Review #9: J-Smooth-“Mahalo”

By Mathieu N. Frasier.

Part 1.  An Introduction

Between 8th and 9th grade, a Warren, Ohio resident was “dicking around” with his friend and practicing the sacred tradition of rhyming words with other words, and trying to maintain some sense of rhythm while doing so. That resident became J-Smooth, the creator of my current subject, “Mahalo.”

Today, he plays local shows at his University, and has just recently played the Mill Street Fest. (Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.) A fan of such Rap acts as Atmosphere and Odd FutureSmooth is featured on local Ohio blogs, despite not “really fuck(ing) with Hip-Hop super hard as far as influences go,” as he put it in a recent e-mail.

Part 2.  The Review

Starting with the instrumentals, they’re a pretty mixed bag, in more ways than one. Some of them are fine, some of them are bad, and some of them are lifted from other artists. (I like the beat, but Tyler was enough. I really don’t want to listen to another guy rap over the Odd Toddlers instrumental. Even Veggies was too much.) While songs like “PSA” and “Bangin’”  have semi-ferocious drum beats well mixed with low-fi bass lines and interesting melodies, the choppy piano loop on “(Not Such An) Easy Living,” the reversed drum break on “Capt. Crunch,” and the amplified whatever the hell that is on “Gold” don’t do much for me. Then there are songs like “Mahalo,” which has a good instrumental as is, despite still being able to see potential for something better. Had he replaced the redundant backing keys with expert mixing, I feel the beat could have a more powerful feel.

But the rest of the beats are redundant, boring, or stolen.

Lyrically, J-Smooth is superior to many other amateur lyricists–at least, from the ones I’ve heard–and you can especially see this in the song “Closing Statements,” where our host sounds like he’s putting in more effort into his lyrics than anywhere else on the mixtape.

Well, this is my disguise

A piece of organized cacophony

In a battle between where I’m at

and where I outta be

I’m in the game for fame

But is that what it offers me

I’m seeing others who can feel the same

way as what I often see

Despite being forced, the primary rhyme scheme works on a level of sound, and it’s nice to see more than basic internal rhyming in the middle of the lyrics, even if they, too, aren’t quite subtle enough for Rap critics or aspiring lyricists, and probably won’t have the same effects in terms of sound as, for example, Psyonic‘s internal rhyming. Most of Smooth’s lyrics aren’t quite as well written as the ones here, but our host is clearly on the right track in this regard, even if there is still progress to make in other aspects.

In terms of lyrical content, J-Smooth is exactly the type of rapper who would have a song titled “Capt. Crunch.” He’s another one of those emcees who doesn’t take himself seriously, not in an Eminem way, but in a “Thrift Shop“-esque, “I’m going to use my corniness as my niche Rap style” way. (And, of course, he regularly makes mention of his whiteness, a habit I’ve grown tired of long before Macklemore‘s “Damn, that’s a cold ass honkey,” and not soon after realizing guys like Vinnie Paz and Aesop Rock were dominating the underground Rap world.) Smooth‘s boasts range from subjects like being a native of Antarctica, to watching “old-reruns of George Lopez,” (as opposed to new reruns) and “passing other rappers like (he’s) riding in the go-carts.”

Of course, it’s not what our host does, it’s how he does it. De La Soul rapped about daisies, crocodiles, potholes and talking fish on their first album, and they still pulled it off. (Sure it wasn’t literal, but the content and imagery was still there.)

But, where it was never easy to take “3 Feet High and Rising” very seriously, it never came off as downright corny, at least to Rap music standards, something I certainly can’t say for “Mahalo.” Where De La Soul can perform their obscure and ridiculous lyrical content with ease, finesse, and even dignity, J-Smooth not only doesn’t perform his lyrics with the vocal delivery necessary to pull his content off, nor write with the lyrical craftsmanship, but he also plays off his content as if it’s a joke in itself. This may or may not be intentional, in fact, I’m certainly willing to accept Smooth‘s obscure boasts were just him trying to be himself, but regardless, it doesn’t quite work or make the content appealing to me, the listener. (Although, admittedly, this could be just personal taste.)

