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J-Live

All of the Above (Coup d'État)

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Too often, so-called enlightened hip-hop is like an educational program. Self-righteous, proudly derivative conscious rap (c-rap for short) MCs rhyme over tired breakbeats, pat themselves on the backpack for keeping it real and load so many hip-hop clichés into every chorus that there's little room for the verses. Even lyricists who started out making heads say "damn" with every track have lost their way -- the more Common gets "conscious," the more his fans lose consciousness. But there are some genuine gems among the past-rehashing crews, including J-Live, the best-kept secret since Diamond D.

A former English teacher, J-Live schools listeners with his vast vocabulary and poetic detail. He also offers higher education: the deep-thinking 9/11 analysis "Satisfied?" might be the most lucid tune about the topic to emerge from the genre. It was damn tragic, but it ain't magic, states the Brooklyn native, explaining that the terrorist attacks don't erase day-to-day problems African-Americans face.

Not that J-Live isn't up for some lighthearted wordplay. He drops a string of variations on MC, one of hip-hop's most important letter pairings (mindless crap, mad charisma, making a comeback). He flips the script Clue-style on one story, crafting three different endings for one scenario, and he tweaks classic chants, turning "Like This Anna," a phrase that's usually shorthand for like this an' 'ya don't stop, into a direct address to a wayward woman. His relaxed, clearly articulated delivery ensures that every extensive metaphor and backed-up boast has time to sink in, and the equally easygoing funk-and-jazz-laced beats allow his lyrics to lounge comfortably. Though occasionally unremarkable, J-Live's improvisation-fueled backdrops constantly evolve, and most eventually stumble upon gold.

Having had his debut, The Best Part, languish unreleased for years thanks to major-label consolidation, J-Live is as qualified as any artist to spend a song or two bitching about industry politics. And as a former teacher, he could certainly tap commercial rappers on the knuckles for gratuitous obscenities and deliver scathing critiques on their F-minus flows. But he's too forward-thinking to dwell on the past and too creative to take easy shots at top-sellers. All of the Above showcases an MC who's truly conscious of his surroundings. He's aware of hip-hop's history, but he'd rather add new pages to the book than revisit early chapters.

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