The once former member of underground mainstay ScienZ of Life, then known as Lil Sci, Shaman Work Recordings President John Robinson has crafted a solid yet mildly known discography that spans both coasts and captured the support of many underground heavy-hitters. Just last year, CL Smooth made his return to hip-hop via the multi-dimensional JR's label and others are set to release shortly. However, John Robinson, who has harkened back to his given name as a sign of both maturity and understanding (it will make mom happy!), is also vying for that cultured hip-hop niche and seeks to re-introduce himself to his audience with a full-length album; but, until then, he has at least put together a promotional mix-tape, "The Leak Edition Volume 2", to pass the time.
Enlisting the production support from well-known artists such as Madlib and perennial favourite MF DOOM, as well as other lesser-known names, JR has spared very little to create a statement with this mix-tape – that is, he is no ordinary rapper, but a multifaceted artist who is truly a force to be considered, and he proves so on this effort. The album starts off with an interview explaining the return to "John Robinson" moniker just before it kicks in to the simple yet infectious beat of the introductory song. The raw drum samples meshed with the bouncy bass effects easily matches JR's raspy voice as he lets off a quick battle verse to get things started. However, the mood quickly changes to the more heartfelt R&B-esque melody of "All Behind Me." While the change is somewhat sudden and devoid of transition, the song itself offers a sultry, soulful beat to the poetic jivings of JR's life obstacles. This gives way to the more subtle, gangster appeal of "Connected" before reaching back for the soul on the Flying Lotus-produced "Makings of U" – again, lacking any real connection, be it beat, concept or otherwise, between songs.
Thankfully John Robinson returns to that raw hip-hop break that only Madlib can concoct on the easy-flowing "More Music." Here, the gritty producer laces his typically off-kilter bass with sparse drums, cymbal crashes and other sound effects, as JR offers the listener the first, real taste of his versatile flow. I D 4 Windz then clocks in with his best MF DOOM beat impersonation on "JR Meets Invizible Handz," encapsulating the horns and upbeat tempo perfectly, providing a great background setting for JR and Invizible Handz to exchange personal accounts of their first meeting. The Super Villain himself shows up midway through the album on "Expressions" to provide a slower funk that suits Tiffany Paige's vocals well with looped strings and melodic tone. Here JR elucidates further on his thought process: "Forever shine with the rhymes in the presence alone/ and the gift to bless finesse the microphone/ Each time I speak only takes me closer to home/ I can't explain it so I wrote it in the form of poem." The album's final five cuts play to JR's strengths in terms of beats as I D 4 Windz, K Dubble and Ammon Contakt retreat to the boom bap drums that help amplify JR's raffish voice – for the best example, check "With Voices" as the drum line compliments the up-and-down keys and make clear JR's battle lyrics, such as, "Your feelin' is accented with a New York spirit/ Echo your city blocks quicker than a New York minute/ It's true school authentic/ Of course you hear it in the lyrics, it's vivid/ Picture perfect like the plasma image."
While the album depicts John Robinson's conscious effort to put out an alternative to everyday mainstream hip-hop, he overdoes it as the album clocks in with nineteen tracks that, aside from the last five songs, seem misplaced or disconnected to an extent. As stated a few times throughout this review, JR is at his best when rapping over boom bap-type beats that enable his raspy tone to shine through; however, while he accomplishes this at various points in his album, his attempts to reconcile that West Coast flavour (re: "Under My Skull"), while effective in of itself, with the rest of the album proves to be ineffective and disrupts the flow. A more concise selection, minus the forgettable "Always Bless" and "Don't Test," and, ultimately, a better overall vision of what JR can contribute would have benefited him a great deal here. Easily, a better, well-transitioned album combining both the soulful and gritty beats offered throughout the album would augment this album greatly.
Nonetheless, being a mix-tape of sorts, "The Leak Edition Volume 2" provides an in-depth view of JR's palate of musical and lyrical potential, undoubtedly making this artist, who has been around for a while, something to look forward to in the coming year. Especially when considering that there is an album consisting mostly of MF DOOM production and JR vocals to be released some time in 2007, this could be a solid year for John Robinson and Shaman Work Recordings.
Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6.5 of 10
Originally posted: February 20, 2007