A lot of hip hop heads didn't realize it at the time, but Jay "J-Zone" Mumford actually quit the rap game a few years after the release of his last solo album, A Job Ain't Nuthin' But Work. Although he had many Interweb fans, that didn't translate into real world dollars for him to use, which caused him to lose his distribution deal with Fat Beats. With mounting responsibilities and debts, he was forced to make a decision. A lot of people can relate to this: it's hard to give up on your dream, even if it is for the greater good (read: financial stability). So, aside from a few extraneous projects he dropped just to get them out into the world, he quietly exited stage left, choosing a life in the field of teaching instead of the glamour and glitz of being an underground producer-slash-rapper that had absolutely nothing to show for it, aside from boxes of unsold product sitting around the house.
However, this story doesn't actually have an ending yet.
J-Zone's second life began with the release of his self-published memoir, Root For The Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure. In it, Jay chronicled his life up to that point: how his family helped him both discover and pursue music, his first experiences within the industry itself, the build-up to his own album releases, goofy tour stories, which albums had the greatest impact on his impressionable mind, and, ultimately, what happened after he chose to hang it all up. The book was equal parts hilarious, depressing, and, most importantly, honest, and it received a metric shit-ton of critical acclaim (and deservedly so: the book is fucking good).
The success of the book led Zone to thinking about revisiting his musical roots, so he tested the waters, releasing a twelve-inch single, "The Drug Song (Remix)" b/w "The Fox Hunt" through his imprint, Old Maid Entertainment, which had folded as a label several years prior but now existed as a state of mind or some shit. The feedback was promising, and Zone felt encouraged to give the whole "new album" thing a go, and Peter Pan Syndrome was born.
Peter Pan Syndrome, named after a clinical term regarding a person's unwillingness to grow up, is partly a concept album, in that Zone uses some of it to get personal and discuss how hard real life can actually be, subject matter you hardly find anywhere within our chosen genre. But this is still a J-Zone album, so any messages buried within are delivered with goofy humor and intriguing samples, along with the point of view of a dude who isn't that much older than you or I but considers himself to be hip hop's "Get off my lawn!" guy.
A lot of the topics are lifted straight from his book, so he didn't have to look far for inspiration, but the main difference between Peter Pan Syndrome and any of his other projects was Zone's decision to learn how to play the drums, which he does on nearly every track on the album: he was a novice at the time, but willing to put in the effort, and that trait lends these beats a but more credence than a drum machine typically does. I suppose J-Zone felt that if a return to the music industry was in the cards, he needed to do something to stand out further from the crowd than ever before, and he made a good call.
Peter Pan Syndrome ended up on many year-end best-of lists in 2013, which, hopefully, is encouraging him to continue making music as long as he can. It didn't move a ton of units or anything, but the music industry is different now: I wholeheartedly believe that if J-Zone had made his debut in 2010 instead of back in 1998 (with his EP-slash-Master's thesis Music For Tu Madre), his career would be experiencing an entirely different trajectory. Although we wouldn't have gotten that book, which would have been a shame. In the year that has passed, Zone has been working on his drumming, having even released a record full of breakbeats he recreated from scratch, so that's promising, at least.
A couple of you have wondered aloud why it took me so long to write about Peter Pan Syndrome if I'm such a huge fan of J-Zone's work. Some of you two may also wonder how this review isn't a Gut Reaction. Here's the short version: Gut Reactions are for albums I'm listening to for the first time. When I received Peter Pan Syndrome in the mail (purchased directly from the man himself: although Amazon links are strewn throughout this post, I'll let you decide whether you wish to use them or not), I decided to actively listen to it and not think about writing. In short, I chose to enjoy it for what it was, and although it resulted in a post nearly one full year removed from its release date, I have no regrets.
Although I probably shouldn't do that for every new release. Otherwise I'd never get anything done.
1. IT'S A TRAP!
J-Zone uses this rap album intro to describe his mindstate after his last album failed to take off, causing him to lose his distribution deal, detailing a “real world” experience for “grownups” who are told to embrace mediocrity in exchange for something resembling perceived financial security. Although some of this is amusing, it's also depressing as shit, which, of course, is the point. None of this will be a surprise to anyone who read Zone's book, but at least it kicks things off fairly well. Also, Star Wars nerds will probably get a kick out of that title.
