Calling Jeru the Damaja’s career “up and down” would be a little bit of an understatement. At one point, with DJ Premier in his corner, he was the self-described “Prophet” of hip-hop music and culture, and was much beloved for his no-nonsense lyrics and righteous attitude on albums like “The Sun Rises in the East” and “Wrath of the Math.” While at times his rhyme style seemed to emphasize verbiage over flowing to the beat, the powerful eloquence of those words over such strong beats made him second to none in his position as rap’s voice of conscience. Ultimately the 1990’s were not too kind to rappers who used their lyrics as thought-provoking social commentary and educational tools, as even once widely hailed rappers like KRS-One and Rakim saw their crown as kings of rap get tarnished. To his credit Jeru did not trade in his politics for a bling bling chain and some 24 inch rims, but his audience and influence decreased to the point that when he returned five years after “Wrath of the Math” with “Heroz4Hire” no one really seemed to care. In truth Jeru’s own lyrical style had become something of a handicap, as self-produced beats proved to be no match for Primo’s work and made his rhyme style seem less cohesive and more “spoken word” in nature. Not that there’s anything wrong with spoken word mind you (big up to Black Ice and Saul Williams) but if you buy a rap album that’s what you want to hear – an MC rapping on the mic.

While hip-hop’s commercial side continued to glorify a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and socially unredeeming behaviour combined with overly simplistic lyrics, a dedicated hip-hop underground kept on churning out records better than what the masses would hear or even had any interest in hearing. That’s not to say all independent label records were “prophetic” mind you, but that the chance of hearing something that would raise your awareness was far higher than in pop rap’s song after song about sex, money and hoes. The underground is the better place to be for artistic creativity, because intentionally or not creating records for mass consumption tends to make an artist change their intent and/or delivery over time so that it will be received by the widest audience (or if you prefer the majority of that audience that is the lowest common denominator). Instead of giving up his credibility and trying to get in where he could fit in with pop rap music, Kendrick Jeru Davis dug even deeper into the underground and returned almost a decade after he first debuted with “Divine Design.”

This time, Jeru left the production duties to Edd Dantez for Ashenafi Entertainment, leaving him free to concentrate solely on the lyrical skills. The difference is readily apparent when you listen to songs like “War,” where a simple but powerful drum track proves to be a throwback to the days when Jeru sounded dope over broken piano chords and dripping water pipes. The militant mindstate of Jeru against the world has not by this point been dulled by the industry; rather he rebels against mediocracy and seems to be sharper than ever:

“Hard times build muscle like lactic acid
Some entertainers, are losin their minds makin pornos pissin on kids
The streets is real, save the theatrics
I still treat a bitch like a bitch, while y’all niggaz is doin backflips
I can’t trip I guess it’s part of the game
Like Ja Rule bitin my name, like MJ goin up in flames
Like chickens suckin dick for fame
As things change I remain the same
Tryin to keep sane, while many struggle to maintain
The stress of ghetto livin can bust ya brain
It seems the road is paved with less joy than pain
I wanna regress but I refrain, if I don’t I rage war
right here in the streets of New York
Some talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk
Like Muslims at the corner store sellin pork
My little brother still outlined in chalk
They went from forties to the champagne court
Videos and true lies makin all the birds squawk
Little girls butt naked so the predators stalk
My man say he was God, holdin the Devil’s pitchfork
That’s why I’m throwin rhymes like Geronimo’s tomahawk”

Damn, you can’t get much more blunt than that. Throw that song on in the club sometime and a lot of wannabe P. Diddy type rappers are gonna be left dumbstruck, spitting out their expensive champagne into their glasses. Jeru doesn’t give a fuck about their asses. He even makes it clear on “Praise the Lord” that his message is for the children, although sadly they’ll be too busy mimicking the lifestyles of the rich and Fabolous to ever absorb or even acknowledge his wisdom. Just because nobody’s listening doesn’t mean the truth shouldn’t be spoken though, and for anyone who misinterpreted “Da Bichez” way back on his first LP he’s still trying to clear the air with songs like “Queens.” Let the truth be revealed:

“Shinin star, but not a movie actress
Mind refined, skin tone many shades of blackness
And every man wanna have this, because she’s the baddest
And her booty it got the fatness
Many come with excess bagage from broken homes
To heal her dome I wrote these poems
And most love to talk on the phone
The real ones – they either love you or they leave you alone
Act childish even though they full grown
Some jump badge you gotta be like: shorty watch ya tone
Causin commotion, cause the species deal with emotions
No matter how dope they are, they put you through the motions
Some move real fast and others in slow motion
The ones that’s upset’ll have they granny fix a love potion
Some love flowers most smell like baby lotion
Some so ill they have a player talkin love and devotion
The ones that been done wrong watch how you approach ’em
And save those phony lines they can tell if you genuine
No matter how un-coachable, I can coach you
I need upon my team – my black queen”

As good as it is to see Jeru come correct with the lyrics and tighten up his flow a bit, it would all be meaningless without good tracks for him to flow over. The methodically relentless flow of “Logical” opens the album nicely though, and paves the way for “the nigga ya love to hate like Osama” on the heavily tribal inspired “Murda 1” and for Jeru to later expose the hypocrisy of “Da Game.” Not all tracks work though – “Rasta Powers” is so noisy it becomes abrasive, and “Whatyagonnado” feels overly simplistic in it’s layering and tinny drumline. Still by the time you reach the “Divine Design” title track at the end of this album, it’s clear that there’s still a place for Jeru the Damaja in today’s hip-hop world, no matter how blinged out his contemporaries have gotten. The real shame is that although Edd Dantez does a fine job, and guest producer Sabor handles songs like “Praise the Lord” and “Rap Wars” nicely, one has to wonder how much better still this album could have been with Pete Rock, Alchemist, or Kanye West lacing Jeru with their audio magic. If you thought Jeru the Damaja had come and gone in the 1990’s though, give “Divine Design” a chance and you just might be surprised.

Jeru the Damaja :: Divine Design
7.5Overall Score