Review #3: J-Ron “1994”

By Charlie Gordon

Part 1: An Introduction

Whenever I approach new music, I tend to do so with a certain amount of reserve and hesitation. Naturally I don’t adopt new music into my regular rotation easily because I’m an opponent to changing my routine, and also because the majority of new music falls far below most expectations. The end result is a picky music head with a pessimistic outlook.

This is the attitude I had when I approached J-Ron’s “1994” mixtape, a 10 song tape where a third of the song titles refer to drug use and one song is titled “Pimp Shit”.  I must admit I wasn’t too excited but I decided to face it with as much of an open mind as I could muster. The outcome: a pleasant surprise and a new frame of mind (kinda).

Part 2: The Review

The first song on the album is important because it is supposed to set up the listener to the rest of the album. It is made to set the tone and be our introduction to the artist. An ideal opening song is one that can encompass the artist and give you the most accurate image of their music. Going off the intro song of 1994 “BLESS ME”, a few assumptions can be made about J-Ron:

  1. He likes beats that would not feel out of place on an Outkast album.
  2. He is a southern style rapper; made clear by his accent and his boasting about being from Texas.
  3. J-Ron has a steady flow and a decent enough vocabulary to keep the song from getting boring or repetitive.

All in all, I’d say he picked a good song to start his album with.

Lyrically J-Ron is somewhere between Chief Keef and Big Boi (you’ll have to excuse the Outkast references that pop up but I have never been submerged too deeply into Southern Rap and their name kept ringing a bell in my head through this whole album). Chief Keef’s lyrical ability is on the same level as a 3rd graders vocabulary book and Big Boi has an excellent vocabulary and an ability to incorporate it. None of J-Ron’s lyrics made me rewind a song so I could hear a line again and exclaim my astounding praise for how good it was. On the flip side, none of his lyrics made me cringe and wince just to get through a song.

You can catch me coming down Robinson

slab looking hotter than a basketball wife

on VH-1 ya’ll should watch it with

I’m in your local area make a quick trip to the QT

flirt with the cutie at the counter now she feelin me

30 on 3, I make it move I never stand by

she asked for a break she takes a glance I understand why

she’s looking for a stand up guy I’m never slouching

make it do what it dew and I ain’t talkin’ bout a mountain

This is the verse J-Ron uses to finish the song “Blow My High”; a smooth flowing chill out beat carried by a guitar loop in the background. He lays this verse after the beat fades out and it is a solid enough verse that it can stand up A Cappella. I was enjoyably surprised when I looked up what the QT (Quik Trip) was and found it’s like a larger 7/11. I liked the word play of taking a quick trip to the Quik Trip. This passage is a good representation of J-Ron’s lyrical ability, nothing about it will blow you away but it is full of solid lines that can stand up under scrutiny.

The best aspect of J-Ron’s rapping is far and away his flow. One of the biggest problem with up and coming rappers is that often times they lose the beat in their verses and it gives a very choppy feel to the song. J-Ron has no problem keeping a steady flow consistently on a number of different beats. I was bobbing my head from side to side on every song because his delivery comes off extremely smooth and does justice to the beats he is rapping over. J-Ron sounds a lot like a deeper voiced Fonzworth Bentley (almost an Outkast reference but not quite) with a flow that can go either fast or slow and sounds relaxing in either situation. No song is a better example of this than “Riding Slow” which was my favorite song off the album and has made its way into my regular rotation. A beat with a relaxing bass line and a group of horns used beautifully to give the song a very jazzy feel. With strong verses, a catchy bridge and a perfectly executed chorus, this song is an excellent listen.

The production on this album is strong. For the most part it was a great selection of beats that he seemed very comfortable on. The only real low part of the album would be the production of some of the vocals. J-Ron plays around with a lot of filters for his songs, most of which sound just fine, but there are a few instances where the vocals are over powering and could have been recorded better. A perfect example is the song “Mondayz” where the hook comes off as obnoxious because the vocals are pressed forward and end up drowning out the beat. I have nothing against J-Ron’s voice, but when it’s amplified over the beat he can’t hold a beautiful tone and it makes the song suffer. There are few other instances throughout the album where his vocals need to be turned down a little but overall it isn’t a terrible glaring problem.

Part 3: The Epilogue

Status: Highly Recommended

I liked this album a lot. As far as Southern Rap goes I listen to Fonzworth Bentley, Outkast, T.I. and some Bun B mixtapes so I certainly can’t say I’m a huge fan or expert when it comes to Southern Rap but this was a very solid project. With a laid back style that carried through most of the album and a smooth delivery that gives the songs a very natural feel, I would recommend this to anyone who likes Southern Rap or would like to get into it. I’d even recommend it to someone who doesn’t like Southern Rap because this is not an album that can only be appreciated by a southern connoisseur.

