Early Mornings on the A Train: G4 Jag’s ‘The Survivors’

Pete Tosiello goes in on the Morningside Heights rapper's 2019 opus.
By    July 24, 2019

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I saw Danny Boyle’s Yesterday last week and enjoyed it, even though it was more of a flimsy premise (which couldn’t even be bothered to see itself through) than an actual film. Richard Brody wrote a brilliant review in The New Yorker which celebrated the movie’s complex symbolism of a parallel universe in which the Beatles have been relegated to oblivion. “The movie crystallizes the feeling that an obscure or forgotten body of work is the most important art in the world,” Brody wrote, “and that it’s one’s personal mission to bring it the attention and the love that it deserves.”

“In an era when physical media are being supplanted by streaming,” he continued, “the prevalence of rock docs and anniversary celebrations evokes the sense of impending disaster and the shoring up of fragments against ruins. Yesterday is also a story of the failures of the system—a literal failure of the global grid that results in a colossal blank of cultural memory.”

Perhaps spurred by that Times report on the UMG masters fire (which doesn’t really seem like a huge deal, but maybe it is, idk) I’ve been thinking lately about these systemic failures and the ways that our leading East Coast neoclassicists have counteracted them. By charging premium prices for limited-run physicals of albums that may or may not ever end up online, Mach-Hommy, Fahim, Ankhlejohn and the rest have effectively retconned music ownership as art dealership, sticking middle fingers at streaming platforms and carving a viable revenue stream from the cratered recording industry. They recognize that full-scale cultural penetration is a pipe dream in the Age of Algorithms, and that to chase it would be to neglect a readily paying audience.

Still, not to get all *if a tree falls in a forest* here, but I’m starting to wonder if these self-imposed markets of scarcity might, in theory, pose a disservice to some of that crop’s cream. da Vincis are worth millions, but you can go to the Met and see them for free; the downside of relying on word-of-mouth is that you’re relying on word-of-mouth. Which is why I’m here today to talk about G4 Jag, a Morningside Heights rapper who’s already dropped three extremely good tapes this year (in this market, frequency is the co-conspirator of scarcity), the first of which, The Survivors, stands as one of the underappreciated gems of 2019’s first half.

With its late-night-fluorescent-light glow, The Survivors is suited to the long, slow days of summer. Rapping in a gravelly timbre which all but masks his depth of soul, Jag is an adept world-builder who makes radiant turns of phrase seem natural and effortless. “This feel like six a.m. on the A train / Whether you comin’ or you goin’, that’s ‘bout the same thing” he opens “Zoning,” a dour meditation on fortune and causality. Surveying the self-destructive tendencies of his peers, Jag amasses ripe indignation before talking himself back down with each chorus: “Forgive me y’all, I’m just zoning / I ain’t judging no man, that don’t mean I condone it.”

The school of East Coast brutalism would normally dictate that an MC with G4 Jag’s vocal dexterity and writing chops take refuge in minimalist loops to better contrast his monologues. Luckily, Jag doesn’t subscribe—The Survivors is resplendent with forthright structures and subdued if full-bodied production, mostly courtesy of one Big French. The smooth horns and Miss Jones-esque hook of “Let Me Be” evoke the Harlem sounds of yesteryear, whereas “Save Us” executes an unlikely soulful flourish. “Well Alright” subsists on a precariously muted energy. Once in a while a familiar sample snakes in, as on the “Sky’s the Limit” flip (have you ever really listened to those drums?!) “Sky Ain’t the Limit,” a masterclass in flow which coaxes a rare exuberance from the normally dispassionate Jag.

Flee Lord, a flamboyant oddball from Far Rockaway, gets an executive producer credit here and also guests on the chaotic highlight “Summertime Shootouts.” The two rappers’ dissimilarity—not only vocally, but in terms of their writing and greater worldviews—is as thrilling as the track’s piano melody, which veers offkey like an application of the Doppler effect.

Most of G4 Jag’s peers are masters of wordplay and persona, but The Survivors evinces the rarer, subtler mastery of ambience: his settings are redolent, his scope insular, and his narration inspired. Jag may overachieve, but he doesn’t overextend. If we’re all survivors, to quote my man Brody, all we can do is shore up fragments against the ruins.

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