Hip-hop's love of neighborhood identities, record-label brands, loyal crews and well-managed artistic partnerships is so pervasive that a clean-cut individualist like J-Live might seem unhip when compared with your average mass-market rapper.
"Uncommonly mature" is probably a better label, though. And for J-Live, the M-word is far from a kiss of death, because the New York-reared, Philadelphia-based MC makes songs that sound more durable than dated. He forgoes hip-hop's childish things without skimping on the wordplay, and the results bubble with enthusiasm and smarts. On 2002's oft-praised "All of the Above," those qualities arrived via a loose collection of thoughtful rhymes backed by vintage-vinyl samples and jazzy production.
J's latest, "The Hear After," is more cohesive and purposeful, with grooves that are sometimes consciously plain. In short, the words are the show, and the former middle-school English teacher serves up plenty of extended metaphors. "You can throw it on the rocks but it still burns / Go ahead, throw it on your wounds, it'll kill germs / You can throw it on a skillet it'll wake up the flavor / Throw it on loud late and wake up your neighbor," he says on "Fire Water," referring to his own lyrical output. The song's nimble-but-subdued bass line never upstages him.
There are solid musical hooks in some places, though -- usually when J wants to communicate that he hasn't lost touch with hip-hop's party precedents. "Here," "Aaw Yeah," "Whoever," "Harder" and "Weather the Storm" all have either a Caribbean rhythm or a single-instrument squiggle (flute, horn, guitar, etc.) that adds a touch of pop familiarity.
The more synthed-out songs get some of J's more pointed lines, maybe because he feels the urge to be more socially conscious when the sonic surroundings are electronic and sparse. "If there's 8 million stories and a handful of rappers / We can't all be pimps, players and gun clappers / It sounds sexy comin' out your stereo, right? / But then you wonder why we're still gettin' stereotyped," he chides during "The Sidewalks," which has the geekiest beat on the disc.
He hits a totally different plateau on "Brooklyn Public," which calls out the New York educational system from a disgruntled teacher's point of view. Over a halting drumbeat and a bare-bones, slightly wistful piano riff, he delivers a critique of the "No Child Left Behind" era. "Lessons cut short to prep for tests that only test how well you prep / Man, no wonder why the score's a mess," he says, adding later, "Principals with no principles / Priorities political / Pedagogical planning is pitiful." Despite the rhetoric, the song never sounds whiny or preachy.
If anything, it's the perfect example of why J might be the ultimate average-guy MC: He embraces the obligation to rap about the ills that he sees, even if it's unfashionable to do so. And the streetwise kid inside can't forget hip-hop's purer days, when MCs were the celebrities and producers were secondary. But he's also not stuck in the mind-set that "old school" somehow means "better." All in all, the goal of "The Hear After" is permanence, or at least as much as hip-hop will allow.