Jim Jones doesn’t sound exactly like a human being. The way the Harlem rapper had begun, by the middle of the 2000s, to double his vocals was not quite a 1:1 recreation of the technique 2Pac used to summon a half-disembodied doom, no matter what little homages cropped on up on Jones’ tracklists. Nor was it in the same mold as No Limit artists like Master P or Young Bleed, who reimagined Pac’s fatalism as the tics of men too preoccupied to worry about technique. Both of those effects were achieved by drawing the listener’s ears to the incongruity of the takes. Jones’ increasingly claustrophobic records came to sound, instead, like the imperfect transfer of a muscular voice across rocky ethernet; only the most forceful notes survive.
Harlem: Diary of a Summer, Jones’ second album, was released in 2005 as the stranglehold he and the Diplomats had held over New York City was beginning to loosen; as New York itself was becoming decentered within hip-hop; and as the stylistic hallmarks of Dipset’s early run—deliberately chintzy soul samples, gleefully telegraphed wordplay and onomatopoeia—were being replaced, by competitors but also by the Dips themselves, with bigger, darker, and more industrial elements. Diary of a Summer runs the traditional rap blockbuster through that filter, its childhood memories turned oddly urgent, its concessions to emerging styles bent back toward post-9/11 Manhattan. Through that process Jones, the least-discussed core member of the group he co-founded, emerges as an auteur of the ordinary, his unfussy writing and uncanny vocals rendering a world just a few degrees off from the one the rest of us inhabit.
Speaking—stay with me—of 9/11: In 2001, as Jay-Z was enlisting Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink! to polish the soul-sample production style of The Blueprint to a high shine, Cam’ron was finalizing an agreement with his childhood friend Dame Dash that would bring him and the Diplomats to Roc-A-Fella. The quick-and-dirty approximation of “Never Change,” “Heart of the City,” and “Girls, Girls, Girls” that Cam preferred—its samples more mischievously obvious, its seams barely concealed—would help vault him and his partners to stardom. By the end of 2003, Jones, Cam, Juelz Santana et al. had not only compared themselves on record to Mohammed Atta, Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban, but had become the most popular and consequential rap group in the city. The five-volume series of Diplomats mixtapes, hosted by the late DJ Kay Slay, distilled their appeal: playful but bludgeoning, cartoon villains obsessed with little language games. Cam’s third solo album, Come Home With Me, and Diplomatic Immunity, the group’s studio debut, formalized that dominance.
When the Roc-A-Fella deal was signed, Cam was already one of the planet’s best rappers, where “rapping” means bending the language into newer, vibrant, more menacing shapes than anyone had yet dared. Juelz, the deliberate and inelegant Cam imitator, was earmarked as his successor. Jones had not been a figure of serious artistic importance. In fact, when he began appearing on records, Jones was not even presented as Cam’s creative peer, but rather as a vestige of his childhood. On “Me, My Moms & Jimmy,” the Tom Tom Club-sampling lark from 1998’s Confessions of Fire, Jones follows Cam in skittering across the top of the beat, with a verse that was either written for Jones or written by him as a direct imitation of his friend. He all but stumbles through lines like, “Do you know how to scuba? I got a house in Aruba/But you keep it on low cause my spouse got a Ruger.” Jones’ turn reads as just slightly less of a novelty than the verse from Cam’s beloved mother.
Two years later, on S.D.E., Cam wielded Jones in a similar way, on the similarly sunny, Destiny’s Child-featuring “Do It Again.” But almost immediately afterward, Jones snapped out of the paint-by-numbers process and started deepening his voice, then barreling through beats with a fixity of purpose. Perhaps it was the triangulation of Cam’s finesse and Juelz’s blunting of it: On Come Home With Me’s title track, Jones follows those two with a missive about the place he grew up, where the “buses don’t run” and where Steve Francis and Queen Latifah had been mugged; where the addicts lingering in the halls and the cops surveilling them pose comparable threats; where “grandmothers is 30.” Sometimes the rhyming syllables are stacked in cascades the way Cam’s are, but on the whole the writing has turned cool and epigrammatic. Later on that same album, over Kanye’s “Dead or Alive,” the passage