J-Kwon - Hood Hop
Despite having had a PR brief written for him that reads as just the sort of thing to appeal to white, middle-class guys who've been as close to tha hood as they have been to flying unaided but for the flapping of their arms - inner city crime, dealing drugs, poverty, etc. - this album proves that hip-hop is still capable of producing innovative and daring records without giving in to the barely thrilling sounds of R&B.
Of course, having a title like Hood Hop really shouldn't allow anyone to give J-Kwon the benefit of a doubt as it's clear that he's as keen on exploiting a rough upbringing in St. Louis as his record company except that nothing on the album sounds or looks quite right. At first, this is the shock of seeing a diamond-patterned tank-top on a hip-hop album, surely the least suitable hip-hop attire since Bushwick Bill figured that a hospital trolley and gown, a gunshot wound and his eye hanging out was just the look for the cover of The Geto Boys' We Can't Be Stopped album but this feeling extends into J-Kwon's vocals and his lyrics. With the album opening with an intro - with hip-hop you can expect nothing less - on which J-Kwon offers his reason for not have a beat to open the album along with the most effeminate reading of a hip-hop artist's own name ever committed to tape, there's an immediate feeling that what will follow will be awful, awful hip-hop, closer to Boyzone's Shane Lynch cutting beats with Tim Westwood than Public Enemy.
But then hip-hop has rarely been about record covers and opening tracks and by ignoring both, it's possible to think of Hood Hop being this year's best album of its type. The title track is a storming hip-hop song that pulls in as useful a rock sample as Ice Cube did with When Will They Shoot? on The Predator, over which J-Kwon has a loose, midwestern style closer to Snoop Dogg than either the east or west coast. He best finds his voice on Tipsy, on which J-Kwon nods in the direction of alcohol being his drug of choice as well as recording a chorus that, with his laid back sound, makes, "Everybody in this place get tipsy" sound closer to, "E'rybody in this bitch get tits". A similar sound and lyrical theme runs through Underwear, which recounts what happened back at J-Kwon's place once back from the club - "Pussy everywhere / Weed in the air / I'm in my underwear (undid my underwear)" but again, there's a rhyme that's made strange by J-Kwon's vocal even before he promises golden showers and that his, "third leg needs a sneaker on".
There is, of course, room for a ballad and They Ask Me is 2004's contender for being a slow-burning hip-hop tune in the style of Coolio's Gangsta Paradise, something that fortysomething parents will find time for on their MP3 playlists on their office PC's. As such it's a song that finds J-Kwon full of pity for himself, finding a line or two to explain the death of his grandmother in hospital, his father leaving home, his mother being forced to put him into care, etc. Were it not for a touching final verse - "Y'know, I mean, it's OK to cry right now" - this could be thought of as being little different to the thousands of hip-hop tracks that cry crocodile tears in a bid for a sympathetic audience but there's the feeling that They Ask Me is more about closure than it is about looking for tea and sympathy.
With good humour - Musty Interlude I and II - an easygoing style and a great mix of hip-hop and pop, there's something about Hood Hop that, in spite of the album's title, works. Whether it's simply that J-Kwon was largely unknown before this album, thereby giving one no expectations, or that the crackling hip-hop within the record is simply so much better than the tank-tops, card-playing beside the urinals and clumsy shapes thrown on the CD booklet, it's difficult to say but Hood Hop leaves one thing clear - J-Kwon has delivered a great album and having recently seen Mario Winans hit number one in the UK and the US with an album of dreary soul, it's not asking too much to see J-Kwon have an equal but more deserving level of success.