J Stalin's Prenuptial Agreement soundtracks the first generation born during the crack epidemic
I'm from the city of gangstas and broken dreams / where we hopin' the Lord hear our silent screams / but this dope money helpin' my self-esteem — J Stalin, "Self-Destruction"
MUSIC I've known J Stalin for five years, during which I've watched the pint-sized, eternally baby-faced rapper develop from cocky adolescent to full-blown boss, head of a label and an ever-expanding crew of talent both known as Livewire. When we met, he'd already made a prestigious debut as an 18-year-old on Richie Rich's Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002), but he still had a long grind to get where he is now.
The title of "hottest rapper in Oakland" changes hands rapidly, but at the moment, it's Stalin's, coinciding with the recent release of his sophomore album, The Prenuptial Agreement (Livewire/SMC). "Sophomore" is misleading; J's released countless projects since his first album, On Behalf of the Streets (Livewire/Zoo Ent, 2006) — not simply mixtapes, but full albums under one pretext or another, like a duo disc with Livewire-member Mayback, The Real World, Vol 2 (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2008), or his entry in SMC's Town Thizzness series, Gas Nation (2008). But these days, rappers reserve the right to designate "official solo albums" among their endless stream of releases, and J has patiently assembled Prenup over roughly three years.
"On Behalf of the Streets was to prove myself to Oakland," he says. "When I made Prenup, I was trying to make music for the world. My fanbase is bigger than Oakland now, so I gotta make my music bigger."
Prenup definitely succeeds in this ambition. The Mekanix — who produced all of Streets — return in force, alongside numerous newer producers like teenage Alameda resident Swerve. Tracks like Swerve's "Neighborhood Stars" (blessed by Oakland's godfather, Too Short, as well as Mistah FAB) or the Mekanix's "HNIC" (featuring Messy Marv) are spacious, state-of-the-art numbers that hold up against anything on national radio.
Yet the core of Stalin's sound is very Oakland — unsurprising, given his role in shaping the Town's current obsession: the 1980s. Musically, the signatures of this trend are classic 808 beats, layered with old skool keyboards from a time when synths barely resembled the instruments they allegedly imitated. Aside from the 808s, the resulting tracks sound little like '80s hip-hop (or even funk), evoking more the sonic palette of that decade's R&B and even new wave.
DJ Fresh, producer of J's first "pre-album" The Real World (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2006) and other Livewire projects, acknowledges that these sounds have had a role in digital hip-hop. "That sound was there, but we mastered it," he said. "Nobody was really touchin' that sound before. It helped me find my sound, and it sounds natural with the way Stalin raps."
"I just got it in me, those '80s beats," the often melodic Stalin concurs. "It probably got beat into my head as a child. I got a smooth style of rappin', my harmonizing and all that. I'm on that '80s melody vibe."
ROCK OF AGES
Given the size and influence of Livewire, and its association with Beeda Weeda's PTB crew, the '80s vibe has gone viral in Oakland over the past couple of years. But unlike other miners of '80s terrain — say, the Casio rock trend of last decade — the new sound of the Town has an organic lyrical connection through tales of crack and the devastation the drug has wreaked in the ghetto. "Slangin' rocks" is hardly a novel topic in rap, yet there's been a shift in presentation. This, I think, is a directly connected to age: unlike their elders, these new rappers are the first generation born during the crack epidemic. Born in West Oakland's Cypress Village in 1983, Stalin himself is literally a crack baby.