“I’ll Be iight,” from Jovan Lemar‘s new album Talk of the Times, comes in swinging — not like a boxer, but like a lounge act. It’s a sample of brushes on drums, a lilting piano line. Then the beat drops and straightens everything out, and the rhythm drives forward. But now the swing belongs to Lemar and his languid, syncopated flow, sounding like he’s been doing it for years.
“How can I be so bold? I’m only 24 years old, so you know,” Lemar raps. “You can hear through the soul, that’s how I roll.”
Lemar has a point. In an era still marked by the synthesized beats of trap, the young New Haven-based MC has taken a bold step by reveling in the sound of a previous era of hip hop built from jazz and soul samples, and in doing so, puts a nice young spin on an old trick.
It helps that Lemar has the flow to match. On “Let Me Be,” he lets the groove fade in and then settle in before making his entrance, his relaxed approach at odds with the urgent story he’s telling about trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble. “Forever Finding” is built from spacey, glitchy pieces held down by a crackling R&B beat. “I’m on my way, trying to make it in these slums that you call home,” he raps. “I don’t know what you see in me / Not a bit of negative energy.” The song “Transformations” has the steady beat and martial-arts flavor of some of the best ‘90s hip hop. “Let’s Get Up” features a piano and drum riff that could have been at home on Dixwell Avenue in the jazz heyday of the Monterey Club.
But Talk of the Times isn’t a throwback. The music on “Long Awaited” may be built on samples that sound like guitar samples, but the beat Lemar lays over it features a swelling electronic hi-hat punctuated by stuttering, glitchy fills, a combination that offers a touch of country along with the club floor. The rhythm on “Never Say What,” which finds Lemar pining for a lost love, staggers along to a sample of a reversed electric piano, its sharp attack and decay flipped over into swelling coos.
And “Time Is Of The Essence” features an arpeggiated musical figure that loops back on itself over a straight beat, but there’s nothing straight about Lemar’s flow as he cuts across bar lines and piles rhymes on internal rhymes. It’s a fitting close to an album that finds Lemar dipping musically back into the history of hip hop to return to the present, just as he digs into his own history to tell you who he is now. At the end of Talk of the Times, it’s pretty clear that Lemar isn’t out of words yet. Let’s hope we hear more.