Like R&B, most hip-hop is so mainstream it could be considered a subgenre of pop. Rhymesters like 50 Cent and Lil’ Wayne are little more than breathing brands who’ll endorse everything from sneakers to video games, before the obligatory Hollywood roles come a-knocking. So there’s no room for the reflective J-Lives of this world. Indeed it takes a brave soul to champion Then What Happened?, a bling-free zone displaying the kind of agile wordplay you’d expect from a former schoolteacher. With The Upgrade and The Understanding, the album has the kind of laid-back grooves that would earn top billing on a J Dilla mixtape. Elsewhere, the Spanish joint Ole sees J-Live pondering personal matters as he talks of being “strangely estranged from his wife, kids and cat”. He injects realism into a genre hung up on the cult of celebrity — and this down-to-earth theme continues in the album’s tight, unfussy production that’s reminiscent of hip-hop LPs of old. If sales figures are anything to go by, punters are tiring of the predictable prose that litters today’s rap recordings. Perhaps it’ll take the introspective rhymes of a bespectacled Brooklynite to revive the scene’s fortunes.
[one_half]J-Live’s The Upgrade