With a title like Rap Album Two, Jonwayne’s second full-length studio album may seem like a relatively rudimentary release in hip hop, but if anything can be learned from the Californian rapper’s previous material and the personal struggles that led to the creation of this album, it’s clear that this is not the case. Jonwayne’s history in the rap game starts rather humbly with the artist producing beats and finding other MCs to rap over them, but finally releasing his first project on which he provided bars as well as production, his I Don’t Care mixtape in 2011, when he struggled to find guest rappers. This tape proved to be a relatively successful first attempt, with Jonwayne garnering somewhat of a small underground following as a result, even with Pitchfork praising the album and including it on a list of overlooked mixtapes from that year. Now with Jonwayne established as both a producer and a rapper, the artist set his sights on a host of other projects, many of which saw the MC deal with personal topics in a conceptual manner and, indeed, this has carried on to his latest album, Rap Album Two. This album is the first project to succeed Jonwayne’s personal crisis that led to him dropping out from the rap game altogether around 2014. As a result of alcoholic tendencies that gradually manifested due to a severe phobia of flying, the musician left Stones Throw Records, cancelled his European tour and announced his supposed retirement in the form of an EP released in 2015, bluntly entitled Jonwayne Is Retired. However, during the closing month of 2016, Jonwayne published an open letter to fans on his Facebook page that detailed the reasons behind his hiatus and concluded with the announcement of Rap Album Two. Considering the weighty and intimate topics covered on much of Jonwayne’s previous work, it should come as no surprise that a large amount of this record deals with the rapper’s hiatus, including his stint of alcoholism and the ramifications this period saw for his private and social life. Indeed, Rap Album Two is unequivocally an admirable venture for Jonwayne, and I hold a great deal of respect for this project and the artist. However, whilst the rapper’s performances and bars are very focussed on the album’s best moments, I do feel that this record occasionally comes across as somewhat directionless and not as well-assembled as it could be. This being said, there is nevertheless a great deal of substance to be admired in Jonwayne’s approach to such a personal project.
Undoubtedly, the most remarkable cuts on Rap Album Two feature Jonwayne’s self-analytical and occasionally self-deprecating bars, which are often conveyed with a healthy dose of humour or sardonicism, whilst the rapper also pulls through with a tight piece of DIY production — often clearly influenced by producers like J Dilla and MF Doom — that accommodates for his gruff and meditative style of delivery. The opening track, TED Talk, for instance, is one of the most successful examples of this, with this song not simply being a highlight on the record, but also encompassing practically every aspect of what makes Jonwayne the spectacle that he is in the underground rap scene. The stripped-back beat is moody and ominous, and the lo-fi piano sample that flutters around the piece is incorporated incredibly well. What’s more, Jonwayne comes through with some of his wittiest bars concerning his attitude towards playing in the rap game, particularly the way in which it’s important for him to call the shots. The rapper’s ice-cold and laid-back delivery only enhances some of his best bars, like, “I rock the mic inside the china shop and spit that bull shit” and, “Even in the casket, I’ll be the one to close it”. The sentiment on the latter line is particularly pertinent to the way in which Jonwayne presents himself as an artist, which is a subject that he hones in on the next track, LIVE From The Fuck You. Although this cut takes the form of a skit, it’s pretty pivotal to one of the many narratives that Jonwayne spins on Rap Album Two. The brief sketch involves an interaction between Jonwayne, who is out with some friends at a club, and a guy who approaches him, explaining that the girl he’s with is a fan of his music and asks Jonwayne to help him out by rapping for her. The guy’s persistent requests to have Jonwayne rap for his girl lead to the rapper getting angry with him, with the subsequent rap that derides this guy being his tongue-in-cheek way of giving him what he wants. Whilst this skit largely comes across as an attempt to communicate the artist’s apprehension towards certain social situations, as well as his desire to be in full-control of his art, it conveys Jonwayne’s dry and self-deprecating sense of humour rather well too. For instance, the guy who approaches him explains that he didn’t believe that he was a rapper based on his appearance, with Jonwayne being a large white man with long hair, a beard and glasses. The rapper’s self-awareness of his appearance, which is more akin to your average internet atheist than an MC, has appeared on his previous material, most amusingly in the form of the album cover to Rap Album One, which was simply a close-up shot of a cracker.
