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Review: J Shaw, Elevators or Escalators

J Shaw, Elevators or Escalators

jshawIf asked to identify the best rap lyricist, I usually won’t commit to just one. I’ll say things like “well, it depends on your taste,” or, “are we talking old school or contemporary?” or, “are we talking dance floor rap or socially conscious rap?” Really, these responses are to avoid having an argument, winning the argument, and watch the other person slink away, embarrassed—our relationship tilted toward awkwardness forever. Because my answer is, and has always been, Tupac. Which, of course, is the right answer. While Rakim, Eric B., and Common are also extremely talented, they don’t really come close to the millions of things Tupac does on a wordsmith level, at least not consistently through one album. Then, J Shaw’s Elevators or Escalators arrived in my inbox.

My review of his album was originally supposed to be released on a much earlier date, but I read in Shaw’s bio that he places special importance on lyricism, so I paid extra attention. Needless to say, I was entranced, and wanted to make absolutely sure I was hearing the words correctly before I dug into an assumed level of talent. As it turns out, I heard right. No assumption necessary. Elevators or Escalators is poetry. And sensuality. And social consciousness. Not to mention a really tasty slice of rhythm—clean instrumentals, solid beats.

The album braids together threads of individual and societal difficulties, as well as larger concepts of love and non-violence. Overall, Shaw’s passion comes through with vengeance.

It’s said that even sold his house to pursue his musical dreams, a drive and ambitiousness that is clearly represented by the first track on his album, “J’s at the Door.” The background is thick with synthesized organs, not unlike most of the heavy rap music circulating the airwaves these days—Jay Z, Lil’ Wayne, etc., which immediately attacks the ears with Shaw’s unavoidable energy. The well rhymed lyrics enhance both the individual and universal idea of going after what you want, what you deserve; going after your dreams: ‘what you got/you know I need/…he ain’t trippin/he steady pitchin.’

The second track, “Nothin’ New,” illustrates where Shaw comes from, both societally and within the rap genre. With this track, Shaw weaves his societal consciousness thread further into the album’s construction. The chorus of ‘been there done that/this ain’t nothin’ new/but everything I do/brand new’ repeats throughout the entire track as a kind of background to the verses, all of which contain references to contemporary rap and its stale lyrical content: ‘still sellin’ weed/…boy they call it Molly now…/same shit different song/…your whole style needs a recall.’
Track 3, “Mrs. Know it All,” is one of my personal favorites on the album, as it moves from a consciousness of the world through genre to a consciousness of the world through depicting specific scenes. The track tells a story about a ‘gold digger’ woman who has, according to Shaw anyway, dangerously mixed up priorities: ‘Fast life/she love it/…life of the party/resuscitate/clear.’ Later in the track, the lyrics nudge men who fall in with women like this to take caution—referencing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger—” that she could trick them into believing the children she has belong to him, sucking even more money out of his pockets: ‘thousand dollar purse with them food stamps in it.”
“Hater” and “Good Fellas” are two other favorites of mine, both of which seems very radio friendly in terms of rhythmic catchiness and innovative rhymes and meaningful lyrics.  With lines like ‘First things first there’s only one me/…put your legs in your own pants/be your own man/…what’s meant for me is meant for me you understand…/took the stairs instead of elevators/instigators promise makers back stabbin’ hand shakers sayonara see ya latah,’ Shaw slowly blends the societal commentary back in with the personal. In “Good Fellas” the thread of personal issues and the affects of career acceleration comes back strong, with less meditation on larger issues: “Livin’ like a good fella/champagne wishes caviar dreams/pinch myself twice find out it’s not a dream/no I never had nothin’/had to go grab somethin.’ Well. Let me just say ’I’m too busy chasin’ this paper’ to waste any more time without these songs on my hip- hop playlist.
“Ok Alright” feels a little pedestrian to me—less original in both text and musicality, and not enough hook to make up for that. But the following tracks, “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not,” “Vegas,” and “Wilson” are fantastic. They all actually begins with the same line as “Ok Alright,” a line (and a repetition) that I love: ‘Why you talkin’ to me while I got my headphones on?’  Musically, “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” begins with a melodic piano intro, a bit of a sentimental, Tupac “Changes” moment, before it slides back into mostly synthesized percussion, melody an afterthought to rhyme, beat, and a more personal story line:  ‘And you got a new nigga/By the name of Que/Now you and him is through/And you saying that I miss you/Well I guess he must’ve failed/In operation of replacing me/Cause you miss my penetration/Pedal to the metal baby drove me crazy/Picking rose petals thinking bout you lately/She loves me/She loves me not.’

After the hint of insecurity in that track, the burst of both musical and lyrical confidence, which comes next in “Vegas”, feels even more powerful and sensual.  The synth dances in a playful background behind lines like ‘Bet you never met a nigga like this/Bet you-bet you never met a nigga like this…/Elevators Escalators Either way it’s goin down/ …You saying that I’m greedy/I just got the right ingredients.’

“Wilson,” a play on words and concepts from the movie “Castaway” is extremely clever lyric wise.  Musically, it’s not especially innovative, but in this case, the words do make up for any shortcomings. I love it. Every reference to the movie is pleasing, especially the way Shaw twists them into a song about letting go, into something sexy and relaxed, like a margarita on a hot day, rather than a shipwreck.

Track 13, “No Days Off,” presents the usual fabulous lyricism with ‘While the whole world/Rock a bye baby/I’m on the grind daily/Gotta feed my babies,’ but also some unexpected rhythms and musical choices. Most notably in terms of this song’s originality are the syncopation on the hook ‘no day no day no days off,’ and the moment when all the instruments cut out completely.

Shaw collaborates with Khujo Goodie of Goodie Mob for the last track on the album, “Another Day, Another Dollar,” and it’s definitely another track that helps to enhance the perfect weave of conceptual threads on Elevators or Escalators. In fact, without this track, the flawlessness of the album’s construction might have only hit me half has hard. “Another Day, Another Dollar” is fast paced, with a more complex set of instrumental backgrounds and an unusual call and response effect between two sets of equally weighted vocals. And of course, who can overlook the words? He spins ‘em good: ‘What you wanna be when you grow up/Alive Alive A-Alive/Got them shackles off my feet/Now I own whips and chains/Get money shawty/Do tha damn thang/Uh huh yeah/Another day another dollar/Another day another dollar.”  As one can hear and see in the above lines, Shaw, never decreasing the sense of drive or ambition, uses the collaborative last track to once again tie all the conceptual threads back together—the personal struggle, social consciousness, and the sweet heat of touch.

So, my whole Tupac thing. Well, I still stand by it, but now maybe when someone asks and I say that I won’t pick just one, I’ll mean it for different reasons. Lyricism is important, particularly in rap music, and Elevators or Escalators most certainly doesn’t fall into the category of ‘nothin’ new.’ It’s new all right, which, in the case of rap music, means old, but innovative. Traditional, but exciting. Shaw, with his poetic talent, cultural and personal awareness, and of course, skill with woven compilation and controlled repetition, is certainly on his way to being one of those old/new greats, if his isn’t already.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 5 stars out of 5.