knowjuander: a kid love beta
before i get into the review, i’d like to preface it with a statement about music in general: like any other form of art, its an expression of the artist who created it. “good” art is defined by its ability to portray the feelings of the artist in a way that grabs the attention of those who are experiencing it. a person in 2009 can appreciate the beauty of a painting created hundreds of years ago by a painter from a different continent because, at its very core, good art is universal and speaks to a common human consciousness and connection that everyone of us shares with each other. the challenge any artist faces is conveying their message into a medium which can then be appreciated and related to by their audience.
a few days ago my friend, local MC john pickens aka knowjuander, dropped a solo EP entitled a kid love beta. he produced, mastered, wrote, and recorded every track in this album. with the exception of the guest vocals on the last track, which were written and performed by jarell perry, this album was 100% knowjuander. he asked me to give the album a listen, and give a review.
i’ve had a kid love beta on rotation in the iphone all weekend, and sat down to give it a serious listen twice, which is sort of standard for any review i write. i also listened to some of his earlier recorded work, which consisted of songs he recorded with grip H, the other half of the perfect median (john’s other major project).
so what did i think?
from a beatmaking standpoint, a kid love beta really held itself to a higher standard. true to his east coast musical roots, and his jazz, soul, and blues influences, the beats were sampled and chopped in a style reminiscent of, but distinctly different from, producers like ninth wonder or dilla. classic boom bap drum kit set to an upbeat tempo and layered with complex progressions of sampling is the best way i can describe the beats on this album. the heydays of sampling whole loops to make a track came to an end a long time ago, and while sampling is no less important in hip hop these days, the era of taking the whole riff from a bobby caldwell track and dropping it over a boom bap beat are long gone. to that end, the beats on this album manages to catch cues from the music it was sampled from without sounding like it was recycled from the original content in any way.
lyrically, the album goes places that many emcees in hawaii don’t ever reach. a kid love beta opens up strong with “painting a still,” a stream of consciousness piece that cycles through a rapid fire series of scenes described in detail. it was a challenging piece in that just as you start to form a clear image of the scene being set, it transitions to a new situation and idea. the random arrangements of scenes, thoughts, and situations in a dreamlike fashion helped to create a disorienting and somewhat surreal listening experience.
other tracks of note include “pause that tape,” a track about dedication to a cause, in this case music. again the lyricism was more virgina woolf than plug one, and the sheer density of wordplay was almost overwhelming at times. “a little bit (more)” was a playful exploration of the imagination and exploration of the world, from the perspective of a child who sees the world without limits.
in fact, by and large the overall theme of this album was a throwback to the perspective of a child. it whimsically takes a lot of the classic structural staples of storytelling and turns them upside down, the way a kid with crayons might scribble outside the lines of a coloring book. metaphors follow real situations follow metaphors which are followed by an object that transitions into a new scene and, you guessed it, more metaphors. there are moments of seriousness as well, in “mom’s street canvas” john explores the difficulties he experienced growing up in his neighborhood.
they see his depression / he sees art / these are visions strong enough to even bleed hearts
in “determination,” juander alludes to personal struggle. even during serious moments, the rhyme structure and lyrical content is playfully defiant of the way you’re “supposed to” tell a story.
from a production standpoint, the album is clean, with very high/professional grade production values. vocals are well balanced, clearly enunciated, and adequately separated from the rest of the soundstage set by the beats and samples. levels are even, well balanced, and pack adequate thump. occasionally the bass clips on my ipod / grado SR-80 setup from time to time but then again, so do some of the “professionally mastered” tracks i’ve bought off of itunes. to put it simply, this album sounds good. i’d say more but there isn’t much else that can be said about the production quality of the album, although i will note that this was entirely produced by john in his studio, which is a remarkable feat in and of itself. in an era where just about anyone can record an album on a mac using garage band, there are a lot of musicians who record their own music, but few who do it this well.
