The notion of defiance pumps through the heart of the hip-hop creation myth. Understandably so, because the nothing-to-something story of the Bronx bringing ghetto aesthetics to the world mirrors Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches spin on American capitalism. Though those within the hip-hop community have grown increasingly skeptical of whether this notion still exists in the culture, defiance continues to play a prominent role in hip-hop’s identity today.
In fact, numerous artists have positioned themselves in varying stances: Rhymefest marches to the beat of louder icons — Kanye, P.E., Che — to garner attention; Saigon stays up to date by using social networks to broadcast his grievances; and the Roots practically created and filled the niche for commercial hip-hop’s activist wing.
However, each of these artists faces off with the industry while living off its niche market interest — call it lip service with a sneer. Although hardly as damaging as the crass devolution of mainstream hip-hop into empty aesthetic and lifestyle choices, this accepted notion of defiance has in fact defanged hip-hop’s ability to negotiate and criticize American civil society.
Which makes Then What Happened?, the title of J-Live’s fourth LP, an appropriate summation of hip-hop’s frustration in 2008. A former "child star" in The Source‘s Unsigned Hype column, the emcee and producer responds to the culture’s fabricated and romantic defiance by painting a stark picture of the industry’s fruits: middle-aged, divorced, multiple children and a jagged career path. But far from being a "classic album of bangers" or a "searing critique of society" or any other marketing cliché, the album demonstrates hip-hop’s true original characteristic: to work creatively within confinement and restrictions.
The production, handled here by DJ Spinna, Evil Dee, and others, works with a limited catalog of samples but lends the thirteen-track album a lean and welcome minimalist tone. His storytelling is almost comically mundane, such as on "Ole," where he describes, "Waking up on [his] couch/ Waste of a bed in this big empty house/ Wait, sold the house/ Small, empty apartment," with nothing to look forward to besides a friend’s house party.
Yet the minutia of detail combined with self-awareness makes the stories and thoughts both engaging and compelling. The common thread, then, is a rigorous practice: Both the producers and guests, many of whom are experienced veterans, as well as the center of attention himself demonstrate their creativity by using craft to make — surprise — somethin’ out of nothin’.