“Three years ago, I would have told you I’ll never make another record as long as I live,” the Queens-based rapper J-Zone – née Jay Mumford – admitted matter-of-factly. “Money was tight. People around me were getting married and having kids, and I’m sitting here trying to get a job. I wanted to be a respectable adult.”
Like many other dreams J-Zone has harbored over his tumultuous 36-year existence, that one crashed and burned. And it’s perhaps for the benefit of hip hop audiences, especially the ones who favor humor tinged with self-reflection.
J-Zone spent much of the last two decades in what could justifiably be called a stunted adolescence, in a medium where few artists age gracefully. And now, at 36, caring for an ailing grandmother and watching his friends gradually marry off or leave for more promising careers, he appears to be in an awkward, unenviable position. He could follow their leave and adopt a life he never wanted, albeit one that fits more cleanly into societal norms. Or he could stick out the hip hop life a little longer, keep making albums, keep shooting videos, keep politicking with record producers, and possibly never retire. He could be the domino that never falls.
Apparently, that seemed like the better alternative. “Hell fuckin’ no, I’m having too much fun” he tells a high-voiced alter ego on the interlude track “No Plan A.”
It’s one of many bruising moments on Peter Pan Syndrome, which drops September 5 on J-Zone’s label Old Maid Records. “I may not ever be able to retire,” the rapper continues, “but I’m gonna die a happy man.”
So there you have it, a rapper staring middle age in the face – and spitting at it – 14 years after releasing his foul-mouthed debut. In the interim he conceived some of the wittiest albums in the underground hip hop canon, wrote columns for magazines, published a well-received autobiography, and announced his ostensible retirement more than once. He cultivated a rabid cult following, mostly of fans with a thick enough skin to appreciate his jokes. And through it all, J-Zone never quite got his due.
He has plenty reason to feel jilted. A self-professed loner who spent much of high school practicing bass in his bedroom, J-Zone could have probably been a sideman in an R&B or jazz act, but says hip hop was his most accessible medium. He long hovered right in arm’s reach of mainstream recognition, but would get booked as a novelty act anyway. It’s a label he’s long protested.
“I don’t adapt well with the theory of, ‘That’s just how it is,’” the rapper recalls, explaining his reservations about the business side of hip hop. “Like, you gotta talk to this-and-this blogger, get on his good side. I never did that very well.”
In fact, not fitting in, and deliberately bucking trends, are the two intertwined themes of J-Zone’s life. “I didn’t go to the prom,” he recalls. “I didn’t have girlfriends. I wore funny haircuts and didn’t know how to dress. I wore headphones in class, and teachers never asked me to take them off.”
He says the J-Zone persona ultimately helped break his shell, paving the way for a long, if challenging career. But once J-Zone hit his mid-30s, he became an outsider again – the lone stubborn kid abandoned by friends who’d already grown up. It was as though life had folded back in on itself. Once again, hip hop opened its ample arms.
Peter Pan Syndrome is every bit as brittle and foul-mouthed as any of J-Zone’s previous efforts, with rhymes about art museum robberies (the eccentric “Jackin’ for Basquiats”) and one-night stands gone awry (the bitingly funny “Crib Issues”). And yet sprinkled amid the trash talk are surprising moments of candor. In “Black Weirdo” he confronts stereotypes about black masculinity (If you’re black and eccentric you can’t get ‘em). In “Peer Pressure” he describes frustrations with hip hop, and his struggle to secure a day job. Friends patronize him by way of answering machine interludes (“Some of us gotta do this adult stuff, you know, growin’ up and all that,” one of them says bitterly). J-Zone says these are dramatized versions of messages he’s received in real life, though they seem like extensions of his own internal monologue.
J-Zone tempers these lyrics with an improbably sophisticated production style, with Moog bass lines on every track, live drum fills, and intricately spliced samples. His compositions belie the album’s sentiments so strongly they almost seem like an affront. And yet, they may be revelatory of who the adult J-Zone really is. He keeps all the equipment alphabetized in his studio, labels everything by hand, fetishizes old gear and old-fashioned instrumentation, and says he’s neurotic about getting to recording sessions on time.
“I’ve gone to parties and acted stupid, gone to Amsterdam on tour, eaten a whole bunch of space candy, and run around fucked up,” the rapper recalls, wistfully. “But when it came time to do music, I was always the guy in the studio at 7 a.m.” He pauses a beat, as though chewing on that thought. “I don’t see anything wrong with having contradictory things,” he continues. “Like even though I have this layer of my personality, I also have this layer – but it doesn’t mean I’m going to put on a nice little suit and tie and make a nice little LinkedIn profile.”
There are, in fact, nearly enough contradictions on Peter Pan Syndrome to make the album title seem like a farce. But in reality it’s much more than that. J-Zone has always been a lampoonery artist, but he’s also used hip hop as a vessel through which to exorcise self-doubt, iron out problems in relationships, boast in one line and flagellate himself the next. He may never reach adulthood, but as an artist, he’s grown immensely.