J-Live – “Them That’s Not”

“If it could happen to him, it could happen to you…”

When it comes to bad breaks, J-Live can tell you quite a story. Another victim of Industry Rule 4080 (as defined by A Tribe Called Quest): “Record company people are shadyyyyyy…” the NYC rapper went through a fertilizer factory’s worth of bullshit to get his debut, The Best Part, released. Live started catching attention way back in 1995, landing interviews, articles, and an “unsigned hype” nod from the rap mag The Source thanks to his early singles. Soon signed to the small-time label Raw Shack Records, he began recording tracks for his debut album.

Then the shit came hard and fast.

The Best Part, close to completion by 1997, was delayed indefinitely due to disputes between Live and Raw Shack (Rorschach?). Live soon left the label, and afterwards signed with Payday Records. He resumed recording, but the album was dead in the water again when when Payday was bought out by the Warner Music Group. Live was dropped from the label and the album was lost in the reshuffle.

In addition to the shelvings, a series of track leaks from the album seemed to rub salt further into the wound, but rumor had it that Live himself had leaked them purposely, determined to get the album out in any way possible.

After several more years of struggling, striving, re-recording, and surviving, J-Live finally got The Best Part out to the public in 2001, six long years after he began working on it. Older and much more wiser, Live brings his very best work to the table on TBP. It’s obvious that he spent those years and label-induced setbacks reworking, refining, and spit-shining the album to the point where it practically sparkles. The Best Part is a tightly constructed listen, with not a single misplaced or unsatisfying track. It’s a really strong debut, and Live goes at it like it’s the only shot he’s got.

“Them That’s Not” is not only one of the best joints on the album, but it’s one of my all-time favorite listens. A fitting tribute to a fickle and constantly shifting rap world, Live crafts a brilliant tale about the triumphant rise, and the soul-crushing fall, of a wannabe rap superstar. It’s a tale which happens all the time in the hip-hop world, but Live really gives it heart, with great detail and empathy for the protagonist, Castro. One of the best parts (heh) of the song is how Live weaves the tempo of the song into the plot: In the beginning, the tempo is dreadfully slow as Castro has nothing and is going nowhere, then speeds up as Castro gains success, stays brisk as he enjoys the excesses of rap stardom, then slowssssssss dowwwwnnnnnn to near-nothingness as he falls back into obscurity, ending up right back where he started. Very well done, I must say.

Though The Best Part didn’t set the world on fire commercially, it was a critical hit, establishing Live as a talented, thoughtful emcee with a hell of a lot of drive and perseverance. He’s cultivated an underground status, and has since released several more works independently, all pretty solid listens. Unlike the dude in this song, Live is in it for the long haul.

Originally posted on my old blog, Emaciated Wildebeest, on August 23, 2010.

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