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J-Live tears up the underground rap scene

Kenyatta Storin | Wednesday, January 28, 2004

J-Live is one of those emcees that only underground hip-hop heads tend to know about, but he deserves to be heard by all hip-hop fans. He can tell a tale as well as Slick Rick, is as innovative as Outkast and as confident as Jay-Z. He is a rapper that will make you think, but without being too preachy or serious. Always Will Be may be short at eight tracks, but it is a fine edition to J-Live’s small but excellent music catalogue.The New York underground rap scene first noticed J-Live in 1995, when he came out with his first single, “Bragging Rights.” Soon after, he prepared to come out with his full-length debut, The Best Part, with the backing of well-known producers Prince Paul, DJ Premier and Pete Rock. Unfortunately, due to illegal bootlegging, label shuffling and some other problems, the album was delayed for several years. During this hiatus, J-Live made occasional cameo appearances on other albums, but spent most of his time working as an eighth grade teacher – not exactly the day job you would normally expect from an aspiring rap artist. The Best Part finally made its official release in 2001, but despite turning the heads of the New York underground, it did not garner much attention outside of the city. It would not be until his follow-up, All of the Above, that J-Live would finally be recognized by critics nationwide and acquire the respect he now holds today.Always Will Be is part of a two-part EP set with its counterpart, Always Has Been, a set of older tracks that J-Live created from 1995 to 1997. Unlike his previous work, J-Live not only raps but produces the entire album. Although it is regrettable that the two EPs are sold separately since they are so short, virtually every track on Always Will Be is a highlight. The average hip-hop album may be more than twice as long, but Always Will Be still has more quality material than the filler-infested garbage that often gets released these days. There are so many classic lines on the album that it is impossible to list them all. Sometimes he is clever, like on the upbeat opening track “Always Will Be,” where he says: “Cut off my legs, you still have to face the rest of me / Tenacious, like the Terminator in The Matrix.” Other times creative, like this tongue-twisting verse on the energetic “Add-A-Cipher:” “50 people in a 5 man elevator / freefalling from the fifth-thousand floor / 500 degrees Fahrenheit to a 5 minute song / Feeling like you can’t go wrong.” And he will even throw out a deep metaphor here and there, like on the surreal “9000 Miles:” “My mind speaks mathematics / Sometimes I feel English is a poor translation of my heart’s palpitations” J-Live also keeps things fresh by using a number of different themes for his songs. “Add-A-Cipher” is a purely energetic, upbeat jam, “Deal Widit” is a little more serious by discussing how to deal with overwhelmingly busy days, and “Walkman Music” is a tribute to people who like to listen to walkmans. But the best track that exemplifies J-Live’s creativity is the classic conceptual track, “Car Trouble.” In it, an aspiring rapper gets into a cab on his way to a record label interview, only to find J-Live as the driver. J-Live then goes on to tell the rapper about his past troubles with the record industry, convincing him to skip the interview. He cleverly uses the concept of driving a car as a metaphor for being a rapper in the record industry. Can you imagine Ja Rule ever doing that?Although fans may have to wait a while until J-Live releases another full-length LP, the short Always Has Been should still be enough to hold them over until then. It is a fine addition to any hip-hop collection, even if you have never listened to J-Live before. He is a thinking man’s emcee, but one that can lay it down with the best of them.

Contact Kenyatta Storin at kstorin@nd.edu