Album Review :
KJ-52 - Mental

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Artist: KJ-52
Album: Mental
Label: The Paradigm Collective
Release Date: 10.21.14
Reviewer: Lee Brown

Track Listing: 

  1. Gameface (Feat. KB, Soul Glo Activatur) [First Half Edition]
  2. Fight Music (I Don’t Do Black or White Music) [Feat. Lecrae & Propaganda]
  3. Island of the Misfit Toys (Feat. Social Club & SPZRKT)
  4. Mental (Feat. Tedashii & Soul Glo Activatur)
  5. Tonight
  6. Gameface (Feat. KB, Soul Glo Activatur, & Flame) [2nd Half Edition]
  7. Fresh Kicks On
  8. It’s Going Down (Feat. Canton Jones) [Remix]
  9. Brand New Day (Feat. Humble Tip & Bethany Jones) [Remix]

When I reviewed KJ-52’s 2012 album Dangerous, I was impressed at how KJ, now a long-time veteran of the hip-hop genre, brought some bold changes to the mix. Though KJ has always brought impressive guest-stars and intelligent writing to the table, Dangerous felt like much more of a different animal than previous albums’ evolutionary steps. The writing and delivery were both crisp, the beats were solid, and the guests (including chart-topper Lecrae) were all good fits who brought a nice bit of variety.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find that KJ has pushed the ball a bit further down the field, so to speak. Mental, his newest EP, follows suit with plenty of fresh and intelligent lyrics, even sharper beats, benefitting from gratuitous collaboration with Family Force 5 alum Soul Glo Activatur and several strongly strategic guest appearances. In fact, outside of KJ’s album entitled Collaborations, I can’t think of any of his albums that have placed more emphasis on the guest players. In another bold move, each track is so tied to its collaboration that the songs literally live or die based on the guest’s skills even more than KJ.

Thankfully, not only is each guest spot strategically handled, each one brings something new and vibrant to the table. There’s a reason why “Gameface” and “Mental” feel a bit like KJ-52 meets Family Force 5… that’s what they are, in so many words. Yet, this doesn’t tell the whole story, as both “Gameface” and “Mental” each feature a third element in that of some of Reach Record’s finest. So, in the end, you have this potent combination of KJ, FF5, and the 116 Clique, which works together to create some of the freshest sounds KJ has put out in recent memory.

In truth, however, Mental will live and die for fans based on perception. At just nine tracks, I was initially a little put off as to how this was considered a full album, as there wasn’t any strong promotion that said “EP.” Add to that the fact that four tracks are re-mixes or repeats (“Gameface 2nd Half Edition”) and the real number of songs drops to just five. As I assessed the numerical score for the album, the decision between a “4” and a “3” came to the price tag. If the price was full-album levels, then it would have gotten a 3, simply because fans would be paying full price for an EP, in essence. However, since the album is priced properly to the amount of new content the listener receives, I have no hesitation giving this one an “above average” mark.

The reality is, Mental features some of KJ’s best songs. Sure, they’re a little more shiny right now just becuse they are the new stuff, but I really feel that most of the new tracks are absolute gems. KJ comes across with veteran confidence, the guest spots shape each song, but each is superb, and though I could do without “Fresh Kicks” and almost half the album’s content are remixes; “Gameface,” “Mental,” “Island of the Misfit Toys,” and “Tonight” alone are worth the price of the album and then some.

And then, there are the remixes. Now, I typically do not cover remix tracks that show up on regular albums, and you’ll notice in my album breakdown, below, that these are intentionally left out. The reasoning is very simple. Remixes are by definition divisive experiences in most cases. If you take a good song and remix it, there is always the risk of playing the “well, the original was just so much better” game in your head. If the song was already sub-par and you remix it, you’re not likely to win anyone else over with it. However, remixes do have their place and Mental is that case in point. Well, actually, “Fight Music” is that case and point, to be more precise. While the other remixes on the album are good, “Fight Music” is great.

The idea is simple. Take one of the best songs from Dangerous which already features literally the biggest player in Christian hip-hop (lest we rehash the fact that Lecrae hit the very top of the Billboard Charts!), Lecrae, and let Propaganda get ahold of it. Brilliant. That, my friends, is the recipe for a great remix. Now, while I don’t know if the track is “better” than the original version or not, it certainly is different in all the right ways, as Propaganda adds some always skillful verse into the mix and the rest is chopped up and repurposed in excellent fashion.

Album Breakdown: 

The album begins with “Gameface,” and that starts things off with a bang. KJ, Soul Glo, KB, and Flame are all featured equally well across the song and each moment plays to their individual strengths. Soul Glo gives the song a fittingly FF5 party song feel, much like “Chainsaw” and “Cray Button,”  and the use of 116 members KB and Flame add a certain gravitas to the track. KJ’s lines are quick and intelligent, and each moment of the song leaves you ready for the next. All in all, great track.

