J-Live is too vibrant an MC to remain a martyr forever. His right to a hallowed underground status is indisputable: Following two ace singles, his anticipated major-label debut, The Best Part, was shelved in the cost-cutting melee of the corporate Unigram merger. Three years later, J has acquired the rights to sell The Best Part on his own, and it's worth tracking down. But with All of the Above, what the Brooklyn MC calls his "second first album," J-Live's martyrdom comes to a timely end.
J-Live not only respects his own ability to wield words, and the responsibility that comes with that skill; he uses his rhymes as an opportunity to examine how words work. "One for the Griot" revises a carefully detailed sex fantasy twice over when his boys complain. In the notes he compares this technique to that of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. In fact, the pliability of his narrative shows up the ideologies of both MCs who duck the meanings of their raps by shrugging and saying, "It's just a story," and bluenoses who want to shoehorn art into a bland moral code. "Satisfied?" integrates an Augustus Pablo-style melodeon into an evenhanded yet unyielding political message: September 11 notwithstanding, there's still a battle to be fought at home. Rhymes J: "It's all about NYPD caps/And Pentagon bumper stickers/But yo, you're still a nigger."
Had these easy-rolling grooves and jazzy inflections come from an upstart, they might seem nostalgic for hip hop's idyllic middle school at the cusp of the Nineties. But from this vet they sound resilient, like a refusal to dip into the bitterness he's earned. His easy, conversational bob recalls De La Soul's Dave, but without the accumulated crankiness. Compare him with KMD's Zevlove, who was so burned up about his own disc's shelving that his later reincarnation as MF Doom was more brittle than brilliant. Sure, J's co-MC DJ Spinna runs out of ideas before he does, but even at their most spindly, the jazzy affectations of the music bespeak a maturity beyond the ken of any low-end theorists from the golden age.
This is a man with business to finish, not a score to settle. After all, the middle school left a lot of unfinished business itself.
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