I would have to say the only problem I could really find with J-Ron is that nothing about him really stood out to me as overly memorable. He comes off almost as generic. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It just means that J-Ron needs to distinguish himself from other Southern rappers because at the end of the day, this is a very Southern album, which isn’t bad, but it would be nice to hear some new and different things on the next mixtape (and I do hope there is another to come). J-Ron definitely has the ability and I think the more he does with his music, the better it is going to get.

http://soundcloud.com/yinyu/sets/1994-1

Review #2: Psyonik “Black Velvet: The EP”

By, Mathieu N. Frasier

Part 1.  An Introduction

Following up our last Rap Genius tournament competitor is Psyonik, a man who was not only placed as the top favourite among judges during the qualifying round but has also earned third place among the four finalists of the tournament. Like the artist from my last review, Psyonik has gathered a cult following from Rap Genius, albeit on a larger scale, and is often given acclaim from the Rap Genius community, although the acclaim may be for completely different reasons than Isaiah. Where Isaiah G. was seen as someone who was battle hungry, providing punchline after punchline almost like a boxer with his opponent backed into the ropes, Psyonik was praised on a level of consciousness, much to the liking of emcees such as Black Thought, Brother Ali and KRS-One.

Below is my review of Psyonik’s “Black Velvet” EP, (actually the official title is “Black Velvet: The EP”, but let’s not get too wrapped up in the specifics) an online mixtape in which Psyonik speaks on topics ranging from a brief meeting with a woman in an airport, glorification of classy behaviour, and, in typical rapper fashion, his own inflated sense of self worth. But the question on my mind, and I’m sure this is the question on your mind as well, is, just how much does this confidence hold up? Is Psyonik really as good as he says he is, and just how effective is his music in spreading consciousness and capturing mood? Well, let’s take a look.

Part 2.  The Review

This EP shows a lot of technical skills in terms of lyricism and it’s topped off with a somewhat unique flow and delivery. There are a lot things that Psyonic, as an emcee, and especially as a conscious emcee, is doing right on a level of vocals and writing. He avoids a lot of amateur mistakes, keeping his rhyme scheme more focused on being consistent to the mood or tone of the song as opposed to being designed to impress. As opposed to going out of his way to sound technical and complex which, ironically, manages to make many amateur emcees sound sloppy and uneducated in their respective craft, Psyonik never over does anything in terms of rhyme schemes or sentence structure. The techniques are subtle, and make our host sound refined and almost professional as opposed to hungry, or even aspiring for that matter. (Which, in context of his style, is most definitely a good thing.) On “Tip Your Glass”, our host says:

I graduated from this swag, now it’s modus operandi
Bikini on the bottom of my chick, call her Sandy
You bust a lyrical back flip I’ll pop the brandy
Messin’ with these young mothers while I’m tryna’ make the Grammys

A lot of great lyricism, especially for conscious emcees, doesn’t bombard you with noticeable rhymes and big words, and even the great lyricism that does still keeps those words relevant to the subject matter and keeps them seeming natural in relation to the craft of lines. There’s a complexity in simplicity here that Psyonik is clearly using to the best of his abilities, and it gives him a sense of refinement and professionalism. On the surface, you only see the “andy” rhyme scheme at the end of each sentence, but when you break it down further, you see the “op”, from the word “operandi” rhyming, or creating assonence sounds, with “bottom” or “pop”, and small rhymes like “flip” and “chick.” You might think these small rhymes don’t have much impact on the line but, in a lot of cases, these small, almost unnoticable internal rhymes help hold verses together. (If you listen to Guru of Gang Starr, you’ll see this happen a lot. ) This also helps because it makes him sound as if he has nothing to prove, even when he’s boasting. (Which is somewhat oxymoronic, but if I’m going to let Jay-Z get away with it, I don’t see why I won’t do the same for this guy.) As a result, Psyonik, when he wants to, can have a battle style that makes hungry emcees look like amateurs, and comes off as so effortless that if an emcee shows more skills than Psyonik, or has a better verse in general, Psyonik’s calmness and ability to sound effortless in his work could fool the audience into thinking he wasn’t even trying to compete, and ultimately make him appear to be the more talented of the two.

