Words by Jeremy Shatan
“This ain’t a big move man, I rap in fidgets / Any more than that is nothing short of sort of cataclysmic,” Jonwayne rapped on “Smoke,” his breakout song from the Quakers album. Well, that’s all over now; the cataclysm is upon us. “After The Calm,” the lead off track from his official full length debut Rap Album One, starts with an ominous descending drone until Jonwayne cuts in, measuring his words like brass weights: “I can’t wait for the sky to fall / Picture me rising up until I burn / Like a comet from the ground / Bones turn to dust / I’m a desert in the urn / Never see my guts / May they fatten up the earth.” This is less a rhyming verse than an invocation, a preacher’s call to forces beyond the control of mere mortals. After releasing three cassettes of songs, collaborations and sketches, Jonwayne is ready to make a bigger statement with this album. As After The Calm continues, the drone is joined occasionally by a contemplative little piano melody and other keyboards that grow in intensity as the song goes on, along with a chorus repeating “Falling deeper in the hallucination…” until it ends abruptly with what could be the sound of a flipped coin.
One thing not included in After The Calm, aside from a sparely used programmed snare, is a beat. This is true of nearly half the songs on Rap Album One, yet it remains firmly a hip hop record with a nod to spoken word rather than the opposite. Some of that is due to the attitude displayed by Jonwayne’s devastating put downs and creative ways with a brag: “I’m here to upset the balance of the universe / Capsizing certain rap acts the size of Jupiter,” he announces in “Find Me In The Future,” and the verse in “Reflection” begins with this gem: “There ain’t nobody flyer than me / I say a couple words and you can hear the birds sink in the trees.” Having spoken to the man and found him humble and not at all jaded, I believe he engages in tough talk and self-celebration because it is part of the form of rap music and not to assuage an unusually large ego. He can also pull it off, because his wordplay and delivery are precise and creative, veering from quotidian autobiography to phantasmagoric flights of fancy in the space of a few words.
In the soul-drenched and splashy “The Come Up pt. 1” (ft. Scoop Deville), Jonwayne’s first verse is pure origin story starting with “Just as soon as the sun touched the meadow / I was born, handcuffed to strings of Gepetto,” while in the more skeletal “The Come Up pt. 2,” he tells us, “Went to college for a year, no credits,” and “I was working at GameStop and drove up to L.A.” Somewhat unfortunately, in between those two poles we get Scoop Deville’s tired tale of driving up to elementary school in a limousine and annoying the principal by “mackin’ the cuties.” Maybe it’s supposed to be funnier than I found it, but in any case it’s over quickly and represents the only guest rhyme on Rap Album One, a refreshing fact in it’s own right.
Listeners to Jonwayne’s three cassettes will not be surprised to find mortality cropping up more than once. “I’m living every day like yesterday was my last / This undead kid will live for ever, and then some,” goes part of the chorus for “Find Me In The Future,” and images of birth and rebirth reappear throughout. This ties in with the colliding planets and myth making, as well as with the flavor of introspection and melancholy that color Rap Album One. When Jonwayne starts saying “Feels so good. Sometimes I feel so good,” while nestled deep among Wayne’s and producer MNDSGN’s lush keyboards in “Sandals,” the last song, his contentment seems hard-earned so you feel good for him as well. Surprisingly for someone so inward-looking, Jonwayne seems to have cracked the code of live performance as well, winning fans coast to coast as the opening act for Mount Kimbie on their recent U.S. tour. His energy, instinct for drama, and nonstop flow make for as great a combination on stage as they do on record.
Aside from “Sandals,” “Black Magic” and “The Come Up, pt. 1,” the rest of the album is produced by Jonwayne himself and he is accomplished at getting a lot out of a little, with songs switching between discrete sections, each defined by an individual keyboard sound and often interlaced with manipulated vocals. The woozy, warped-78 sound of “Passing Fancies,” a standout song from Cassette 2, is revisited on the spectral “Black Magic” but never becomes a gimmick. The beats, on songs that have them, are typically stripped back to the bare minimum of a kick and a snare and perhaps a high hat. This is head-nodding music and not built for dancing, which jibes with the impression that Jonwayne is a deep thinker, an old soul who is well aware that our time here is limited and should be used wisely.
An important clue to how Jonwayne copes with that unbearable lightness of being comes in “Yung Grammar:” “My grammar is my posse,” says a voice over and over at the end of the song, which also includes the Schoolhouse Rock-like refrain, “My nouns are and my verbs do things, and my adjectives snitch while my adverbs sing / My prepositions will let you know where I’m at and when I’m there, these pronouns will lend a voice to the cat.” Like many brilliant writers, Jonwayne finds comfort in words when the world lets him down, and based on his prolific output from the last year leading up to and including Rap Album One, words haven’t let him down yet. Those of us who have been listening for a while should be overjoyed to see Jonwayne gain wider recognition with Rap Album One. It’s a stunning record from someone who is a fresh voice in hip hop and a self-contained artist with seemingly limitless potential.
Fans can purchase their copy of Rap Album One via Stones Throw right here.