Negro Justice’s full-length debut Chosen Family was hailed as the 2022 Best Hip-Hop album from the Nashville Scene, championed as Record of the Week from WNXP and served to level up Negro Justice’s profile. Following that up could be a real pressure cooker; that’s why sophomore albums are known for being “slumps.” Fortunately, Art of the Craft avoids those pitfalls and continues the upward trend of Negro Justice. Producer JustVibez provides 15-tracks of diverse sound that showcase and augment what Negro Justice does best; rap.
On the title track, there’s a verse that caught me for a short pause:
“No disrespect to the mumble flow
Everything I say got intention
Trying to get to the mission
While you is on the couch like The Simpsons”
It’s an excellent example of the kind of nuanced writing that Negro Justice provides throughout the entire record. It manages to be boastful and full of bravado while simultaneously being respectful and a bit humble. It’s got pop culture references. It’s got a questionable reference to “mission” – is that his own personal goals or the physical Mission in San Francisco; a yearning to reach larger audiences? That’s just four lines from one song and lacks the context of the entire track around it; which requires even more introspection. These verses are enjoyable to spend time with; dissecting their layered meanings and intentions while also simply enjoying them for being catchy as hell.
Chosen Family was a calling card of highly personal hip-hop. Negro Justice did not shy away from songs about his father, his wife, his cousins and his extended, non-blood, family and the important role they play in his life. Art of the Craft doesn’t have as blatant of a lyrical theme but I’m here to tell you it does provide two distinct properties; a platform for Justice’s intensely clever and fun wordplay and an opportunity to stretch musically.
On the clever and fun wordplay front; you can pick any song on the album for an example. “HIM Bison” finds Negro Justice interacting with a sample of Raul Julia as Street Fighter character M. Bison; a nod to his background as a competitive gamer as well as an opportunity to boast. “All Star Special” is the biggest ear worm on the record; complete with a sing-song chorus for the praise of Waffle House. “Solar Flare” is an unrelenting onslaught of references from Donkey Kong to Akira to RIFD chips to Nashville music on the whole. “Get It Understood” is one of the more introspective tracks; allowing Negro Justice to rap about personal growth in a way that doesn’t feel corny in the slightest; no small feat.
Musically, the album pushes into plenty of new territory. “Nightcrawler / Daywalker” is ominous and driving forward at all times. “Brand New Truck” unfurls into a deranged party vibe; like Hunter S Thompson ogling at the bats that haunt him. “TheRealTrip” smacks of hard hitting drums and a yawning, funky, bass line. “Solar Flare” is a jazzy night out that transitions into the undeniably bouncy “All Star Special” via an anime sample. “No Drums” is a beautiful bed of orchestral strings. It’s a wild combination of sounds without ever feeling manic or incoherent.
Art of the Craft may not get as much coverage as Chosen Family simply for the fact that it’s the “follow up” – and, thus, the story of the album may not be as enticing. That’d be a mistake because there’s a ton to digest here that should be in your 2023 regular rotation.