The not so best kept secret in rap music, zeitgeist-defining emcee Jehst is an artist who remains insouciant to popular musical trends. Even his self-financed label and brand YNR Productions, with its huge legacy in UK hip-hop, runs counter to the furious momentum of an over-sanitized, pop-heavy contemporary hip-hop industry, and averse to the transient and disposable products it churns out systematically. Indeed in an age of seemingly limitless broadband-enabled possibilities, it’s a rarity that musicians nowadays defy the digital age by choosing to forgo the instant gratification provided by modern technologies; however indifferent he is to the likes of Pro-Tools and Myspace, Jehst is by no means an anachronism though. His new album shows he has evolved organically as an artist in terms of themes and content, but also that he continues to distance himself from others by favouring a certain oldskool slowness and a skillful patience that is truly hard to find in age where many musicians favour spending most of their day tweeting furiously from their Blackberry. Taking time to hone your craft seems scarcely to matter any more — but Jehst is an exception. Venerated as one of UK hip-hop’s greatest ever practitioners, Jehst’s name alone carries with it significant clout; and his new album, which is devoid of guest features, is an intensely personal affair and a monument to its authors seniority in the game. Indeed, the unimpeachable quality exuding from this album more than demonstrates that Jehst is in no way, open for crossover incursions. Call him an elder statesman and preserver of traditional UK rap music.
His last CD was The Mengi Bus Mixtape released back in ’07, which means us fans and enthusiasts have had to wait a full 4 years for a brand new release . It got to a point where rumours were eventually circulating that Jehst had retired from rap. Lo and behold a viral video titled ‘Jehst is my Postman!?‘ pops up on YouTube with a covert film appearing to show the UK hip-hop heavyweight making ends meet working as a postman. A frenzy of blog activity followed as it was widely believed that we’d just witnessed the fall of a true legend. Perhaps unusually for the analogue rapper, he’d actually crafted an elaborate PR stunt via the internet, thus providing a smokescreen for one of hip-hop’s greatest comebacks. A second video was released following on from the secret footage to form a full-fledged music video for his new single, ‘Starting Over’. The video sees Jehst roaming busy London streets delivering items of post to the likes of Chemo, Teef, Stig of the Dump, Q Unique, Mystro, Jyager and Kid Kanevil. It is simply brilliant. Furthermore it heralded not only his epic comeback, but also the promise of a new album — only his second in a career that now spans over a decade.
The Dragon of an Ordinary Family brings a welcome sense of familiarity with Jehst’s trademark languid drawl and evocative lyricism set to a superlative selection of beats ranging from dusty lo-fi to raucous boom-bap, all displaying an exceptional grasp of hip-hop’s essential harmonic and melodic infrastructure. Sounding ever-so-slightly stoned over beats, his marijuana-induced meditations amidst the bleak urban aesthetics inspired by his school days spent in the decaying post-industrial landscape of Huddersfield, his album is is a rich, intoxicating blend that is enhanced by his own superb production on 5 of the album’s 16 tracks as well as input from such luminaries as Jazz T, Chemo, Jon Phonics, Zygote, LG, and Mr Thing.
The album’s production is awesome: from elusive flutter tongue flute melodies combined with a natty walking bass in’The Illest’, to joints like ‘Timeless’ and ‘Killer Instinct’ which are interpolated by zoned-out synths that blare subtly in the background, providing textural contrast with voluminous old-flavour hip-hop soundbeds, ofen interlaced with delicious soul and jazz riffs, and even 80s rave samples in ‘Sounds Like Money’. The track is slightly off-kilter in tone and features some wonderful turns of phrase: “Stakes is high — gentleman’s wager / 80s yuppie brick phone and a pager.” Carrying his rhyme with an air of nonchalant slacker-cool, Jehst is less about the verbal acrobatics, and more about the lyrics: he’s quite loquacious but also very low-key. Versatility is also a trademark of his, being equally adept at delivering rhymes with direct meaning, or merely being whimsical such as in the excellent ‘Camberwell Carrots’, where he shows a wonderful predilection for dreamy and abstract imagery: “I’m the shining star, lightening spark/ Camberwell Carrots, I can see in the dark.” Whilst floating over the crisp cumulative instrumentals he also blithely throws in the odd nugget of clever wordplay for good measure, without ever using them gratuitously: “Double-jointed, blazin’ two joints at a time.”
In contrast to previous releases, social critique provides a conspicuous contextual thread in the album: “It’s plain dumb, how an Iraqi and a kid from Hackney can be killed by the same gun.” Far from being a vociferous flag-bearer for the disenfranchised and the excessively politicised in hip-hop however, Jehst is a voice that resonates better with those who prefer their hip-hop rooted in gritty and realistic social observations without dabbling in the dubious conspiracy theorizing and self-righteous establishment-bashing of many so-called conscious MC’s. The album’s standout track ‘England’ is a prime example of this: featuring a haunting minor piano loop courtesy from Beat Butcha, one of the most ubiquitous A-list beatmakers in UK hip-hop over the last decade, Jehst depicts an honest portrait of the nation and its an endemic and deep-rooted problems with without recourse to saturating his rhymes in vitriolic bitterness — a sign of an artist with genuine artistic subtlety and one who has refined his craft perfectly over the years.
Overall, the album represents a conscious change in sound and style without necessarily being to the detriment of the sublime quality for which he is renowned. With 16 tracks it runs a little long, but then again, I’m not complaining and, judging this album in abstraction from Jehst’s prior acclaim and venerable past, it’s still virtually faultless in every respect. A true masterpiece of our time.