The RZA recently compared commercial hip-hop to fast-food, saying that even though “ignorant hip-hop is dominating the airwaves and record sales … eventually you’re going to have to get some nutrition.” Those still looking for their daily source of sonic vitamins and minerals can look no further than emcee/deejay/producer J-Live. He’s perhaps best known for his 2001 debut, The Best Part, which never saw official release due to industry politricks, and The Hear After is his first full-length since All of the Above was released in 2002. The one crucial difference? J-Live’s decided to replace production from established beat-makers including Primo, DJ Jazzy Jaff and DJ Spinna with joints of his own, most of which fail to inspire.
Still, J-Live’s ability to construct a song more than compensates for any deficiencies in production. In the same vein as past conceptual gems including “Them That’s Not” and “Braggin’ Writes,” The Hear After’s “Audio Visual” attempts to use lyrics to manifest visual images. J-Live spits: “We at the same vantage point seeing different things/ Y’all see yourself as struggling and starving artists/ I take advantage of the progress the struggle brings/ Y’all see yourself as bubbling pop-rock stars/ I see so many bubbles pop that never got far/ The only stars I know are in the sky and in a child’s eye.”
J-Live, a former teacher in the New York City public school system, never wastes any lines, densely packing meaningful lyrics into each bar. On “Brooklyn Public Part I,” the teacher-turned-emcee eloquently describes the crumbling school system and the daily grind faced by the faculty: “One class, thirty-one students, thirty-two chairs, twenty-five desks;/ I guess they got to share/ Nineteen textbooks and most are missing pages/ Junior high, three grades but six different ages.” J-Live further elaborates the complexity of the NYC school system and its effect on the students: “Some are motivated, some are lazy/ Some are geniuses and some are crazy/ The line between is hazy … Some might change the world, some are early to the grave or jail/ Some are so complicated, some are so simple.”
If Top 40 hip-hop is fast-food, J-Live is a full-course meal. But unlike previous works, The Hear After is seasoned with lame beats, making this project not nearly as palatable as previous works, including the aforementioned full-lengths and the companion EPs released in 2003, Always Will Be and Always Has Been. Ignorance may be bliss in hip-hop, but as the RZA said, people will eventually need nutrition. And J-Live will be patiently waiting to serve it up to the masses.