Jimmy’s Back is a concept album based on the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws enacted in the United States in the late 1800’s, and despite efforts by many to define modern American society as a “post-racial” America, Michelle Alexander’s book demonstrates how segregation still thrives today through the blatantly unbalanced prison system.
This is a topic that should be high on the agenda of the hip-hop industry in general, but amazingly, this message seems almost counter-cultural to the more prevalent Cheef Keef narrative. Yet reassuringly, Dice Raw displays the type of artistry which transcends his era, meaning this album will be relevant as an important piece of social commentary, irrespective of the ever-changing sounds of hip-hop.
The only block is the surprising lack of interest from the blogs and magazines who have allowed “Jimmy’s Back” to slip under the radar, therefore potentially stifling the impact this LP deserves to have. Spiritually, this album is somewhere between 2Pac’s ”Thug Life” and Marvin Gaye’s ”What’s Goin On”, it’s blunt, hard hitting and somewhat mournful. Spoken word poet Wadud Ahmad plays a supporting role as the album’s narrator, adding a cinematic element which critiques the very fabric of society.
Dice Raw is happy to experiment conceptually; he includes guest spots from convicts who are amateur rappers, in order to add a sense of gritty realism. He also pushes himself further by singing on many tracks as well as rapping. The greatest triumph of the album is that there is never really a line wasted, with each verse serving a purpose or providing a valuable addition to the project. The album opens with “Clock Work”, which features the sound of a ticking clock and an ambient instrumental as the back drop to what feels like a sermon from Dice and Wadud.
It is the prelude to a completely unexpected track called “Animal“, which is a passionately sung piano piece which could easily belong on Broadway. It lets you know right away to expect the unexpected, with Dice happy to take risks on what is only his second solo album in thirteen years. This is the type of album that Lupe Fiasco would make if he wasn’t controlled by his label, and at only thirteen tracks it moves at a breathtaking pace in order to hammer home its message.
“Never Be A Gangster” incorporates a traditional hip-hop sound, with a more sample based aesthetic breathing life into Dice Raw’s rhymes. It leads confidently into the next track ”Run”, which is one of the albums stand out moments. ”Run” strikes the balance perfectly between raw hip-hop lyricism and the melancholy feel to the LP, with lines that critique the corporate rap agenda, such as ”You build your own prison, then lock yourself in it based on your own convictions, losing your religion”. This refers to the prison-like mentality of not seeing beyond the surface way of life. Dice is not afraid to challenge his own community to stand up and become better people while simultaneously exposing the system which creates the malaise. And this balanced approach is what makes the LP stand out as a progressive protest album, one which seeks to address problems warts and all.
“Thin Air” is a perfect snapshot of Dice’s sound, production wise it borrows from the likes of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” in terms of tempo and mood. But lyrically Dice never strays from his mission which is testament to his freedom as an artist, the chorus may be soft in it’s execution but remains hard hitting in it’s theme. “Wake Up” is more frantic in style and is one of the angrier sounding tracks, reminiscent of The Coup in their prime.
The album closes out with “Marching To The Beat”, “It’s Over” and “Dolla Signs”, tracks which bring the concept of the album to an impactful finale. The drums on “Marching To The Beat” are stripped down to create an organic instrumental much inspired by Dice’s time with The Roots.”Dolla Signs” feels like a eulogy full of clever-spoken word gems and layered meanings. Jimmy’s Back is a refreshing underground classic that deserves far more recognition than it is likely to get.