Five years ago, J-Live was underground hip-hopís brightest hope. A gifted rapper, Jean-Jacques Cadet could smash more words and thoughts into four minutes than most MCs manage on an entire album. On "Bragginí Writes," his best single of that era, he rapped, "Itís detrimental questioning my thesis/The penetrationís exact, like amniocentesis/I rip your rhyme to pieces after draining out your fluid/My vocab is fluent, yours is evident to being truant." Heíd established himself as a rhyme role model to many.
When he signed to London Records, then a division of Universal, his future seemed secure ó an elusive goal for any artist, no less an indie rapper. Of course, it was too good to be true. Just as his debut album, The Best Part, began to receive some well-deserved pre-release buzz, London was sold to Warner Bros. and had to leave J-Live behind. Worse still, since industry advance copies had already been distributed, the album was soon being bootlegged ó especially in Europe and Japan, where J-Live has found a rabid following.
Back in America, however, it appeared his profile was doomed to stay low. He finished college, graduating from SUNY-Albany (he had been profiled in the Sourceís "Unsigned Hype" column in 1995, when he was just a freshman), and became a schoolteacher. The Best Part had earned him fans but little more. Before the albumís release, he told me, "I got to have the mind state that I can walk away from this at anytime." Spending time with children was always close to his heart; it enabled him to educate directly rather than worry about whether his records were getting enough exposure to do any good.
But J-Live never stopped rapping, and heís found a niche in the ever more robust new rap underground. All of the Above (Coup díEtat) is now his formal debut, and though The Best Partís unreleased status ensures that those who possess it ó in advance form or bootleg ó will cherish it, this new album should elevate J-Live from indie-rap trivia question to bona fide rhyme kingpin. A mixture of intellectual, stylistic, and emotional experiments, it expands the definition of what a complete hip-hop album should include.
First up: honesty and humility. On "A Charmed Life," J-Live admits, "I was the herb of the crew, but then I learned what to do." Whatís the last time a rapper admitted to such a modest background? Even less likely, he raps about that most unlikely of hip-hop credentials, his college degree: "I had to do a bid upstate, but wait/I wasnít incarcerated, but college-educated/At SUNY-Albany/I was a full-time student, part-time MC."
J-Live also finds new heart in that most tired of forms, the rap ballad. There are two gems here: "The 4th 3rd" and "Like This Anna," where he quips, "You canít salary-cap your mojo." On "One for the Griot," he tells the story of a lusty night out, then revises the ending twice to sell his friends on it. This is not a love story as we know it. In one ending, thereís a murder; then thereís a three-way, and finally, a transgendered bender.
The prize track here is "Satisfied," a potent race-conscious burst of critical examination of the political correctness of postĖSeptember 11 pro-American sentiment. Over a sprightly old-school battle beat, J-Live shouts out the Boondocks and takes a not-too-kind view of the boys in blue: "The same devils that you used to love to hate/They got you so gassed and shook now, you scared to debate/The same ones that traded books for guns/Smuggled drugs and funds/And had fun setting off 41/And now itís all about NYPD caps and Pentagon bumper stickers/But yoí, youíre still a nigger." J-Live continues the manifesto in "Do That $#!%," on which he asks the casually political MC, "You ever seen a crack baby? How íbout a 30-year-old woman strung out into a little old lady?"
Itís contemporary edutainment, and it stands out in a bling-obsessed rap economy. As a genre purist, J-Live is as interested in saving the art form he loves as he is in saving the world it exists in. Some of the brightest moments, and the most vicious, come when he snaps back at the industry. "Iím trying to get to the level where the rebels see the power of my empire and decide to wait a while," he asserts on "The Lyricist." Of course, he realizes thatíll be a long time coming. On the album opener, "First Things First," he gripes, "Iíve dealt with being done dirty, downsized and duped/Done double-paid my dues for real." Itís payback time.