2. R.A.'S CAREER ADVICE (FEAT. R.A. THE RUGGED MAN)
Crustified Dibbs pops up on a voicemail message to both congratulate Zone on his decision to start recording again and set up the running theme of Peter Pan Syndrome. A bit of overkill, since Zone's own intro more than adequately established what the overall point of the project was going to be, but you can't blame our host for wanting to snag a bigger name as a guest on his comeback album, even if it is just as a cameo on an interlude.
3. GADGET HO
Based on a chapter in his book, “Gadget Ho” decries women (and men, too) who spend all of their time on their phones and tablets instead of experiencing life as it is happening. Sort of: Zone is really just angry that none of the girls at the club will tear themselves away from their phone screens for two seconds to give him the time of day and/or fuck him. Our host's beat is pretty fucking good, but what impressed me the most was his actual bars: he's still goofy and makes observations that will make you laugh out loud, but he hasn't sounded this focused in quite some time. “Gadget Ho” also carries the distinction of being the very first J-Zone song to ever receive an official video, a fact that still has me thinking, “Seriously?” For the first actual track on Peter Pan Syndrome, this will acclimate you nicely.
4. MOLOTOV COCKTAIL
Zone tries out some of his newly-acquired drum skills on the instrumental “Molotov Cocktail”, which is a bit of a curveball considering that we've only heard one actual rap song and we're already four tracks deep into Peter Pan Syndrome, but it's an entertaining diversion (Zone's drum work is impressive for a newbie), and it led me to believe that J-Zone could possibly reinvent himself as a DJ Shadow type with sillier influences and nobody would bat an eye. I didn't even miss the fact that nobody rhymes on here, it's that good.
5. OPPOSITES ATTRACT (FEAT. AL-SHID)
From his very first album, Music For Tu Madre, Zone proved that he had an ear for talent, recruiting Huggy Bear and Al-Shid as the voices that carried his beats when he was otherwise preoccupied. Shid is actually one of my favorite underrated rappers (here you go, you two, another one for that list you keep trying to compile), so when I heard that he recorded a song for Peter Pan Syndrome, I was justifiably excited, and “Opposites Attract” doesn't disappoint. After one of Zone's patented-at-this-point goofy intros, he allows Shid to just rip through his verses to the point where one hopes at least a Zone-produced Al-Shid EP is in the cards. The track, which, thankfully, has nothing to do with Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, although that animated feline could also benefit from our host's production, seems to be elevated to an entirely different plane of existence when you factor in Zone's live drums. Which was a nice touch.
6. MISCEGENATION ON YA STATION!
Almost as though he realized there was no way he would be able to stretch this into a proper song length, Zone delivers a one-verse wonder about white dudes finding out that their significant other cheated when their baby is of a different race. As this concept only works if you completely discount interracial relationships, “Miscegenation On Ya Station!”, with its Public Enemy-esque sense of self-importance, comes across as anachronistic shit-talking, making up a problem just so Zone would have something to talk about, like so many Republicans. Some of the individual bars are silly enough, but this was the first real misstep of the project.
7. CRIB ISSUES (FEAT. CHIEF CHINCHILLA)
“Crib Issues”, which appeared as the second song in the “Gadget Ho” clip (and also earned its own video all by itself, which was a strange progression), is a pretty good example of our host fixating on minute details to find humor in his situation, this one being his desire to never sleep over at a potential love-slash-fuck interest's home if they're messy as hell. It seems like such a petty thing to complain about that all one can do is chuckle: I mean, you're getting laid, right? Zone and his G-Child-esque alter ego Chief Chinchilla offer a quick disclaimer at the very end explaining the basis of the track, even dropping some meta-commentary before moving on, which I thought was funny. The song itself was okay, but enjoyable.
8. JACKIN' FOR BASQUIATS (FEAT. CHIEF CHINCHILLA)
Zone once said, “every Jay-Z needs a broke cousin counterpart like J-Zone”. Well, this track tests that theory, as it appears to have been directly inspired by “that Basquiat [painting] Jay-Z always talks about”. Zone goes on a stealing spree, rationalizing that rhymes about famous works of art are what he should be writing at his age in order to sound more mature, before quickly giving up and regressing toward his internal juvenile tendencies. Silly as shit, and since it dropped after Hova released “Picasso Baby”, with its video showcasing Shawn Carter rapping at the fucking MOMA, it's even more timely as satire. Huh.