The production on this mixtape compliments the tone and style of our host just as much as the lyricism and vocal presence. The instrumentals provided have a very easy going feel, from the piano strikes on “Tip Your Glass” and “Francesca”, to the sampled moaning and soft percussion on “Green Tea Swag”, and even to the synthetic sounds of “Delilah.” The hardest instrumental on the album, and it still stays consistent to the rest of the EP, is “Mr. Main Event” which incorporates horn and piano samples, what I believe to be a boxing bell (or possibly a light sounding gong, I’m not really sure) and, of course, a few sharp hitting drum sounds, among other things. In order of where these beats are placed on the mixtape, they seem to mesh into each other about as well as I could imagine them, and every instrumental on the EP blends well with the vocals. Nothing about the instrumentals stand out very much, but they have so much chemistry with our host that it seems somewhat insignificant.

Psyonik’s lyrics are well written and highly poetic on the technical side of things, and it would be hard for me to pick out a flaw with his line structure, especially considering how well he uses his technical qualities to fit his own tone and style. Every lyric goes well with the music being supplied, and Psyonik is no hack in the beat department either. However, problems do arise when you take the meanings and ideas behind the lyrics into account. Psyonik is clearly a conscious emcee, or at least that’s the style he seems to portray, and, for the record, that falls into the range of sub-genres of Rap music that I a) listen to a lot, and b) know a lot about. From Mr. Lif to Brother Ali to Tupac Shakur to Killah Priest, conscious Rap is, and always will be, a welcome meal in my daily musical diet. (Which, as of last week, is completely free of high fructose corn syrup.) As mentioned earlier, Psyonik does play the part of a conscious emcee well, at least for the most part, but he sounds like just another conscious emcee. If you look at Common, Black Thought and Talib Kweli, they all fit in the same category when you think of different types of rappers, and they are all very reminiscent of each other, but each one of them adds a different kind of flavour to their overall sound and feel, and they each present different ideologies and concepts in their lyrics. Common has his preachy, yet confused style, where he searches through his life and mind state in order to find the truth and brings it to the audience as further speculation. (See “The Sixth Sense” and his verse on “Respiration.”) Talib Kweli presents his stream of consciousness as if, as opposed to searching for the truth, he already knows the truth, as he makes statements and presents his lyrics with such conviction and confidence in what he says. (See: “Hostile Gospel pt 1” and “Get By”) Black Thought, who is probably the most versatile of the three, has a higher tendency to evoke passion in his delivery and lyrics, (although it is matched by a few songs from the other two members of this trio, such as “Get By” by Talib Kweli, once again, and “Respect for Life” by Common) and he’s the best story teller of the three. (Even “I Used To Love H.E.R.” by Common, although a better song, doesn’t have as much substance in terms of imagery and pacing as songs like “You Got Me” or “Make My” by The Roots.) These three emcees are probably some of the most similar conscious rappers I can think of, but all of them bring something different to the table, and do a prominent job separating themselves from each other. And once we start getting into guys like Slug of Atmosphere, or Swamburger from Solillaquists of Sound, distinctive attributes only become more noticeable. But as for Psyonik, he doesn’t seem to be doing any one thing more effectively than any of the rappers listed above, or any other well established conscious emcees for that matter. He doesn’t have the imagery of Black Thought, he doesn’t have as much introspective as Common, he doesn’t have the authority of Talib Kweli, he doesn’t have the cleverness of Slug, and he doesn’t have the rapid style and constant stream of conciousness that Swamburger has. Even the sense of refinement and professionalism that I mentioned earlier is already being done by Jay-Z on a higher scale, so I’m having a hard time seeing how Psyonik stands out in a positive way. I’m also having a hard time understanding what would make me want to turn on “Black Velvet: The EP” when I have so much music from other rappers who not only have more depth behind their lyrics, but also have more refined and exploited specialties that help distinguish them from other artists?

Another problem I have with our host is that what his lyrics describe seem kind of vague, at least in some cases. Take these lyrics from “Green Tea Swag”, for example:

You hate it on the inside – but say you love it
You know nothing about the situation but you judge it
You never step back – just thinking
Mind looking the Titanic – sinking
Headlights blinking – car’s still rollin
Checkout this mess that you tossed you soul in
And you thought odds were slim
That you’d end up looking like most of them
And now you’re stuck in the middle of such a bad riddle
Cow’s over the moon the cat’s playing the fiddle
And you don’t know what to do
The world expects great things from you
So you try to perform you try to show em that you’ll always know em, they’re
the reason you write songs and write poems
Now the Green Tea’s brewing, such a cold morning
Life is the story this all just goes on

I find it hard to tell whether Psyonik’s lyrics are sticking to one constant concept with this verse, or if he’s brainstorming and touching upon different ideas. There seems to be no set up or hints towards the meaning of his statements and similes, only words that, without direction, could be attributed to a variety of things. Do you remember those “connect the dot” activities that came in kid’s colouring books?

