doesn’t scan as a parlor trick, the way it would if it came from Cam—look at what I can do with a single word!—but rather as the literal, necessary diagramming of a situation.
This sinewy style doesn’t always hit. On Jones’ solo debut, 2004’s overstuffed On My Way to Church, he tries to kick it into double-time or exaggerate it to the point of near-genuflection. The album’s big commercial play has the distinct feel of an overmatched MC struggling to keep up with shifting trends. When the verses grow anonymous, there’s nothing to hang onto—especially on an album so sonically directionless, where Jones’ increasingly uncanny voice is not yet the dominant texture. Despite this, Church is frequently effective and dotted with moments, like the venomous Eazy-E homage “Certified Gangstas” or “Only One Way Up” (where he says “I contradict whatever the government says”), when Jones’ way of expressing himself is entrancingly but almost imperceptibly alien.
Harlem: Diary of a Summer goes to significant lengths to reframe Jones as someone around whom other emerging styles would orbit. He was no longer going to make songs called “Crunk Muzik” to shore up support among listeners disinterested in the finer points of Harlem politics; he was going to bare his past, his self. Its opening song is called, literally, “My Diary,” and sounds as if a child opened a music box and found Ed Koch’s New York.
That song practically sweats; Jones bursts in with a string of sparsely rendered details, the smug beat cops, the cautious senior citizens, the blocks “hot like saunas.” When Diary of a Summer is at its best, Jones and his collaborators treat neighborhood gossip like ancient myth, both for its mammoth stakes and the way it grows from generation to generation like a game of telephone. Later on “My Diary,” Jones promises to show the listener the spots where specific men and women died, and where they’ve been commemorated in murals. “Like who?” a disembodied voice—Jones, of course—asks. “Like Porter and them,” he mumbles, the rote facts (Rich Porter, b. 7/26/64, d. 1/3/90, murdered with $2,239 in his pocket) a point of assumed familiarity.
If you were to describe any component part of Harlem: Diary of a Summer, it would fail to communicate just how odd the record is. Two tracks after “My Diary,” Max B, then recently released from the prison sentence he began serving as a teenager and about to embark on one of the stranger, more rewarding creative tears in rap history, delineates 139th and 140th Streets as if they were distinctly different environments. “Harlem” is a trove of this sort of information, with cross streets punctuating nearly every bar, with men sitting on crates like La-Z-Boys, with shuttered nightclubs and cacophonous dice games and “fly jackets from Carlos at the mall.” Senses flood back unpredictably: On “Penitentiary Chances,” Jones marks a time period as having run “since chicken lo mein and rice.”