In 2011, cult rapper J-Zone put out a nervy memoir called Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure. The refreshing, rant-like book arrived four years after his last album, To Love a Hooker, and brought him back into the conversation after what was, for all intents and purposes, a rap retirement — not of the Jay Z hype-building kind, but the nail-in-the-coffin sort, because that shit just wasn't working for him anymore. Hip-hop had changed, and he isn't interested in changing. But over the past few years, hip-hop has gotten real weird, and, well, in a way it's full of J-Zone types these days: truly strange, grumpy, hilarious, out-there eccentrics, curmudgeons, and gangsta mystics.
Root for the Villain, which arrived in the middle of an Internet-rap renaissance, had a kind of Marc Maron WTF podcast effect on J-Zone's career: It raised his profile in a different medium than the one he'd mined for decades, and as a result, reinvigorated his artistry. His working-class-rapper rhetoric and cynical vision of the industry permeated "new underground" hip-hop at the time, and so, it struck a chord. And now he's back. Last week, J-Zone released his sixth album, Peter Pan Syndrome, which tells the story of J-Zone entering the real world, only to realize that a 9-to-5 job is pretty unstable, too. Everyone in the surrounding cubicles, it seemed, was scrapping and hustling like an independent rapper, so why not just become an independent rapper again?
Peter Pan Syndrome is an hour-long burst of middle-aged anxiety. On "Gadget Ho," he bemoans the reality that everybody uses cell phones now, and admits that he feels pretty absurd sending goofy-ass text messages as a grown-ass man. "Crib Issues" is about how he doesn't like staying at other people's homes, which prevents him from maintaining a "real" relationship, but it might help if these ladies cleaned their houses a little bit. "Trespasser" is a clever riff on gentrification in New York, reminding everybody that the young professional jerks who are supposedly saving the city are the outsiders. Viciously, he suggests that the city should "bring back wildin' for a day."
And what with rap right now being nothing but a series of co-signs and circle jerks, J-Zone, whose passion for the artform is apparent, zings rap's foibles with glee, and we need that. "Jackin' for Basquiats" laughs off rap's half-hearted modern-art obsession, presenting a scene where he wanders into a museum and tells the curator, "I'd like to rap about more adult things, like paintings." Then he decides to steal a few, sell them, and give the money to the poor people forced to listen to Jay Z tell you about the expensive-ass paintings he bought. "Rap Baby Boomers" mocks aging MCs (like himself), while also doling out sympathy for them. What are dudes who've spent their whole lives rapping supposed to do? Get a real job at 40? Opener "It's a Trap" already explained how futile that endeavor was. "Mo' Pork," meanwhile, is a parody of a trap rap, though in typical J-Zone style, the track bends over into a kind of early-'90s Three 6 style and sounds pretty great. Maybe Juicy J can hop on a remix?
Also exciting here is J-Zone's live percussion. On "Molotov Cocktail," he furiously drums over an artfully stitched bed of samples: One moment it's a clunky Dennis Wilsom stomp, the next a Clyde-Stubblefield-on-chronic display of hard-edged finesse. It sounds like freedom, though. An artist taking further control of his music. Now he's making his own breaks. There's no way J-Zone shouldn't be producing for the strange rappers he helped birth, whether they know it or not. His production on Peter Pan Syndrome — broken-sounding, aggressive boom-bap that sneaks away from sounding too nostalgic — should put him on the level of a Harry Fraud. Though presumably, that would entail him standing in the same room as an Eeyore like French Montana and not laughing his ass off. J-Zone is an outsider who could be an insider if he could keep his mouth shut or just calm down a little. But who wants that?