Get our free newsletter
In his 1998 novel, The Intuitionist, writer Colson Whitehead demonstrates what an artist is capable of if he can get outside himself. In the form of protagonist Lila Mae Watson, Whitehead, a black male, offers one of the most powerful portraits of a black woman anywhere in literature. Whitehead’s heroine is lonely, not especially brave, and very reluctant to assume the mantle that fate has placed on her shoulders.
Lila Mae is simply human—an accomplishment that underscores the difficulty many male artists have in portraying women as people. To do so requires the artist first to accept his own limitations and then to let go of them, if only for the brief moment of artistic genesis. I’m reminded of this simple but difficult-to-follow rule while listening to J-Live’s All of the Above, which, though flawed, is surely the work of a beautiful mind.
The Brooklyn-based J-Live is that rare MC who sounds as if rap were his first language. Staying in time with the drum is not an obstacle for him; it’s simply what he does. “From the New Museum to the Guggenheim/You can set the time to a J-Live rhyme,” he raps on the breezy “Travelling Music,” and truer words have never been spoken in hiphopdom.
Avid followers of hiphop’s underground already know J-Live well. Label mergers prevented its official release until just recently, but his first album, The Best Part, originally scheduled to come out in 1997, became legendary as a bootleg. He’s also blazed a path of cameos, with his work on Prince Paul’s 1999 Handsome Boy Modeling School project perhaps his most prominent performance. J-Live has long had a reputation as one of the baddest MCs ever to get screwed out of a release date. All of the Above, one of the best solo lyrical performances in recent memory, merely proves it.
It helps that the production on All of the Above eschews monotony at every opportunity. “Travelling Music,” for example, is anchored by a heavy bass that changes deftly in response to the rhythm of J-Live’s flow. “Satisfied?” is even better, grounded by a standard-issue reggaeish drum loop that’s dressed up by almost random synth burbling and a children’s chorus that offers a creepy reading of the song’s title: “Are you satisfied?/I’m not satisfied.” But the glue that holds it all together is J-Live, who always seems to grab the perfect word to stick to each verse. “It ain’t right them cops and them firemen died,” he raps on “Satisfied?” “The shit is real tragic, but it damn sure ain’t magic/It won’t make the brutality disappear/It won’t pull equality from behind your ear/It won’t make a difference in a two-party country…/Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no place I’d rather be/The grass ain’t greener on the other genocide.”
Yet for all his artistic acumen, J-Live stubs his toe on the same obstacle that has tripped up nearly every black male artist from Spike Lee to Snoop Dogg: an apparent inability to grasp the essential humanity of black women. To be sure, J-Live is neither playa nor gangsta. His album contains no talk of herding bitches into limousines or getting models to take Ecstasy. All of the Above even features a sensitively rendered relationship song that hangs on a lost love, “The 4th 3rd.” Measured by today’s miserable standards, J-Live does better than his contemporaries. But measured by his own standards, his own artistic potential, J-Live falls short when dealing with the other half.
All of the Above displays an unmistakable misogyny. “Stan” it ain’t, but it’s sexism nonetheless—just slightly less profane and more paternalistic. On “Like This Anna,” J-Live self-righteously sermonizes to a young black woman about the trials of life and her responsibilities when dealing with men. In the eyes of J-Live, he is simply trying to keep young Anna on the right path.
But that path begins and ends with J-Live focused on Anna’s, um, assets: “It’s like that Anna, I’m only staring ’cause your ass is so phat/Anna, that ain’t fair, Anna, that ain’t right, Anna/Please turn around or I’ll be staring all night, Anna.” What follows is a lecture by J-Live on how to be a proper woman, interspersed with pronouncements like “You’re not a ho, Anna” and “I can’t let nobody desecrate my Anna.” And as anyone who monitors the pulse of black America can tell you, the last person a black woman needs a lecture from is a black man.
Sociopolitical arguments aside, though, what sinks “Like This Anna” is that J-Live is more interested in his character’s perceived inadequacies than his own. It’s a classic case of art murdered by sexism. As is “One for the Griot,” a vivid narrative that offers three versions of a male club-hopper’s one-night stand, one with a lesbian, one with a bisexual, and one with a transsexual. What none of the stories illustrate is the artist’s ability to confront a woman without some sort of stigma attached to her. It’s really a shame, because J-Live’s storytelling is quite marvelous, as is Joe Money’s Gothic production.
For most of the rest of All of the Above, women—J-Live’s family excepted—aren’t really discussed, and this is for the best. J-Live, like most artists, is most adept at talking about what he knows, and his most powerful work on All of the Above celebrates the self. “First Things First” examines the life of an underground rapper who is lauded overseas but unknown at home: “I just got back from a long tour/Seashore to seashore, J-Life of the party/So even if unknown back home, step out of the time zone/These folks came to see me.” And “A Charmed Life,” the album’s best track, is a brilliant piece of diary-keeping: “I been around the sun 25 times/And I still find new ways to recognize shine/It’s like light gets better with age, the way a song sounds better onstage/And rhyme books get better with each page.”
By hiphop standards, All of the Above is phenomenal. But hiphop standards aren’t enough. Rap’s phallocentricism has not only always been its most distasteful feature, but also its most limiting. If the art is ever to move past its apparently obligatory misogyny, it will need an assist from its brightest minds. It will need the help of a more enlightened J-Live. CP