9. THE DRUG SONG (REMIX)
The previously-released (on that twelve-inch single I mentioned above, which dropped before Zone announced an actual album for both tracks to occupy) sample-heavy instrumental that is a bit too energetic for the weed heads in the audience, although the cocaine addicts, meth abusers, and molly supporters will feel right at home. Still, enjoyable as shit, even as it doesn't really lead anywhere: it makes for an attractive interlude, anyway. (For those of you who care about this sort of thing, this is a remix to a track that originally appeared on Zone's Live @ The Liqua Sto limited-edition side project.)
10. PLAYER POTION (FEAT. CHIEF CHINCHILLA)
Speaking of Live @ The Liqua Sto, “Player Potion” sounds like an outtake from that particular limited-edition side project, which was a tribute to those brief verses rappers used to lend to commercials for malt liquor. Our host uses his Chief Chinchilla alter ego to wax poetically about the titular (fictional) beverage, which only seems to amp up his ignorant pimp persona. Flies by too quickly for me to be overly critical, but let's just say that Zone knows better than to wear out his welcome. His instrumental was kind of funky, as well, but you won't want to move in with it or anything.
11. HOG SLOP (FEAT. CELPH TITLED)
As if he were crossing things off of a list, Zone tosses in what could have been a leftover from his Bo$$ Hogg Barbarians side project alongside Celph Titled, who, of course, pops up as a general courtesy. Unsurprisingly, Celph runs laps around our host lyrically over a pretty goddamn great instrumental, but it's Zone's final verse that ends up being the most memorable, where his live drumming becomes more noticeable (because he brings it up himself, of course) and he even manages to use the word “coterie”. He's even nice enough to let the drums play uninhibited at the very end, for folks who may want to sample them for their own projects. Awww.
12. RAP BABY BOOMERS
An interlude on which Zone points out that hip hop is a young person's sport, as he (correctly) notes that if your favorite rappers are still talking the same shit in their forties, they aren't seen as veterans as much as they are immature assholes that may need to give it up and lock down that day job already. A lot of my favorite rappers fall into this category, so this track made me laugh and feel bad about myself. He's right, though, and the proof is right there with the young'uns and their shitty songs and the teenagers and college students today that eat the new shit up. And for those of you wondering, the first rapper that popped in my head after Zone listed his qualifiers was, of all people, Big Daddy Kane. I think you'll have a difficult time arguing with me about that one.
13. AN HONEST DAY'S ROBBERY (FEAT. HAS-LO)
A silly, but dope, indictment of the “day job” and the dreams it has suppressed, as it is not designed to help the average person amass anything amounting to “wealth”: instead, you're expected to live check-to-check without any hope of advancement (unless you save your money, which doesn't guarantee anyone shit even if you're in the position to actually do it). It's that whole “embrace mediocrity” thing that our host mentioned way back during the intro. Zone and guest star Has-Lo use our host's commanding drums to plot a couple of get-rick-quick schemes as a result of their respective desensitization to their jobs, and, as expected, nothing goes the way they had hoped. This song as funny, though, and in no way condones the actions of these idiots, who deliver their verses with a ridiculous attention to detail. This shit was just nice.
14. GIMME A HIT
A follow-up of sorts to “The Drug Song (Remix)”, in that “Gimme A Hit” is a rather sample-intensive instrumental interlude that focuses on ingesting illicit substances. A bit catchier than that earlier track, as Zone feels more comfortable now in his skin, tossing in sound bites and scratching in scraps of song elements at will. Certainly much more accomplished than “The Drug Song (Remix)”, anyway.
Zone lodges a formal complaint at the type of people that move to New York City to pursue their dreams by changing just what it is that makes New York City so goddamn special in the first place. Clearly our host is upset that Jay-Z and Alicia Keys's “Empire State Of Mind” has empowered so many people to think this way (that song is even name-dropped at one point). I'm okay with Zone sounding like a cranky old man, resistant to change, but “Trespasser” was a bit much, and it wasn't very good as a result. Fuck, J-Zone even feels the need to over-explain himself at the end of the song: that's a sure sign that even he knew his argument was a little light.
16. BLACK WEIRDO
It sure was nice of J-Zone to construct a snack-slash-smoke break right into the middle of Peter Pan Syndrome. Although it was nice to hear that another rapper also believes Chris Brown to be an unforgivable asshole.
