Will Schube wrote this while wearing his best pink fur.
At the intersection of cocky and vulnerable stands Jonwayne (born Jon Wayne), proudly holding his latest LP, Rap Album Two, high above his head. There are two Jonwaynes, and it’s to the benefit of RA2 that he’s more than comfortable etching out both over the course of the album, even uniting the dichotomy over the course of a single track, verse, or bar. On the album opener “TED Talk,” Wayne raps, “All these doubters in my ear/Trying to tell me I don’t have the whole world up on my spear/I Van Gogh ‘em/Pretend I don’t know ‘em/Too busy showboating to roast ‘em.” The Golden Era New York keys sound as crisp as they did in ‘95 and Wayne’s internal rhyme ambivalence is amplified by his sardonic, rumbling, basement dwelling flow.
Wayne likes to bury his boasts beneath slight winks and cynicism. He’s more Cam’ron than Kanye; more, “You got pets/Me too/mine are dead,” than “It’s hard to stay humble when you’re stunting on the jumbotron.” It’s serious rap with an existential edge, poking fun at the futility because it’s easier than crying. Wayne is able to come at his songs with this quiet desperation because of the events that led to this record being made in the first place—and what led to its taking so long to begin with.
When Jonwayne released Rap Album One in 2013, he immediately became a young star in indie rap circles, the Stones Throw signed white boy with a voice somewhere between Aesop Rock and the mechanically engineered Spark Master Tape. He played Low End, toured the country, toured it again, released a free beat tape to feed the hungry fans—called Here You Go—in 2015, and then dropped off the face of the Earth. Beneath the boom bap and complex rhyme structures was a man hanging on by a thread. Wayne was an ‘H’ short of riding off into the sunset, a solid career of widely loved rap attached to his galloping steed.
As the story goes, Wayne woke up in a European hotel room in the middle of the night sometime last year, with a burning throat and puke splayed across his bed. A different resting position and his life might have ended on that night. Wayne’s crippling fear of flying led to a reliance on alcohol that only became exacerbated thanks to a life on the road. After that night, Wayne vowed to quit drinking and closed the loop on many relationships he felt toxic to his recovery and growth. Much of Rap Album Two is about Wayne reconciling with this decision and his desire to re-forge some of these connections, only to realize that such efforts would put him back on that European bed, surrounded by vomit and empty booze bottles.
The album is almost shocking in its vulnerability and honesty, but Wayne wears his scars with such strength that the stuff that should make him quake in his boots instead become the album’s most defiant moments. “Out of Sight” is the clearest example of this, a narrative-driven tell all over children’s keys and an infectious hook. The album’s thesis comes during the song’s first verse: “Isolation slowly feeling like it’s house arrest/Bound from the scene that made me see what my credit gets/Putting health before career just to steer ahead/Had to burn a few bridges just to keep the ends mirrored.” Rap Album Two consistently revisits these burnt bridges, stepping atop the charred wood in hopes of finding pieces to sauder back together.
This is perhaps why Wayne stashes the guest features towards the album’s latter half—Zeroh and Low Leaf shine, and Wayne solicits parts from Shango and Danny Watts as well. While obviously falling prey and projecting onto the album’s narrative, the build and arc of Rap Album Two starts from a place of loneliness and grows into something more comfortable in collaboration. This slow ascent culminates in the album’s final track, “These Words Are Everything,” which is the purest distillation of the Jonwayne mission ever put to tape. “Or maybe words are just my only thing,” he realizes. It becomes clear after multiple listens that Jon Wayne first had to lose these words before he could appreciate their worth and have them back. With his faith in rap firmly restored and put back intact, Wayne has delivered his strongest statement to date. Next time, let’s hope it doesn’t take a near death experience to get there.