ALBUM REVIEW: J. Keys – The Dead Horse Mixtape

Download:  J. Keys – “The Dead Horse” Mixtape

J KeysDon’t Forget Hip-Hop
[audio:|titles=08 Don’t Forget Hip-Hop]

J Keys Skyscrapers (feat Maya Azucena)
[audio:|titles=19 Skyscrapers f/ Maya Azucena]

The year 1992 was indeed a banner year for hip-hop.  Artists like Dr. Dre, The Pharcyde, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Gang Starr, EPMD, Showbiz and A.G., UGK, Brand Nubian,  and Common (back when he was Common Sense) all dropped genre-defining albums that year.  While there have been plenty of great albums and artists that followed, and surely plenty of trailblazers before, it seems that for some, 1992 was the year where hip-hop had matured like some fine wine.  It was a little funkier, a little jazzier, more introspective, and a lot more diverse.  East coast was still king, but if you look at the list of artists I named, you see that the West coast, the Midwest, and the South are all represented.  Hip-hop, for the most part, was ubiquitous across all of America and was steadily gaining momentum around the world.

So it is no wonder that J. Keys, who hails from Detroit, seems to be obsessed with this particular time in hip-hip history.  Lyrics were still mirroring inner city life’s hardships, while the beats matured in musicality while maintaining a party vibe.  J. Keys makes it his mission to take us back to that golden age of hip-hip.  The listener will recognize backing tracks from Alexander O’Neil, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, J. Dilla, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and a host of other familiar soul nuggets that underscore the freshness of his lyrics.

J. Keys waxes poetic about topics that are relevant to what’s really going on with black people today.  Public assistance, alcohol abuse, race relations, absentee fathers, young mothers whose mothers didn’t love them, the art of hailing a cab, use of the “N” word, poverty, being unemployed with a degree, the evil force that is VIACOM, and yes…yearning for the greatness of hip-hop before the internet age are just some of the subjects that co-exist on this mixtape, and yet it never gets overly preachy.  His voice is not really a unique one, but it could be if he took the time to hone it.  He spits lyrics that I’m sure others will recognize as The Truth, and that’s enough to keep listeners from focusing on the awkwardness of his old-school homage flow.

There is one portion of “Don’t Forget Hip-Hop” which sums up this mixtape for me.  His lyrical adeptness and keen sense of observation is on display with the following:

“And they say…hip-hop ain’t what it used to be/And musically you ain’t been through puberty/It’s still ’92 to me, what can you do to me/Besides make me stand on the dancefloor neutrally/And feed Chicken Noodle Soup to me/After 2 vodka crans I sing along stupidly/Pardon me, to the left I’m ‘bout to take it/Seems you either gotta be young or little to make it/Young Joc, Young Dro, Young Jeezy/Lil Flip, Lil Kim, Lil Boosie, Lil Weezy/If that’s the case, call me Young Lil Keysy/Hip-hip is hard, I just make it look easy/So don’t tease me or taunt me with success/When I wrote my first rap, my posse said “Fresh”/Somebody asked me once if I would die for hip-hop/I’d rather live for the day we take it to the tip-top.”

So after being completely satisfied by this, what follows has got to be one of the laziest and wackest sing-songy/call-and-response choruses and it just pisses me off because throughout the course of the mixtape, he proves that he is better than that.  Consistency is one of the keys that J. Keys needs to be carrying with him to ensure his continued longevity in the game.

Thus, the mixtape title begs the question:  what exactly is the dead horse?  Is it hip-hop?  Is it the idea that hip-hip is really not dead (sorry Nas)?  Or is it that no matter how far away the hip-hop utopia of 1992 is in the history books, it continues to live on in true hip-hop heads’ hearts?  Whatever the case may be, I hope that J. Keys keeps beating that dead horse until it regains consciousness.  For all we know, the horse might just be playing possum.