After 2003's "The Time Has Come," J Trey's second album marks the transition from an all-male trio that includes a singer to a mixed trio that includes a rapper, as singer Jasmine Terrell replaces rapper Skylar Johnson. Add the fact that they're white and you kind of got the City High concept turned upside down. Musically, the Iowa-based collective is a throwback to a time when hip-hop didn't yet permeate R&B as thoroughly as it does in the new millennium. With simple instrumentation devoid of samples, the usual ingredients spiced up with horns, harps and strings, everything buffed to an appealing polish by French producer Kaysha, it's LA Reid/Babyface territory they're treading, not the sample-filled dominion of Puffy. "I got a forty and a blunt but we're singin' love songs," offers rapper JT on "Let Me Hear Ya," yet even some of these love songs come with a hip-hop twist. The opening "Can't Drop the Mic" is an ode to the microphone, a topic much more common in rap music than when singers are concerned. The members of J Trey however all seem to be equally infatuated with the mic - judging from the passion they put in it, the singers even moreso than the rapper, as they contribute to this strong first impression with confident performances.
Technically, J Trey's rapper can easily be identified as the crew's weak link. Whereas Jasmine enchants with her subdued cool and Jay B acts as her more clamorous male counterpart, JT struggles to meet the standards of the rap-attentive RapReviews.com. From our specific standpoint, "Jaze Reign" suffers from all kinds of shortcomings, from JT's hit-and-miss flow to his utterly basic rhyme structure. "Raised a little different than the average MC / so your average MC ain't JT / Could never be / what they wanted me to be / so I just did what I wanted," he tries to distinguish himself early on, but soon enough it becomes evident that JT fails to capitalize on being different. "I ain't got no struggle story for ya / I'm just your average white boy on the mic, I wouldn't wanna bore ya," he reasons, overlooking the obvious - that the "average white boy on the mic" with "no struggle story" doesn't make for a particularly enthusing entertainer. By the same token, he deserves some respect for his honest, common sense approach, as displayed on the motivational third person narrative "So the Story Goes."
Some white rappers have been able to compensate for the missing thrill factor. The most successful of them all, Marshall Mathers, made himself the center of a dysfunctional family and mustered twice the ego it takes to become a rap superstar. Necro escaped into a fantasy world of sex and violence. Others, aware of their insignificant life stories, have gone abstract and artsy. Not surprisingly, the less ambitious JT can't get with the latter's program: "I told myself I won't diss MC's / So bad MC's, you get love from JT / That's right, abstract rappers, you suck balls / But I still love you all," he quips on the solo track "Embellish."
To the group's credit, they do form a vocal ensemble, if one that ultimately needs a more urgent purpose than the joy of singing and rapping together. Strictly judging by how the three voices harmonize, J Trey win over any high-profile R&B/rap collab because there's something refreshingly spontaneous about their music. It is because of this rarely encountered harmony that JT should reconsider his statement "We're an R&B group, I just rap sometimes." If I didn't see any potential for J Trey to be more than "an R&B group," I would have discarded this promo. On a symbolic level, the promise that J Trey holds comes to life when singers and rapper team up to rhyme "Just gimme one chance, I know I can make 'em dance / I sweep 'em off the feet with some romance..." with "...sittin' in my b-boy stance."
Several of the songs on "Jaze Reign" seem to be penned for the purpose of being played live. "Let Me Hear Ya" calls for attention with loudly knocking drums provided by Seattle producer Funkdaddy, while "The Playback" speaks of their dedication to perform even after they run out of material. Good for them that JR's grooving track is the perfect invitation for an impromptu encore. Other offerings such as "The Reason" and "Won't Take Long" proclaim their love for music. Two songs stand out from a songwriting point of view, frankly the only ones to give J Trey cause to talk about "the feeling that you get when your songs are the shit." The emotionally evolving "Could've Been" chronicles a break-up in progress. On "Midnight Snack," Jasmine refuses to just be a "midnight snack" in Jay B's busy life, with JT acting as mediator between the two.
As so often, much more could be done with the premise. For the J's to truly reign (over Iowa and beyond), JT has to stop sounding like a poor man's Jermaine Dupri. All three have to improve their writing to be in a position to say "My Gift Is My Song." They have to leave the functional, sometimes formulaic R&B behind and find their own musical identity, their own version of "blue-eyed soul." The chemistry is there. The confidence is there. Now it just needs to get more interesting, musically and lyrically. Still, for what it is, "Jaze Reign" is a solid effort. While it may not stand up to our high-flying standards, it is fun to listen to because you can hear the three J's had fun recording it, it becomes meaningful because the music obviously means something to the group. That matters, now more than ever.
Music Vibes: 6.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 4.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 5.5 of 10
Originally posted: August 30, 2005