The New York undergound hip-hop scene, especially since the late 90s, has been defined by the 12 inch single. The DJ-friendly nature of the format - or the low budgets of independent labels, if you're more cynical - meant most emcees gained their reputations from a handful of tracks, and were lost in the mix before they ever dropped a full-length. J-Live made a name for himself with his twelves, and tracks like "Braggin Writes," "Hush The Crowd," or "Them That's Not" raised much anticipation for his debut LP, the exemplary 'The Best Part.' But "a little problem with his record contract" derailed that project for a few years, and Live seemed to be another lost cause. However, 2002 finally brought the release of his stellar debut, and the quick follow-up 'All of the Above' further establishes J as one of the strongest emcees out there.
J-Live's voice, which pushes one of the smoothest flows around, recalls Posdnuos from time to time, and "All of the Above" seems like a classic De La album in its playful creativity and strong sense of humour. "All in Together Now" takes two simple verses and folds them into four clever as hell verses to make one great song out of the lyrical origami. "Like This Anna" takes a silly pun as its starting point to develop something more insightful, in offering advice to the titular lady about her life. "One For The Griot," with its sparkling piano and guitar fading in and out, presents a spectacular narrative brimming with Live's evocative detail ("she had a body like a cello with legs") which seems simple enough until J starts revising his ending, from the sad to the happy to the funny. J's effortless skill at relating the tale is underscored by his editing of it, and the song is one of the best cuts here.
But without these sometimes gimmicky techniques, J-Live's songwriting is still strong enough to exceed expectations. "Mcee," J's job description joint, is set off by a blazing second verse where he mixes words starting with two big letter, noting that "more concentration of my cadence might cloud your mind controlling your movements capaciously. "Satisfied," the first single and another highpoint in Live's 12" resumé, takes its bass-heavy beat as the backdrop for more conscious dissent than dissing wack emcees as J considers America in the wake of 9-11. "They got you so gassed and shook now you're scared to debate" he aims at the newly formed patriots, focusing on the still existent inequalities of the system.
To briefly list some of the other great songs here, the second track "How Real It Is" offers a succinct introduction to J's world with a surprisingly skip in tempo midway through; "Nights Like This" has a discrete piano and a sweet hook to provide a softer mood for J's poetics; "The 4th 3rd" is languid recollection of a broken relationship that nicely complements "Nights Like This" in the slower pace; "A Charmed Life," a brief and mesmerizing autobiography which is my current favorite here; and "All of The Above," where DJ Spinna's excellent production makes for further greatness. There aren't many songs I didn't mention, but the consistency of the whole record means you'll never notice a lapse in quality. Its a wonderful feat.
'All of the Above,' combined with "The Best Part," proves J to be something special: an awesome battle rapper, a talented griot, an exemplary songwriter and one damned clever dude. J-Live is an incredible emcee, and this is an incredible album.