Japhia Life - Westside Pharmacy
Posted by Jim Clifford on Friday, November 16, 2012 at 11:29pm EST
Three and a half years ago I was a college sophomore wondering where to transfer after the spring semester, who believed all secular music was of the devil, in a shaky 'relationship' with a female who was more in love with her past than me and who was whip-less because one of my best friends had just totaled my car. Fast forward to present day, I'm a college graduate halfway towards a Master's degree, on my fourth car, with a full-time job at a juvenile group home, who's out of shape and about to celebrate the one-year anniversary with a dedicated girl who I only had a friendship with because that one way back when happened. I don't say this to disappoint or impress you, but to point out the change that 42 calendar months can bring. Which brings us to what Japhia Life was doing 3.5 years ago, preparing an album that finally sees the light of iTunes day this fall.
I remember sitting in front of my desktop computer on Valentine's Day 2009, scrolling down Japhia Life's Myspace page, looking for some news about his Heartsville Mixtape that was supposed to drop on the holiday. To this day, the only evidence of that mixtape having ever been promised is the stray 'Hip Hop Runway' single on some blank mix tape in the back floor of my car. 'Heartsville' was supposed to be the appetizer to the legendary "Westside Pharmacy" LP that has been buzzed about ever since. "Nazareth" was a high quality, if slightly recycled, Hors d'oeuvre while release dates for the audio prescription continued to be pushed back more times than everyone involved would probably like to count. Only when the florescent polaroid album cover and 18-track iTunes pre-order was made available did I let myself get excited for what is arguably the biggest release of an indie hip-hop artist in 2012.
The name of Japhia's verbal and musical game has always been naked simplicity. By using as few ingredients as possible to craft production, there is less chance that the sound will become stale and dated years or decades down the road. Plus, with time, the ingredients will soak into each other, deepening the impact on the palate. The dank sewer that is the album intro, "Japhia's Lyric," sets that minimalistic, menacing tone that stretches fully in the tense production of the J. Rodgers-produced "Pitchfork" and evolves into acceptance in the regret-laced but hope-cured "Last Night." Instead of throwing the weight of the album off his shoulders with a bombastic opening set, Fiyah analyzes the death threats of stress, haters and expectations before declaring himself victorious and alive on the earliest single, "Lifey's Revenge." Mirroring the sound of the post-alt rock band he uses as a punchline, the live guitar stream in this early single is a rocky one, made no less coarse by the cloaking effects over Tena Jone's hook. I didn't like this one when it dropped, but it's more fitting in context. Still, I'm waiting to hear hip-hop artists, christians especially, use a rock/nu-metal sound without feeling the need to include an aggravating hook.
Reverend Tithes fans, rejoice, his single appearance on the album is sufficiently hilarious, even, at this point, with multiple listens. Second single "I'm A Mess" will probably end up being my subjective favorite song of the year, stuffed to the brim with Lifey's retrospection, Hot Handz thick servings of flexing synthesizer and one of the best hooks in the Arms Out emcee's catalog. "Coldblooded" and "Full Moon," both produced by David James, continue the reflective late night walk guided by street lamps and porch lights. The tracks remind me of some of the best off of Hell's Diary- lyrical heart-on-sleeve action grounded in somber production that echoes life's daily battles. For example, "Japhia they said they saw you with Pink / Did they tell you I referenced A.W. Pink? / I'm ducking evil for fear of appearing evil / But what you see may not always be what you think." Spoken word interlude "Hate" is effective, with guest words provided by REDZ. "Dime" asks Rob Hodge to donate a sweet sixteen as the Philly comrades address the ladies about comments that are made about them all the time, just not to their face. The charisma that both rappers gain from sharing a booth with either other is obvious and the casual, snazzy beat wouldn't be out of place in the latest Quentin Tarintino trailer. Continuing the theme of addressing a specific group, "Pimp" calls out preachers across the country treating their congregations as their money makers, and "Dealin'" lays out the first-person hypocrisy of the verb. The brief trilogy feels a little too much like filler for me to be comfortable with and would've benefited from being combined into one track, since the production sounds similar and the theme is uniting. As three brief tracks, it slows down the album's momentum and is added to a decent-sized collection of lukewarm Japhia tracks from previous collections that just don't work well with his style.
"Cloud," the album's latest buzz single, gets things back on track with trademark wordplay and a J Rodger's beat that is the equivalent of a well-tailored suit with how well it fits the blazingly honest emcee. "Letter to Lindsay" is a handwritten audio byte to Lindsay Lohan. Like any good conversation, Japhia is more interested in relating to the inner turmoil of the bruised and battered starlet than preaching anything to her, besides her infinite worth. The media sound clips heighten the authenticity here. As the album comes close to the end of it's marathon, the Wit-produced "Small World" stands out as exceptional and the most pure beat on the album is blessed with some of the best pharmaceutical bars. On the flip side, I have a strong love/hate relationship with "The Exercise." The Dr. Jekyll side of the song is the verses, coyly dedicated to the future Mrs. Japhia Life and the Mr. Hyde is the ultra obnoxious, mood-altering chorus. Especially at this late stage in the album's game, the track doesn't contribute anything to the final product. Not so for the bare boned "The Realest." Steady drum taps and a stray electric guitar flare lay a canvas for Life's bars with plenty of breathing room in between, allowing the listener to catch every double-rhyme and punchline before the next one hits. Album closer "I Will Watch You" reminds me of a more optimistic take of Kendrick Lamar's 'Buried Alive Interlude' off of Drake's "Take Care." Japhia's personal memories and robotic vocals float around a universe of subliminal distortion that ends the album on a high note, if not a clear one.
Japhia Life is one of Hip-Hop's enjoyable enigmas. "Westside Pharmacy" has long been his fan's conundrum, if not his own. Just as my life has changed in unrecognizable ways in three and a half years, the Rx of Westside Pharmacy has no doubt evolved in scope, sound and sequence in ways that only its creator can testify to and show evidence of. In some ways, the album begins to fray at its seams from the impression that it's being pulled in multiple directions from equally great concepts. If there is an overarching concept to the project, I honestly haven't found it yet, but there's a density to any Japhia product that isn't always evident for several months until all layers of the being is understood. Conceptual or not, and minus the quartet of noted subpar strokes, "Westside Pharmacy" is an emotional roller coaster of finger-etched beats and poetry whose transparency comes from who Japhia is willing to talk to more than what he says to them. There may be a tinge of disappointment on the opening listens for those who expected the hype to explode in a skyscraper of epic sound, but that will pass once preconceptions are stripped and listeners join Japhia on the street level. "Westside Pharmacy" was well worth the toiled wait.
Categorical Ratings Breakdown:
Beat Selection/Production: 4/5
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