One of our host’s biggest problems as a Rap vocalist is the softness in his delivery, which makes his braggadocio hard to take seriously. Let it be known throughout the world: If you are going to rap as a character, which it would seem all rappers do, (and not just in the “hardcore” sub-genre) you have to make it seem, at least, natural. Otherwise, you’re just distracting from the work as a whole.

It’s just like a movie. You’re not going to be emotionally invested in the character if the actor who’s playing him is bad, and you’re not going to like the movie if that characterwho, remember, is played by a lousy actortakes up over 90 per cent of the screen time. The directing for the movie could be perfect, and so could the script, but as long as Ben Affleck is reading his lines in front of your television screen for an hour and forty minutes, you’re going to want to pass on watching the film. Similarly, you’re going to pass on any soloist whose vocal performance highly contradicts his or her own subject matter. Bottom line: if you’re going to boast about the things you’re good at, boast with confidence.

Luckily, our host’s delivery is far more irritable than his flow, which actually comes off as quite natural and easy going, with very few moments of seeming mechanical, and even less of including actual stuttering or awkward pauses. It’s kind of like Ice Cube from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s,  as his flow is simple and certainly not astounding, but suits our host’s style and doesn’t distract us from his lyrics and content. (However, he’s clearly missing Ice Cube‘s blunt yet razor sharp delivery, let alone his angry, bitter and savagely clever lyrics, which the flow is (seemingly) designed to compliment. Of course, our host isn’t Ice Cube at all.)

My point is this: J-Smooth needs to come up with a delivery that compliments his flow, and needs to make sure the combination of his flow and delivery compliment his lyrical content. I am in no way implying he should rap about ill treatment from police officers or kicking pregnant ladies in the stomach. (Of coure, I’m not stopping him, either.)

And, while I’m still on the subject, there are moments where J-Smooth‘s flow could still be a bit more natural, particularly on songs such as “Bangin‘” and “Windex.” But overall, the flaws don’t damper too much with the experience as a whole. (Even Killer Mike doesn’t have a totally natural flow. Ever heard him on “Untitled.”)

Finally, let’s discuss the one non-Rap song on the mixtape: “Soups Whatever.” The instrumental here is more enjoyable than any of the other (original) instrumental work on the tape, including the three beats I earlier mentioned I enjoyed. Similarly, so is our host’s delivery, and his lyricism always seems natural and even more creative than usual, possibly because he doesn’t feel he has to fit the role of a rapper. As a result, he sounds totally in his element as a country(?) singer, coming off as pleasant, natural, and even original. This is opposed to our hosts Rap work, where he sounds somewhat forced, dull and downright corny, among other things.

Basically, if J-Smooth regularly performed songs like this, I might enjoy one of his shows. But as a rapper, I can’t really see that happening just yet.

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Not Recommended

Despite having a somewhat refined flow, and more interesting technical lyricism than some of the other artists reviewed here, our host doesn’t have enough going for him on this mixtape to warrant attention from the average listener. Although you may hear an artist who will potentially get better–despite having already developed to a certain extent– it’s not worth your time to tune in to see his potential just yet.

J-Smooth shows too many problems with his delivery, which, as mentioned earlier, can be a vast turn-off for anybody’s listening experience. Like B-Real before the release of Cypress Hill‘s first album, our host has to play around with his vocal delivery until he finds something that works for him and his style. Meanwhile, although his technical lyricism is sound enough, he has to learn to write lyrics in a way that makes the content seem funny, or dignified enough for the audience to not cringe while listening to it. Besides this, our host’s issues are somewhat small. He needs to put in a bit more polishing on his rhymes and his flow and his imagery, but the aforementioned two are the most discouraging issues needed to be fixed.

Instrumental wise, our host needs to keep the following things in mind: backwards drum sounds rarely work; layers are great as long as they don’t sound redundant, and do whatever the hell DJ Premier and EL-P are doing to make their beats sound so refreshing. (I really don’t know how to give advice on good beat making.)




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