Despite the humorous highlights on Rap Album Two, the most notable moments come in the form of the cuts on which Jonwayne offers an explanation as to why he briefly pulled out of the music business and the complications associated with this. Blue Green is perhaps the starkest example of this, with the blunt opening line of, “I just cancelled my tour”. The rapper then goes on to explain some of the experiences he had with alcoholism, such as waking up with “last night’s dinner on the sheets” and realising that, if he had slept on his back, he would have almost certainly choked on his own vomit and died. Whilst the production on this track is almost completely barren, simply featuring a looped piano sample and a recurring beeping noise (most likely included to mimic the sound of a heart monitor in a hospital), the emotional weight of this track and the courage it took to put this onto tape justifies such a decision. Out Of Sight is one of the most pivotal moments on the album as relates to its narrative and the recurring themes of loneliness, apathy and life’s hardships in general. Jonwayne ruminates rather amusingly over this approach when he raps, “I’m working on this living just to rap about life”, acknowledging the irony of making a living from rapping about his life. Ultimately, it’s moments such as these that really build up Jonwayne’s persona, which is both accessible and challenging, in that he deals with both personal and universal topics, but in an incredibly cold and deadpan fashion as to make for some moments that are quite hard to listen to due to their emotional weight.
Whilst I have great respect for this album with regards to what it signifies for Jonwayne’s life and career, I do retain some reservations regarding its assembly, which is disjointed to the point of feeling somewhat clumsy at times. I’m sure that this is often deliberate, with the dishevelled formulation of Rap Album Two mirroring the state of Jonwayne’s life in recent years, but it nevertheless creates for some moments that suffer as a result, in my opinion. The Single, for instance, stands out as one of the most meta moments on the record, but it’s quite hard to digest as a result of how next-level its humour is. The beat that is intermittently spread throughout this track (which is really more of a skit) is one of the best on the album, with some smooth keys and and a funky groove to it, but the premise of the cut is that Jonwayne keeps attempting to spit the first verse, but stumbles halfway through and has to stop. A brief interaction can be heard between the rapper and whoever is with him in the studio, wherein the person asks if he’s okay to continue, at which point the beat starts again and another failed attempt at spitting this first verse ensues. By the end of the track, the rapper gives up and the album moves on to the next track. Given the title of the track and the fact that it features one of the best beats on the album, it seems that the deliberate spoiling of this song was some sort of statement against what is expected of Jonwayne as a rapper, as someone who is expected to come out with widely accessible hip hop singles. Ultimately, what can be taken from this track is very limited, as its message is incredibly ambiguous, to the point where I’m not even sure if it’s meant to be analysed to this degree and therein lies the joke. However, as a result of this, I’m just left a bit puzzled as to why what sounded like a very promising instrumental was resigned to a tongue-in-cheek sketch and not to a full song. Rainbow is another confusing song, with the the first minute consisting of a relatively promising verse from Danny Watts atop a dreamy instrumental, but once this verse concludes, the remaining two minutes are dedicated to a directionless and seemingly purposeless soundscape of glitchy electronics. Indeed, there are quite a few moments that seemingly lack direction or meaning on Rap Album Two, and even if these moments retain some bafflingly ambiguous purpose to them, I still can’t help but feel that they detract from the broader narrative of the record.
It’s by no means a stretch to say that Rap Album Two is a difficult listen, both as a result of the dishevelled nature of its composition and the painfully personal topics that Jonwayne tackles. This record is also an incredibly admirable release, however, not solely because the artist was strong enough to cover such a direct subject matter, but also the way in which he deals with it is on an entirely new level of self-awareness and self-analysis on the best moments on this album. Jonwayne exhibits an ability to deconstruct his character — which is reflected both in his bars and in the way in which this album is organised — in a fashion that is almost hard to fathom. It’s for these reasons that I really wish I loved this album, but there are a few things holding it back, most notably the way in which it is so unwieldy in its organisation. I’m convinced that this was most likely a deliberate tactic on the artist’s part to reflect certain themes recurrent in these lyrical topics, but the end product is too onerous to properly enjoy for me personally. It seems that, on Rap Album Two, Jonwayne is appealing to the most nihilistic, cynical and sardonic of rap fans, and whether or not he is completely successful in actualising this vision is hard to gauge, but he certainly comes through with one of the most disorientating hip hop albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Ultimately, I maintain a great deal of respect and admiration for this album and Jonwayne as an artist, so I hope that, in the future, he will produce a project that builds on the best moments of Rap Album Two.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10