Synecdoche, consonance, literary allusion, and extended metaphor. Most self-proclaimed "poets" in the hip-hop industry wouldn’t be able to tell you what these are, let alone use them skillfully. Most, that is, except for J-Live.
A true poet, emcee, deejay, producer, and ex-English teacher, J-Live comes lyrically equipped on the eight-song Always Will Be, the follow-up to last year’s Always Has Been, which features his classic "Braggin’ Writes" and other tracks recorded in the mid-’90s. Though the beats and hooks are limited in their scope and creativity on Always Will Be, J-Live’s intricate wordplay is enough to carry off this effort. You’ll also pick up more vocabulary than you would from a Word-a-Day calendar.
Like so many famed underground emcees who have had to stifle their chances at commercial success because of record label problems, J-Live’s album output has been on and off for some time now. He first emerged in the late-’90s with the The Best Part for London Records, but that record was put on the back burner. J-Live waited about three years, until 2001, for that debut full-length to be released. Eager fans quickly found access to the unreleased album (a process that some have speculated was augmented by the man himself). Since his early dilemmas, J-Live has managed to record several projects elsewhere, including 2002’s All the Above and last year’s Always Has Been.
Unlike on many of these past endeavors, though, J-Live opted to takeover production on Always Will Be, a decision that unfortunately hinders the album. Three songs in particular — "Add-A-Cipher," "Get Live," and the album’s last track "Skip Proof" — will probably give your itchy skip-button finger a workout. All three songs have beats that sound like they could have been taken straight from the pre-programmed Casio keyboard buttons — Hip-Hop 1, Hip-Hop 2 and Hip-Hop 3. Only the dedicated fan is likely to have the patience to give these tracks a chance to sink in.
But the other five songs are an entirely different story. Though none features particularly outstanding production, they are catchy enough to get you to the true attraction to J-Live: a complex network of personal insight and elaborate wordplay that will have your head spinning. The title track serves as an introduction to the album and establishes who the man is. "You better get your story straight," he begins before relating his label woes, challenging those that doubted his skills and giving a shout-out to his fans. "You see my fans standing there at attention? / On this rocky road that’s the suspension / Not gassed up, but they fuel the engine / That’s why I gotta give them honorable mention / They got my back like neighborhood watch crime prevention." And in truth, like all admirable underground emcees, fans and his love of the music keeps him going.
In later tracks, J-Live shows a tendency toward something that has become an anomaly: the idea of sticking to a topic other than partying or sex throughout an entire song, and staying focused long enough to analyze a subject rather than deliver a one-line sound-bite and calling it "knowledge."
On "Car Trouble" he sets himself up as an instructive cab driver, schooling the young Wordsworth on the problems of the record industry, cleverly using purchasing a car as a metaphor for getting a contract. "Little did I know the plan wasn’t quite complete / ‘Cause now we had to complete with a whole fleet / Not to mention I was strictly on call / So I couldn’t even catch my own fairs in the street." On "Deal Widit" he discusses, with minimal conceptual detours, the difficulty of not having enough time to accomplish everything. He asks, "What do you do when you got 20 two-minute tasks and 10 minutes to deal with it?"
J-Live not only has a penchant for writing a song that sticks to a concept, but he also demonstrates his proclivity for turning words and phrases inside-out, attacking them from every angle, stretching, flipping and wringing them dry, using the same word as every possible part of speech. "Most of my moves are long term I must say / I’m not fly by night, but here to stay / I want a fly lifestyle with some fly things / But I won’t fly to the sun with wax wings." Or, witness the play with alliteration on "Add-A-Cipher": "Everything you sing sounds the same / My pin-point pen penetrates brains / My black and blue ink leaves red and brown stains."
All the literary skill and conceptualization is notably combined with a rhyming style that matches vocal cadences adroitly with musical beats in a way that keeps your head nodding. With all of his affliction in recording and distributing his material, perhaps it is no surprise that J-Live chose to control nearly every creative aspect of this EP. But I can’t help but hope that future collaborations will lead to J-Live albums that can be as exceptional musically as they are lyrically and intellectually.