17. THE FOX HUNT (FEAT. BREEZLY BREWIN', OXYGEN, & PRINCE PAUL)
Zone teams up with The Juggaknots' Breezly Brewin', Oxygen, and (an uncredited, at least on the proper album) Prince Paul for a celebration of taking the easy way out, hooking up with a not-quite-so-attractive chick, eschewing the high-maintenance a hot girl requires in favor of being with an ugly girl who has nothing to lose, but everything to prove, apparently. Zone himself seems to realize how silly this whole endeavor is right away, and writes accordingly, but Breezly Brewin' received no such memo, and although his bars are goofier than usual, he sounds quasi-serious, which takes all of the fun right out of it. Zone's instrumental also knocks, and Paul plays along admirably. Here's hoping there's room for J-Zone to contribute something, anything, to Paul's upcoming whatever-the-hell-he's-doing.
18. ROACHES IN THE KITCHEN
The final instrumental interlude of the evening is a soulful affair that bangs. Zone's work on the drums is so good (for an admitted rookie) that it's goddamn astounding, especially when compared to the typical drum machine knocks that you hear on ever other rap album in existence not executive-produced by ?uestlove. This shit was nice.
19. PEER PRESSURE (FEAT. DJ CORY LOVE)
A brief voicemail leads into...
20. PETER PAN SYNDROME
Appropriately, this title track doubles as an expansion of the album's overall theme. Zone describes how his life in the workforce has gone since releasing his last album, revisiting the same territory from his (all kinds of awesome) book, except his bars rhyme. J-Zone is unapologetic about his “immature” lifestyle: he prefers making music and generally being creative to job security and a family with 2.3 children and a dog. Admirable, and the song is funny, poignant, and I'm willing to bet that a ton of you two will be able to relate. This is a solid album, but based off of this one song alone, if you're not rooting for J-Zone by now, then you just don't know what good hip hop sounds like. There. I said it.
21. NO PLAN A (FEAT. CHIEF CHINCHILLA & DICK $TALLION)
On what is essentially a wind-up of the previous track, Zone and Chinchilla (so, really, Zone and himself) briefly discuss the perils of “acting like kids” (as Zone cops to doing throughout the album) while in your mid-thirties, offering a quick serious note before laughing the whole thing off. Don't ever change, J-Zone. As a contrast, our host presents a voicemail from his old Go-Rilla Pimps partner Dick $tallion that has to be the most goddamn depressing thing I've heard on a rap album since I don't know when. What happens to your dreams when confronted with reality? The answer is found here. Those of you two who listen to our chosen genre partly for the escape factor will want to skip the back half of this interlude. The underlying music throughout was pretty great, though.
22. MO' PORK (FEAT. SWAGMASTER BACON)
For what is essentially a bonus track (although not labeled as such), Zone (finally) branches out from material from his book, creating yet another alias, Swagmaster Bacon, to deliver a trap anthem of sorts, as a parody of current rap trends. Sure, it's silly, but it isn't something most listeners will go out of their way to hear more than once. Still, proof positive that Zone still listens to the radio.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Peter Pan Syndrome is not only one hell of a comeback, it's also a very good album when taken out of context. You don't have to be familiar with the rest of J-Zone's back catalog to enjoy this (although you're probably not reading this sentence if you're not familiar with J-Zone's back catalog, so whatever), as Peter Pan Syndrome could easily be the most accessible album the man has ever produced. Some of the tracks are silly, which is par for the course (Zone likes what he likes, and it's admirable how he still doesn't even try to chase trends, except for when he's outright making fun of them), but the underlying thread throughout the album is one that most listeners will relate to: how many times has real life disappointed you? And if you could fight back, what would you do? Zone has done an excellent job at turning his book into a concept album, and his rhymes have been upgraded significantly (but not overly so: this is a man who wants to be understood). Production-wise, Peter Pan Syndrome is no Pimps Don't Pay Taxes, but Zone updates his sound for the new hip hop era he finds himself within, and the addition of his own drum work elevates everything tenfold, as you can hear the passion and determination it took for him to record this shit independently while still holding down his day job. If you think this review is too gushing, fucking deal with it: Peter Pan Syndrome is one of my favorite albums of 2013, which is why it took me so long to actually sit down and write a review.
BUY OR BURN? You should most definitely buy this motherfucker as soon as possible. His book, too: it goes well as a companion piece.
BEST TRACKS: “Opposites Attract”; “An Honest Day's Robbery”; “Peter Pan Syndrome”; “The Fox Hunt”; “Hog Slop”; “Gadget Ho”; “Roaches In The Kitchen”; “Molotov Cocktail”
There's some more J-Zone stuff you can read about here.