That’s what this reminds me of. When I was a kid I would ignore the numbers next to the dots and, as a result, the rabbits or the chickens that I tried to draw would never actually show up on the paper. Instead I would have a bunch of strategically placed lines that were meant to replicate the shape of a classic, recognisable figure, but were actually just strategically placed lines that looked like they were placed at random. I put a lot of thought into where I would draw my next line, but for some reason I never thought of the significance of the numbers. In the present, had I not been following the numbers I wouldn’t have found out that the arranged dots above are the outline for a telephone.

A crummy looking telephone, but a telephone nonetheless.

It seems like, to me, Psyonik is arranging his dots but leaving the numbers off the page. In order for his lyrics to be coherent in terms of the message he wants us to uncover, he has to have at least some theme or idea established. Hints towards the theme or idea should be subtle, but not so subtle that it becomes ambiguous. He needs to provide the numbers so that the dots can be connected. But unfortunately, Psyonik’s lyrics in this verse cross the thin line between subtle and ambiguous. To be fair, this is only one song on the entire mixtape that suffers from this problem on a large scale. Most of the other songs are pretty clear about the messages they want to convey, (with a few lyrics here and there that don’t follow this standard, but this only brings us to another problem. The other messages don’t seem to have as much ideology and social consciousness representative in the lyrics. Besides “Francesca”, “Green Tea Swag” seems to be the song with the most depth, but that might only be due to the fact that the lyrics don’t really help me understand what Psyonik’s trying to get at. (Although I’m giving a lot of credit for “Francesca.” Simply put, that’s a damn good song and it’s relevant to a topic that I haven’t heard tackled in music. It’s no masterpiece, but I couldn’t imagine what Psyonik could be doing better in context of his styles and abilities. It all seems to fit into place about as well as it possibly could considering the limitations of the emcee behind the piece, but at the same time I don’t know how another artist could do the concept more justice. All in all, this was a job well done.) You could make the argument that Psyonik’s music isn’t meant to propel ideas of social consciousness, at least to the levels of the emcees listed above, but considering the overall tone and style of the mixtape, from the beats to the lyrics to the flow to the delivery, the lack of social consciousness suggests an inconsistency in the music.

Part 3.  The Epilogue.

Status: Highly Recommended.

Had this not been so short, it would of only recieved a “Recommended +” mark, but at five songs and approximately fourteen minutes, it’s hard to not “Highly Recommend” listening to it. All of the music here is good music, and Psyonik is proving himself talented technically as an emcee, and talented as a producer. The problems with this album are mostly that of a conceptual basis. The mixtape is corny, but corniness in Rap music is easy to live with. Common is corny. RZA is corny. EPMD is corny and they’re in my top ten favourite Rap acts of all time. Psyonik might take the corniness a bit too far, but it’s probably not totally necessary to work on. I could see him working around that and putting out a lot of solid, and even successful, albums, but his corniness is something he should probably work on changing anyways. More importantly, our host provides no new ideas or perspectives and, considering the whole conscious feel of this album, it presents itself as inconsistent. Reading the lyrics, it almost comes off as if the consciousness this album implies is simply a bluff, and that Psyonik is mostly playing off the consciousness of other emcees. Our host also, despite doing a lot of things right on a level of sound, simply does not have the ability to leave a lasting impression on a large scale. Had “Black Velvet: The EP” been released on a wide scale, I could imagine it being forgotten about pretty quickly.

There is a reason that AZ, despite having the technical abilities of Nas, could never break out of the “underrated” category: he doesn’t stand out. His music has always sounded like Nas-light, with a bit more exploitation of his own lyrical abilities and a lot less social consciousness and ability to feel like a fleshed out human being. Like Psyonik, AZ is very skilled technically and in terms of lyricism, delivery, flow, and so on. But without being somewhat different in the eyes of the audience, appreciation is going to be limited, regardless the technique and talent on display. So, beyond anything else, I think Psyonik should try to be more original. He should think of themes, epiphanies and ideas that other rappers are simply passing over, and if he has any eccentricities or obscure personality traits that aren’t shining through in the music, he should try and exploit it appropriately.

Despite those flaws, this mixtape is most definitely worth your time. Give it a listen and judge for yourself.

http://soundcloud.com/psyonik/sets/black-velvet-the-ep/#play