I don’t like shoving people in boxes but then again a review needs to describe the subject matter somehow so I guess labels are useful.
But… “Conscious rap” is a problematic label. Rightly rejected by Talib Kweli as just one more way of applying corporate branding, it’s reductive and can lead to a kind of sanctimonious categorisation of artists by (perceived) lyrically political correctness. Are we really happy with the implications of imposing that sort of cultural hierarchy?
But we still need a description. So how do we find the words to describe J.Chambers, the Mancunian rapper whose star is rising in the cities already vibrant scene? I was thinking maybe “intelligent hip hop” but that’s far worse. Even typing it makes me wince. There’s artists whose subject matter doesn’t resonate with me (a couple of examples would be Action Bronson, Biggie Smalls, Ice Cube) but come on. I can see that they’re brilliant.
So that’s no good. (Although let’s not deny that a track that reworks the theme of the Merchant of Venice for the modern age and turns that motif into a sing along hook is pretty darn clever.)
I’m going to go with maybe observing that J.Chambers is thoughtful and reflective in crafting lyrics that comment on the broader issues impacting on people of his generation, race, and location. And does it with style and musicality. On most of the tracks here, his observations float across a soulful backdrop and polished production. Check the sample on “God’s Gift” – a smartly observed story of male misbehaviour. Merchant of Manny isn’t the only hook you’ll be humming for weeks. Have a listen to Black Friday’s wry commentary on the consumer trap.
On Words Words Words he reaches out to a more mainstream audience and although I love the lyrics, that loses this particular boom-bap purist a bit – but I don’t think I’m the audience he’s aiming at on that one.
For me the toss up for the standout track is between Black Friday and the title track, Merchant of Manny, which morphs half way through into a powerful and moving spoken word piece.
Whilst working on this EP, J.Chambers has been honing his stage craft at small gigs, and in support slots for far bigger artists. He’s got a great stage presence and the music translates well live. When Dead Prez were woefully late on stage last year, he held the restless crowd at bay and kept the vibe positive. On the 8th July he takes centre stage at the EP launch at the Band on The Wall. Get there if you can and catch him on his way up.
The EP is released on the same day, available on i-tunes for pre-order now.