The music of Jeremiah Jae is an anomalous but welcome blip on rap's radar in 2014. Uncompromising and idealistic, Jae's latest release, a mixtape called Good Times put out through Warp Records, is yet another concept-driven, abstract, art for art's sake project from the prolific producer/MC whose catalog includes mixtapes with a food and nutrition theme (Lunch Special Parts 1-4), albums loosely based on the biblical story of Jesus Christ (Young Black Preachers' Gesus) and a project inspired by his grandmother's love for westerns that finds parallels for those themes in the modern day (RawHyde).
Jae and his Black Jungle Squad collective aren't concerned with creating the ubiquitous "turn up" music of the day and only sometimes acquiesce to pop music conventions of song structure. An affiliate of Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder crew, and by extension a part of the L.A. beat scene, Jae makes music replete with obscure samples that run the gamut from American soul music and jazz to foreign prog rock. It's apparent that he's from the Madlib/J Dilla school of sound collages; his is not music meant to inspire the latest Vine dance craze as much as it is vigorous head nodding. And while the "drill" music subgenre and work of its poster child Chief Keef and his Glo Gang has become the most widely known sonic representation of what's going on in Chicago's streets, Jeremiah Jae's songs skew more cerebral, even soulful, than the decidedly visceral output of his neighbors.
Good Times samples and takes its name from the Norman Lear-produced '70s TV sitcom set in a Chicago housing project. Just as the show put the trials and tribulations of inner city living on display for TV audiences, Jae takes his listeners on a ride through the South Side of the same city. Like any good ghetto griot he describes what he sees, but like the best he also relays what goes on behind closed doors and contextualizes the conversations he's overheard.
On "Survival" Jae murmurs, "Outside n----s fightin' in the streets / N----s die over beef, it's not sweet / Shorty gotta eat / Money, I gotta see / Free, I gotta be / I was born a king ... / N----s fighting in the street." The chorus is set to a somber piano loop and in a few bars Jae sets the scene, positioning himself as young man intent on rising above the circumstances surrounding him. On "That N----" we find Jeremiah Jae getting self-descriptive in the most free associative way possible — something like laid back DOOM — but what makes the song truly peculiar is the incorporation of sound bites of James Baldwin explaining the concept of the "n-----" as a fiction invented by white Americans and not a real ontological classification.
For a hip-hop artist who eschews commercial rap stereotypes and clichés in favor of thornier writing, the challenge is to do so without being a bore — Jeremiah Jae does this well. "I'm a visionary creating pictures / You all brainy but in lame position," raps Jae's frequent collaborator Oliver the 2nd on "Witch Hazel." Jae and company get heady as they want to be without ever talking at or down to their listeners. Theirs is eye-level intellectualism tempered by enough swagger and style to plant the discourse squarely on the street corner rather than in the halls of academia. It knocks, several ways. Open the door.