An educator for eternity, J-Live may not be a teacher in the classroom anymore, but as long as he keeps rapping, he’ll always be a teacher on tape so to speak. For years prior but especially at the dawn of the new millennium all the way to the present, the Brooklyn emcee and producer has been one of hip-hop’s strongest truth-speakers, rapping about the true nature of life over vibrantly pulsing beats of the most authentic East Coast persuasion. Over the last three years, he’s been much more active in the music than some might’ve caught wind of through typical news sources, with caring albums like Around The Sun, His Own Self and How Much is Water? To help close out what has been an amazing year for hip-hop, J-Live reemerges this month with the self-released At The Date of This Writing Vol. 1 (Dec 12).
J begins his no-nonsense album by filling the intro “One Two One Two” with mic checks, tight rhymes and of course, heavenly boom-bap, that burst forth through the speakers and pierce the soul. This is not one of those projects that portions all its good parts to one section at the end or anything like that. Everything is irresistible and the first half features arguably the EP’s most profound moments, and the proof is in tracks two and three. In “Eleven Nine,” J-Live describes the cold world in the first world in an age of “moral decay” and “fear and ignorance” where “America been steady losing its f*cking mind.” J-Live accurately states, “you watch the idiot box the livelong day, getting railroaded, ram-rodded, f*cked, hoodwinked and run amuck / led astray so false media can make a buck / pedaling false idols made by false prophets / your real money pads pockets as they send profits everywhere but where the dollars need to circulate.” Honesty just doesn’t get any more brutal than that.
In “Running Scared,” J-Live extends more power to the people with charismatically enlightening passages like “for years we’ve been putting it on wax / my people been sick and that’s facts / the woke know who made the virus, while they steady telling us to relax / the vaccine is here on these tracks / but we gotta do better than just slack / the reward is way more than just racks / with understanding we bring the love back.” In “The Poor Part,” which is impressively one long verse with no breaks, J provides extensive commentary on being a so-called starving artist but also remarks on keeping at it because it’s something positive and constructive for the world-community. For him it’s about owning his masters and “mastering ownership.”
J just keeps coming with great substance, adages and observations in “Old Man Game” where he speaks on generational wealth and growing more seasoned with the music over time, starlit as well in the chorus, where J quotes Nas’s famous dance-move shoutout from “Made You Look.” We then come to “So Close,” where natural beauty is truly found. J-Live revels in the absolute joy and sheer bliss of a real attraction and a real love that is not forced or awkward in the least bit. In “I Tell Myself (Keep Paddling),” because this album has fine executive-direction overall, the focus is on persistence and perseverance, very appropriate for a final track. The door has just been left wide open for volume number two. At The Date of This Writingis proof that you don’t need a big studio budget, flashy sounds, mainstream themes or even guests to make great hip-hop music and J-Live is a mirror image of the quality artist he’s been since the beginning. The general skeleton of ADW1 may not be cutting edge, but J-Live makes the basics sound beautiful once again here.
This year has been a great landmark one for the wonderful women of hip-hop. We continue to be treated by the fabulous offerings from 3D Na’Tee, Lady Paradox, Sammus and Kate Tempest and now, emcee Little Simz from London adds her piece to the mosaic with Stillness in Wonderland, her second LP following A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons (2015). Like her last, this quality, out-of-the-blue album comes via Simz’ Age 101 label, and the growth shown by her and her team herein is commendable, from the more varied, more enchanting score than Simbi’s previous tracks to her improved all-around emceeing.
One significant way in which Stillness in Wonderland resembles the Alice fairytale is by way of the “Cheshire Interludes” moving Simz and her guests along. After the first, she sets the table with wisdom straight out the gate in “Doorways + Trust Issues” admitting, “everybody’s gotta talk ‘stead of showing love, they take something real small then they blow it up, [I] can’t take the fake sh*t these days, everybody wanna fake sh*t these days, while you’re being wasteful in a time of need I be out here trying to save sh*t these days.”
Slow easygoing rock moves us to “Shotgun” (with Syd from The Internet) where Simbi shows us how firm of a rock she is. She is aspiring in life so she has no time for nor is she looking for so-so flings. This is where Simz gets tough. She’s woeful of the ongoing battles of everyday living over enlivened strings and jazzy, kazoo-y oboe bursts in “Picture Perfect,” lamenting that “you can only eat if you’re hunting or you’re willing to kill, mercy is never shown and damnit it’s all I’ve known, remember to pay your debts, this sh*t is some game of thrones.” The hard-shelled tendencies persist into “King of Hearts” featuring grounded spitters Chip and Ghetts, and of course “Bad to the Bone” (ft. Bibi Bourelly) is somewhat hardcore too.
The rest is tenderized but still plenty to chew on nevertheless. Simz, Tilla, Josh Arcé and Chuck20 wander through and explore their vast perspectives like the lands they’ve seen and/or imagined in “Zone 3” to quiet tambourines, crying guitar and sweet flutes. “Poison Ivy”’s relationship-reflections have Simz saying “don’t push me now, don’t let me down” next to Tilla softly crying out “show me love, show me now” all to squelching electric guitar and rhythmic clomping steps. She’s not vague but some of Simz’ lines can be interpreted multiple ways, like this one from “Low Tides”: “women are trying to get the diamond ring from a man, there’s a bigger plan, so figure it out while you can.” Is this a knock on materialism, or on the institution of marriage, both, or something else? Other ones are more straightforward, like “though the truth hurts I’ll be okay, being ruthless that ain’t no way.”
Many times, like in the outro “No More Wonderland,” Simbi is simply down but not out, pulled in different directions but committed to finding the right one for her. She can always be counted on to offer appealing, thought-provoking messages however. We’re truly witnessing a nice step up for the young but rapidly developing emcee since last year with this sophomore.
Progressive and evolved in her rapping methods for sure, Little Simz doesn’t always stick to the rigid sixteen bar structure of classic rap, but her verses always have the most fundamental qualities of good authentic hip-hop lyricism, and the music beats this time around are more textured than those on Curious Tale. Stillness is missing some in-depth storytelling and issues and current event subjects but still, Simz has successfully delivered a lessons-hearty project that no doubt matches the best rap albums of the month so far. Are we experiencing the beginnings of hip-hop’s own British invasion at the moment? Maybe, but Simz is not about to play up to any such speculations or expectations. She’s perfectly content going at her own rate on her own terms. (Stream Stillness in Wonderland on Bandcamp, Spotify and Youtube.)