One entry that did not make our Best Independent Albums of 2013 list, but should have, is Dice Raw’s Jimmy’s Back. Reason being, the album dropped in mid-December, and was in our review backlog, and we’re just getting to it now (Editor’s Note: expect a lot of leftover 2013 reviews this month). The legendary Roots crew member has effectively created a spiritual successor to The Roots’ Game Theory, with a highly conceptual album narrated by Wadud Ahmad, whose hauntingly deep voice was found on Game Theory‘s “False Media” and “Take It There”. The concept this time around is based on the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.
What both the album and the book is about, is how the U.S. prison system has targeted people of color, and has effectively used the “War On Drugs” as a primary means of perpetuating this cycle. Dice Raw, a major creative player on the last handful of Roots LP’s, takes center stage on Jimmy’s Back, and joining him are a crew of unpolished, ex-convicts, who share their experiences firsthand, in lyrical form.
Dice has come a long way since his show-stealing moment on “Clones”, as he’s proven on the last few Roots albums, and on Jimmy’s Back, as well. He’s matured into not only a solid emcee, but also a soulful singer, as both talents which are on display here. Jimmy’s Back is an unapologetically downbeat album, yet great art comes from pain.
Things get off to a bit of a rocky start upon first listen, with a pair of sketches that show off Dice’s dual talents, on “Clockwork” and “Animal”, respectively. While these two tracks are more intros than songs, the first full song, “Never Be A Gangsta” is the weakest of the bunch. Dice gets your attention by flipping the opening lines of 2 Chainz “Birthday Song”, letting you know that the party is over, and it’s time to face reality: “They ask me what I do and who I do it for / I do it for all my brothers with no voice / live a life of crime because they feel like there ain’t no choice…”. The first prison-bred guest emcee follows, whose verse clearly shows that rapping is not his day-job.
But don’t let that scare you. While some of these cats are more skilled than others, this is actually what gives the album part of its bittersweet charm. Like Dice, you can’t help but feel for these guys, such as on “Looking Glass”, where one gentleman pours his heart out with brutal honesty, “It’s like I’m dead to the world / Nobody writes me / or come to see me / It’s like nobody likes me / All I got is n***as in jail, trying to fight me / or the feds, trying to indict me.” Followed by Wadud Ahmad’s chilling narrative, the message of the album really hits home.
The album really begins to sink in with consecutive listens, with its strongest moments deep within the middle of the LP. Tracks like each “Run”, “What’s Going On”, “Surprised To Be Alive”, “In The Heart” really show Dice’s talent as both a vocalist and an emcee, as he takes on the thought-process of these young men trapped in a vicious cycle.
Wadud Ahmad is the album’s other standout talent, who acts as the glue that holds the whole LP together. He reaches in and forces you to acknowledge the things you don’t want to about “post-racial America”, with well written poetics. Recited with his one-of-a-kind voice, his talent is used to full effect here.
Musically, this album really delivers, which is no surprise since an extension of The Roots crew. The only downside of the record is that it is clear that this was done on a budget. Some songs are mastered lower than others, and other tracks feature Dice’s, well, “raw” vocals, without the studio shine or multiple takes you might find on a major-label release. This is forgivable, however, as its evident that this is a labor of love. What major label or corporation would get behind an album with no marketable singles, that takes such a bold stance on such a controversial topic?
Like The Roots’ past few LP’s, Jimmy’s Back is a very thought provoking, melancholy, and most of all, ambitious project from Dice Raw. If there was ever any doubt if Dice could play the role of each actor, writer, and director of his own full-length LP, this should prove otherwise.
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