / We're a group of money-makers from the west that be runnin' shit." As quoted from "The Jones'" off his self-titled solo debut. Truth be told, there were few signs of any actual crew on "Ahmad," since it was mostly Ahmad doing the rapping and Kendal doing the beats. Today, 4th Avenue Jones are comprised of vocalists Ahmad Jones and his wife Tena Jones, violinist Gailybird, guitarist Timmy Shakes, drummer Dee Calloway and bassist Phat Al. Evidently, "Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul" is a crew effort and Ahmad, who for the greater part of the '90s was destined to be remembered as a one hit wonder, wouldn't have it no other way. As he says on the band's website: 'Being solo is about selling yourself, while being in a band is about the collective. I love the team. We are all capable of doing well on our own but we are really GREAT together.'
No need to disturb the peace, 4th Avenue Jones do indeed harmonize well musically. And when the domestic harmony is threatened, Ahmad and Tena fight back. On "Fabulous Dramatics," she assists her husband in fending off persistent exes, on "Unhappy Birthday" she leaves him on his birthday only to show up towards the end of the day (or song, respectively), while "Sorry" sees him desperate to save their relationship. The vocal time sharing is an essential part of 4th Ave, and the unpredictable manner in which they switch from one to the other and from singing to rapping might just be "Stereo"'s biggest asset. Contrary to standard pop and hip-hop albums, the course this album takes is completely unforeseeable. Ahmad nevertheless plays the lead, his singing voice ranging from hysterical antics to subdued tones, even approaching the bluesy cool of Kelis on songs such as "Unhappy Birthday" and "Overloaded." If the songwriting was more refined and the loud guitars weren't so obnoxious, further references could be N*E*R*D's "Fly Or Die" to categorize this album's extroverted side, or John Forté's "I, John" to describe its introspective side. Or think Linkin Park with an understanding for soul, funk, rhythm and blues.
Yet even though Ahmad would like to see 4th Ave in the tradition of Sly & the Family Stone, often it's just basically power pop, at times sounding slightly outdated or at least very American with all its hardrock riffs. Despite the infusion of modern electronica in small doses, it looks like truly contemporary music might have passed the Jones' somewhat by. Which may have been the intention all along, seeing how "Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul" is also a homage to the good old stereo that picks up radio signals and transforms them into words and music. Now, since we have gone from broadcasting to podcasting, it seems one has to be connected to the cyberworld to be musically updated.
Still, this is polished, professional music devoid of the creamy pop filling that the Black Eyed Peas' latest offerings contained. The band makes it a point to erupt and explode in almost every song. Ahmad takes the emotive lead, singing, screaming, without getting too much self-absorbed, remaining melodical whether his vocals are reduced to a whisper or even being distorted. Though "Stereo" has little to offer to an audience hooked on hip-hop He-Men, Ahmad still got a bit of an MC in him, boasting that he's "been killin' mixtapes way before I heard 50." "I'm West-coastin', they hate that / young and I'm straight black" could even be something The Game says, right? It's mostly rearguard action when on the album's most hip-hop track, the closing "It's Over Now," the rapper laments that they "really don't make MC's like they used to" (mentioning The DOC and Pharoahe Monch, among others), but when he does address competition, he doesn't just spit battle raps, he engages in the age-old battle for hip-hop's soul:
"I don't bust my pimp juice, I don't bust that watered-down
I don't bust that Sambo, my grandfolks wore a crown
What I bust is revolution, what I bust is full of life
What I bust is for my people, me, my baby and my wife
I don't be with fakes and lames, I won't leave my faith for fame
I don't need no Jacob chain, you gon' see me change the game"
Unfortunately, as a rapper Ahmad makes too few attemps to make that happen. The short "Caesar" might be the only instant where he pens a really coherent, compelling verse:
"Caesar, I wanna see ya
We scared of police, not North Korea
I sweat and bleed, workin' to feed mi familia
Wear jackets every day, full-metal, I'm from the ghetto
where teens forced to settle, so they scream like a kettle
Gangbang and exchange drugs, they try to peddle
Lost love from livin' as thugs since they was little
Go to the Sire, tell him we're bringin' his empire
down, when my Messiah returns he's gonna tire
every liar will perish in lakes, burn 'em with fire
Murderin' thieves, how much peace does money buy ya?
Let's educate the homies cause the game is changin'
'stead of wrists they makin' sure our brains are chained
Let's reminisce how many of us hanged and slain
and now we pain our women as a claim to fame?
You just a puppet, Elmo playin' with flames
These are the last days, and it's finna rain
That's why they entertain us
Everybody loves you when you're famous
Hatin' everybody else who ain't us
All we want is more, overlookin' poor people in anguish
Dollars are the universal language
I wanna see Caesar"
There's nothing wrong with the more traditional themes and topics that are prevalent in rock and pop, but somehow "Caesar" reminds you of what a rapper like Ahmad would be capable of if he didn't have to share the stage. Which takes nothing away from the fact that "Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul" is an energetic album that gives a clinic on fusing the most essential genres of popular music.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: May 31, 2005