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In 2014, Los Angeles rapper/producer Jonwayne had a crisis of faith. His suddenly-realized rap dreams were the impetus for his own implosion. A battle with alcoholism waged in part because of a crippling fear of flying, and the harshness of his lifestyle threatened to ruin him. He canceled his shows, parted ways with his label Stones Throw, and retreated from the rap scene. The next year, he released an EP called Jonwayne is Retired. “When I’m grieving I stay up writing these masterpieces,” he rapped. His second full-length rap album seems to prove that assertion. It’s an introspective journal that uses self-critique as a lens through which to examine the fragility of rap celebrity on any scale. It considers what it means to be a rapper and it considers the cost. Rap Album Two deconstructs Jonwayne to build him back up.
Jonwayne has always been a master craftsman and talented technician, but in the past, his raps didn’t really have any function. It was rapping for the sake of it. He had plenty of knotty, syllable-twisting wordplay pivoting on slant rhymes and internal schemes, but much of the content was filler. His full-length debut as a lyricist, Rap Album One, was bogged down by his inability to get out of his own head, rattling off series after series of pointless puzzlers and long-winded (albeit fun) workarounds for rap cliches aiming to show how clever he was. Instilled with purpose, Rap Album Two weighs every sentence carefully. He isn’t interested in constructing complex lyrical miracle word exhibitions. He’s too busy wondering if rap is even worth it.
Much of Rap Album Two is about rap as both an instrument of destruction and a vehicle for redemption. It finds Jonwayne navigating his own downward spiral, seeking the answer to his most important question: What do you do when rap is both your living and a fuel for your vices? His writing, which was once so heady, is now sobering. He’s rapping more deliberately, and the bars all mean more, carrying bigger burdens but bringing bigger rewards. There’s literally a song called “These Words Are Everything.” Songs like the existentialist daydream “Human Condition” and the punching “City Lights” explore the consequences of addiction, especially when pursuing a rap career (“There’s a price to it youngin’/You most likely don’t invite the kind of vices we brung in/Be it poison of the body or the kind you can’t see ‘cause it’s creeping up behind”). The album uses a beatpack with snappy, slow-rolling drums, minor piano chords, soul hymnals, and sunless tones to depict an ongoing recalibration, as Jonwayne finds his way back to rap.
On “LIVE from the Fuck You,” one of the album’s keenest moments, a stranger approaches the rapper in public asking for an impromptu concert for a girl he’s with (“She says she knows who you are, I think she’s a big fan”) before tagging on a dismissal: “She says you rap and I’m not really seeing it, dog.” Jonwayne finally indulges his request for on-the-spot raps with a verse dismantling the “fan” and his actions: “So here’s a little story bout the way I make it hurt/The way I make you learn how not to approach a man who’s suffering for his work like a monkey in the circus.” The observations aren’t exactly revelatory but they are cleverly articulated, and the sharpness with which they’re delivered makes them potent. The most telling moment on Rap Album Two is “The Single,” a chest-beating song he botches several times before scrapping. The title of the song and his inability to complete it best exemplify the album’s primary lesson: the pursuit of stardom can be punishing, both on mind and body.
Rap Album Two is easily the most fulfilling project Jonwayne has ever made loaded with the most thoughtful writing of his career. It isn’t just the gravity of subjects, it’s the carefulness with which he’s willing to examine them. Every candid, incredibly personal line contains some form of catharsis. Alcoholism drove him into isolation and loneliness only led to further self-sabotage. But this record is a triumph over that. These raps don’t just exist for posterity; they, too, are a part of the healing process. As Jonwayne rethinks his “order of operations,” he becomes closer to whole.Share