juander’s previous efforts with the perfect median were almost oranges to a kid love’s apple but it’s the closest thing to a frame of reference i have for juander’s work. lyrically, a perfect median is far more “accessible.” their catalog mostly includes “feel good songs,” following more conventional rap formulas in terms of rhyme structure and complexity. in short, they are lyrically solid but packaged in an easily digestible way that lets the audience hear and enjoy it without having to think too much.
a kid love beta is far more challenging a listen. i found myself having to listen to a track several times to really understand what it was about, and in some cases even then i wasn’t sure. that complexity and the refusal to “dumb down” lyrically is admirable but at times it could also get deep enough to be ambiguous in its intent. other comparably abstract MCs like aesop rock, cage, and sage francis (to name a few) have the same effect on me…in fact over the course of bumping this album i noticed that when i was doing something else and listening to it, i often started to “zone out” and not really process what was going on lyrically. on the other hand, that never happens when i’m listening to, say, gang starr.
if you know me, then you know that i appreciate slam poetry but after about an hour of it, i can’t listen to it….perhaps my ADD addled brain reaches a point where its capacity for understanding what’s going on is maxed out? well if anything my single biggest criticism of the album would be that it gets abstract to the point where it can become mentally tiresome to listen to. abstract rhymes are dope but many MCs who write bars that fall into the abstract category can find themselves walking a fine line between being on some next shit and becoming inaccessibly complex. the lyrical content of a kid love beta is impressive but as ron jeremy once said, “you gotta know when to use it all and when to just use half of it.” okay, so maybe i just made that shit about knowing when to use it up but it kind of sums up my perspective here.
overall, i will say this much about a kid love beta: it is easily the best hip hop album i’ve heard in hawaii to date…that has been written, produced, and mastered by the same person. and its up there in the running for best solo EP out of the HI. knowjuander has demonstrated his beatmaking skill, lyricism, and an impressive level of technical ability to produce an album that normally takes a team of people to put together. he even designed the album art, which was also very polished. i mean most albums i listen to have 1 or more beatmakers, 1 or more audio engineers, and a guy who puts together the website and designs the cover. the MC just shows up and drops their vocals. and that’s for an album that’s produced on a “shoestring” budget. beyond the scope of just hawaii, a feat like a kid love beta is an undertaking that few, very few, artists are capable of.
to get nitpicky: the cadence, samples, and beats did get a little too even keel for me at points. thats mostly a subjective impression, based on my own reaction to the album. it could have used a little more variation in a few of the tracks’ tempo and sound. other than that really minor complaint, i’d say the only other negative point i’d raise with a kid love beta lay in the lyrical complexity . the rapidly shifting imagery of knowjuander’s lines lost me at times, and i think that with time and maturity as a writer juander will settle into a more accessible balance between raw poeticism and ease of listening.
i’m the hippy-dippy type that hates things like test scores and letter grades but i also understand how important they are. to rate this album on a scale of 5 i’d give it a 5/5 overall. yeah i know, WTF? a 5? a perfect, really? why? well to answer your questions with a question, consider this: can you think of another MC who singlehandedly wrote, produced, recorded, mastered, and designed their very FIRST recorded effort and had an offering this solid? if this was knowjuander’s SECOND album perhaps the score would have been different, but it ain’t. just amazing.
so what the hell did anything i just said in the last 1,600 or so words have to do with the first paragraph? well: if art is a way for someone to share their feelings, thoughts, perspective, and memory with another person in a representative fashion, then knowjuander has succeeded in doing so. in a world filled with hip hop rap that’s made to sell an image, idea, or lifestyle (or a fucking energy drink, gee thanks for the crunk lil’ jon), it’s always promising to see an MC less concerned with putting up a facade and saying what they think everyone wants to hear, and instead is willing to share a real part of themselves with the world. there’s a level of vulnerability and artistic integrity in the act of sharing that most mainstream rappers simply DO NOT have.
a kid love beta is a free download at knowjuander’s website. do i really need to tell you that you should cop it?