The afformentioned “Fight Music” follows. This is the only remix track I’ll cover to any degree in this write up, as mentioned above. And, since I’ve already given my full thoguths on the track, let me simply add that having Lecrae, KB, Tedashii, Propaganda, and Flame show up on the same short album makes Mental feel like a 116 album featuring KJ as much as the other way around. And it works so well. It’s just a good experience.

“Island of the Misfit Toys” treads back into an empowering positivity that KJ has become known for. It takes the topic of youth who feel like outcasts and seeks to give them hope in reminding them that no matter what is against them, “you are loved.” Once again the song is made by the collaborations. In this case, Social Club and SPZRKT are brought into the mix, and once again each is able to play off the others to some amazing results. KJ has presented MANY songs with the same basic message across his long career, but “Island” proves that it is a message that needs to be presented again in new and fresh ways continually… and this song does just that.

The title track, “Mental,” follows. This time the collaboration goes back to FF5 meets 116 terittory, as Soul Glo and T-Dot make a reunion appearance. And, just as “Chainsaw” made a fantastic union of divergent styles, so “Mental” blends KJ, Soul Glo, and Tedashii into an addictively catchy mix. The message is pretty straightforward on this one, and each of the men on the track have their own moment to shine, which is, again, why this feels more like an outright collaboration than it does “KJ featuring…”

On an album/EP where so many songs are made by the guest collaboration, it is refreshing that KJ does get his moment to shine brightest. “Tonight” follows after songs like “Brand New Day” in tone and style, but the execution is clsoer to R&B at times than I am used to with KJ. Not only does the song highlight his intelligent rapping, it also gives the world a greater taste of his smooth styling than we have had in a long time. Already the first single off the album, “Tonight” is a pace-breaker and album-maker all at once.

“Gameface 2nd Half” is an oddity. Unless my review copy was just a fluke, then the song is pretty much just a rehash of the first track with very very few changes made. In fact, the biggest change I heard was that Flame’s part was cut. The rest was nearly verse for verse the same. This makes me wonder it’s purpose on the album. “Gameface” is a great song, but the almost unchanged 2nd half edition is just taking up space from the version I was given.

“Fresh Kicks” is the last new track on the album. Unfortunately, it is also the only new track that I was less impressed with. It isn’t a bad song, and the message is still great, but it just fades into the background in comparison with the other new tracks. If this were the last song on the album, it might have left a “lesser” moment to end on, but there are still some remixes of Dangerous’ better tracks yet to close the album out (also featuring some solid guest appearances by Canton Jones, Bethany Jones, and Humble Tip).

Musicianship:  KJ has been doing this for a long time, especially in “hip hop years.” You don’t hang around this long without having skill. So, one can reasonably expect that the musicianship is up to par. Mental, however, proves that KJ has simply gotten better as the years go by.

Lyrical/Spiritual Content: KJ was once a part of the “Sons of Intellect.” It makes sense then that he is capable of some of the more intelligent rhymes out there. Ironically, many people know KJ for his silly side, which doesn’t always highlight the depth of his writing. Mental follows suit with many past albums in bringing overtly positive spiritual lyrics, but leans into some of KJ’s deeper waters for the most part.

Lasting Value: Since this is an EP length experience with several remix tracks, some may leave this album much sooner than a full album expeirence would last. This would be a mistake, however. “Gameface,” “Fight Music, “Island of the Misfit Toys,” “Mental,” and “Tonight” are all superb tracks that deserve many repeated listens. The rest… well, that depends on how you feel about remixes, mostly.

Overall: KJ-52 is a hip-hop veteran who has had a more than expansive career. With 2012’s Dangerous, he proved that he still has more than enough fight left in him to pull off another decade on the scene. Mental follows suit with an EP length experience that features some of KJ’s best collaborations since the albums of the same name. Each track feels more like a shared experience than it does “KJ featuring…,” and that is a good thing in the end. Combine this with some of KJ’s best writing, and you relly have something to tell your friends about.

With Lecrae (by way of remix), Tedashii, KB, Propaganda, and Flame all showing up, Mental feels as much like a Reach Records or 116 clique album as it does a new KJ-52 joint. But, add in gratuitous use of former Family Force 5-er Soul Glo Activatur, as well as guys like Social Club and SPZRKT and a bold new experience takes shape. All said and done, Mental brings five absolutely amazing tracks to the table, along with a couple remixes and one track that is ok, but doesn’t hold it’s own against the weight of the rest.

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