Experimental, UK Rap

EP review: Strata – JJ Soloman

When Jesse James Soloman released Jesse from the SE in 2014, his beautifully lethargic, yet poetic style was first recognised. Jesse has been somewhat of a recluse in the past 12 or so months – releasing a small string of singles in that time. The surprise release of this EP was undoubtedly appreciated.  Where the fast-paced 140 production of grime or the sluggish 808s of drill are more of a common phenomenon for rap coming out of the capital – JJ has followed a much gentler path, similar to the likes of Rejjie Snow. The craftsmanship of his bars together with experimental and ambient production is the key to his success. Rather than relying on energy – Jesse thrives on slow tempo melodies. Felix Joseph, executive producer of the EP, is the man behind this. Having produced for Jorja Smith and Aquilo, Joseph’s production history is one to be admired. This review is fairly in depth for the sole reason that, having listened to the EP countless times, it is clear that JJ has focused on creating more of a poetic art form than anything else and deserves such an analysis.

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The title track is a brooding and introspective vision depicting a young Jesse, ‘a lost boy so aimless// trying to figure out what the game is.’ The album artwork, painted by Jesse himself, compliments the flavour of the track perfectly. The young Jesse is characterised by this painting – the use of dark acrylic paint and an impressionistic style is apt for the scene which Jesse is conveying. A youth observing the towering metropolis in which he lives. We are met with a delicate and simple acoustic loop – looking back at his young self, Jesse’s bars are empty of any positive emotion – ‘there’s no news in the newsagents.’ These bare and unsettled descriptions of ‘pagans and wastemen’ and his mother’s frustration give the impression of a young man lost in his city with no direction. The looming Strata tower is central to Jesse’s vision, with the bulldozed Haygate Estate ‘where the crane is’ demonstrating the negative impact of gentrification in his ends, Elephant and Castle. Joseph’s ambient production kicks in after Jesse’s last bar. Just as a woozy and drowned out chorus sings out, the track is brought to an end – giving us a flavour as to what the duo has in store. Simplicity was most certainly intended here by JJ as we are tentatively introduced to the record. Although this short track undoubtedly frames the EP – it by no means defines it. Change, both positive and negative is most certainly a recurring theme as we are given an almost autobiographical insight into the 21-year old’s mind.

The second track is a smooth transition demonstrating this. Just as the city around him has grown and developed for better and for worse – so has Jesse, to an extent. By now Jesse has worked out the game and he’s ‘street deep with moves to make’ and serving it ‘like Serena.’ He jostles with the idea that many of his other peers were a step behind him, ‘I was 16 getting cake, whip cream // You was in the crib playing COD split screen.’ Joseph on production again does not disappoint with a simple low register synth and the occasional pluck of a harp with a slapping 808 and bongo fill to complete the beat. The hook itself, manned by Kadiata, resonates through the melody as Jesse reflects on what he has become. On a first listening, one might see the track as purely a flex of Jesse’s achievements since leaving behind the ‘young boy with no patience in’ Strata – with ‘spilt champagne on the floor’ ‘Lionel Jesse’ hitting the back of the net and ‘fans asking for more.’ However, direction is one thing that Jesse still appears to be looking for as he compares his life to a scene out of Taxi Driver, admitting that ‘I don’t sleep much // And when I do I don’t dream.’

Jesse’s theme of drifting aimlessness is very much captured fully in Beneath the Glow. Whilst Joseph’s iconic synth is filtered through in a low range, a drip like xylophone sound is perfectly tailored to give the track a feel of movement and dynamism. The filtered element is minimised after being introduced and we are treated with novel distorted background samples reminiscent of the urban sounds of London at the end of each section. Jesse gives us an accompanying couplet – ‘Flying down the empty streets, I tend to be higher than I’m meant to be // I’m just the entity, I exhale, watch the smoke dance in the November breeze.’ Although JJ is not fully present, as he reflects that some of his friends ‘never leave the roads of London, they never leave the cold,’ we are reminded that Jesse ‘found a way out where there was no way.’ Jesse’s experience of one of the most diverse and relentlessly changing areas of London is clear here – he’s ‘simply on a wave trying to stay afloat’ against a tide of social and racial controversy and alienation that is simply an everyday part of his life. This does not faze him at all. JJ spits with confidence that there are no obstacles that can hinder his climb – ‘You ain’t on my wave boy you ain’t on my boat // I’m in Elephant and Castle with the moat.’

The superior track of the EP, however, is undoubtedly Goat Talk. The experimental production of this track is one to be recognised as Joseph has purposefully left the underlying synth levels raw and unmastered as they crackle in one’s headphones. The atmospheric notes hit us gently, spiking up like a cardiograph at the end of each bar. As we hear Suspect’s voice introduce the track with ‘oh shit, what’s about to happen now? It’s a Wooly takeover b’ one’s heart rate is bound to increase. As the track title suggests – this is where JJ gives his big talk, accompanied by adlibs from OTB Sus – a long-time friend and supporter. Lyrically JJ demonstrates his poetic spoken word style in true form over a simplistic hi hat fill. ‘They ain’t got it like I got the sauce of course, since I was rocking in my cot // Since he pocketed the rock, non-stop on the block he made it pop.’ JJ’s rhyme pattern materialises and bounces gracefully over the stresses and breaks in his bars. Again, homage is paid to his ends ‘Pull up to the city that I live in, Imma part of it // Inner City Rivim, South East to the heart of it’ and through the bravado, ‘5-star living’ and comparisons to Mr Incredible – Jesse’s subliminal introspective mood shines through. The changing streets and growing city are entwined in his bars – ‘As I blew on a tree, country grew // I spit an inner city version of deep country blues.’ JJ’s reference to the pure and ethereal music of rural African-Americans of the 1920s is placed in a modern context. The leading blues musicians of that era often expressed emotions of sorrow and heart-break in their tunes. Mississippi John Hurt’s iconic Lonesome Valley tells the story of a man’s lonely journey towards death. Jesse’s final bars are an echo of this – ‘Imma snooze off a xan on a cruise like what I got to lose?…Streets icy and it’s 2 degrees beneath a few as we loom the gloom.’ The cold streets of the city, together with the drugs, numb his senses as the verse ends with a final exclamation from OTB ‘Fuckin’ hell – see man’s just loadin’ huh?’

Jesse has produced something of such originality that it would be an insult to attempt to categorise it. His delivery combined with Joseph’s moody atmosphere is astonishing. Together with Jesse’s self-reflective mood and ideologies that breakthrough in every track, the listener is given an insight into the plight, frustration and motivation of a young man growing up in a city that does not make way for those who deserve better. The dark transcendence of these elements throughout the EP are key to its beauty.  We encourage you to listen to it.

Listen here

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