Jim Jones: Harlem: Diary of a Summer

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

I’ll hock my chain
For a block of cocaine, now it’s back to my block with cocaine
You know, re-in’ up and filling up them pots with cocaine
Then you chop it up and bottle up and top the cocaine
Gotta watch for them cops and they chains

doesn’t scan as a parlor trick, the way it would if it came from Cam—look at what I can do with a single word!—but rather as the literal, necessary diagramming of a situation.

This sinewy style doesn’t always hit. On Jones’ solo debut, 2004’s overstuffed On My Way to Church, he tries to kick it into double-time or exaggerate it to the point of near-genuflection. The album’s big commercial play has the distinct feel of an overmatched MC struggling to keep up with shifting trends. When the verses grow anonymous, there’s nothing to hang onto—especially on an album so sonically directionless, where Jones’ increasingly uncanny voice is not yet the dominant texture. Despite this, Church is frequently effective and dotted with moments, like the venomous Eazy-E homage “Certified Gangstas” or “Only One Way Up” (where he says “I contradict whatever the government says”), when Jones’ way of expressing himself is entrancingly but almost imperceptibly alien.

Harlem: Diary of a Summer goes to significant lengths to reframe Jones as someone around whom other emerging styles would orbit. He was no longer going to make songs called “Crunk Muzik” to shore up support among listeners disinterested in the finer points of Harlem politics; he was going to bare his past, his self. Its opening song is called, literally, “My Diary,” and sounds as if a child opened a music box and found Ed Koch’s New York.

That song practically sweats; Jones bursts in with a string of sparsely rendered details, the smug beat cops, the cautious senior citizens, the blocks “hot like saunas.” When Diary of a Summer is at its best, Jones and his collaborators treat neighborhood gossip like ancient myth, both for its mammoth stakes and the way it grows from generation to generation like a game of telephone. Later on “My Diary,” Jones promises to show the listener the spots where specific men and women died, and where they’ve been commemorated in murals. “Like who?” a disembodied voice—Jones, of course—asks. “Like Porter and them,” he mumbles, the rote facts (Rich Porter, b. 7/26/64, d. 1/3/90, murdered with $2,239 in his pocket) a point of assumed familiarity.

If you were to describe any component part of Harlem: Diary of a Summer, it would fail to communicate just how odd the record is. Two tracks after “My Diary,” Max B, then recently released from the prison sentence he began serving as a teenager and about to embark on one of the stranger, more rewarding creative tears in rap history, delineates 139th and 140th Streets as if they were distinctly different environments. “Harlem” is a trove of this sort of information, with cross streets punctuating nearly every bar, with men sitting on crates like La-Z-Boys, with shuttered nightclubs and cacophonous dice games and “fly jackets from Carlos at the mall.” Senses flood back unpredictably: On “Penitentiary Chances,” Jones marks a time period as having run “since chicken lo mein and rice.”

Unlike in his formative, pre-9/11 work, when his voice would bounce into the higher register usually occupied by Cam—and unlike the songs on On My Way to Church, which feature the lower tone but can’t figure out how to use it as an anchor—Jones’ voice on Diary of a Summer is totalizing. It’s able to tie together such disparate beats as Pete Rock’s shimmering Dionne Warwick sample on “G’s Up” and “We Just Ballin,” which flips Fearless Four’s “Rockin’ It” in a slightly more frenetic manner than Jay and the Hitmen had for “(Always Be My) Sunshine.” Jones’ voice actually has a lot in common with the “Rockin’ It” instrumental, in the way it leaves a slightly metallic aftertaste.

Diary of a Summer is occasionally overproduced, with the inharmonious “Penitentiary Chances” being the worst offender. But Jones flourishes in the numerous pockets of negative space. So much air flows through Develop’s ominous beat for “Ride Wit Me” that the intermittent gaps in my terrible Bluetooth connection only heightened its tension. “Ride Wit Me” is the best argument for Jones as a technical rapper and as one who understands his limitations. Excising the stilted double-time he had lapsed into on Church, Jones here leaves himself enough space to speed up then slow back down while retaining the grit and agita that makes his verses unmistakable. He complicates the patterns just enough to arrest the listener, but never to the point of distraction: the swing he adopts beginning on the line “Let’s go sightseeing” actually reemphasizes the text. This comes after an opening verse from Juelz who, at the other end of the spectrum, is at his best precisely because he works himself into a pique where each bar sounds as if it might send him careening off a cliff. That a song this razor-sharp can be made to flow naturally out of the lewd, swaggering “Honey Dip” is a testament to the unifying power of Jones’ part-robotic baritone.

When it comes to more classic strains of production, one of the signature examples of big-budget, post-G funk sampling is Chucky Thompson’s flip of the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” for the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” On Big’s song, the Isleys’ classic is rich, luxurious, unhurried. But Jones’ version, “Summer Wit’ Miami,” turns it delirious. An ode to the city where he would often escape to write, record, and sit in pleather club booths, the single feels like one of the till-dawn nights Jones raps about—expensive but never classy, a wave of pleasure that makes no attempt to mask its attendant comedown. It’s indulgently shameless, and the obviousness of its source material is merely one of its audacious embellishments.

Speaking of audacious embellishments: Too few albums tuck true heat checks at the very end, sneaking their best songs in right as time expires. “Baby Girl” is the most electric thing Jones has ever recorded; he finds a bounce early and never lets it go. Elsewhere on Diary of a Summer, Jones had ironed out the kinks in his clumsier, earlier style. But here he sounds downright nimble, dancing just ahead of and then just behind the drums, pausing, sneering. It’s built around a Max chorus, but for once he’s merely the architecture—Jones has landed, at last, at the intersection of muscularity and verve.

Harlem: Diary of a Summer was released as New York began wringing its hands about the city’s role in 21st-century rap. The news that Nas was planning to call an album Hip Hop Is Dead was treated either as confirmation that the genre’s birthplace and old guard were returning to save it, or that they’d fallen painfully out of touch. Emerging subgenres, like the snap music pinging out of Atlanta, were derided as catering to cell phone providers, new stars like Young Jeezy seen as insubstantial and cynical. This was an odd time for mainstream rap in general, in part because the evaporating CD-sales economy was changing the way money flowed into artists’ recording budgets. But the uneasiness of this transition was pathologized in the five boroughs like nowhere else.

The most interesting thing New York-made rap had to offer in this period was, in fact, Max. Despite being behind bars from the beginning of 2007 on—the bulk of his catalog was recorded at breakneck pace during a roughly 18-month period of freedom—Max’s mixtapes warped 50 Cent’s pop sensibilities into something delightfully atonal and even more fatalistic. It sounded as if his material boasts, musings on death, and askance humor were all poking out of a swamp. He was both more musical and more guttural than Jones, and quickly revealed himself to be, in his way, one of the most colorful writers in rap—and a frequent, chronically underpaid ghostwriter for Jones, as Max would allege in interviews once their relationship began to deteriorate.

A little over a year after Diary of a Summer, Jones dropped his third album, Hustler’s P.O.M.E. (Product of My Environment), which features Max on seven of its 16 songs. It’s not exactly Ghost on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, but his influence looms just as large: “We Fly High,” which became the biggest hit of Jones’ career, leans so heavily on Max’s croaking style that Jones has been dogged for years by questions about its authorship. The pair fell out over the sort of arcane business details that ended up litigated ad infinitum on then-thriving rap blogs; Jones’ later singles, like 2008’s Ron Browz-produced Auto-Tune odyssey “Pop Champagne,” sound like an artist chasing the protégé.

By the end of the 2000s, Jones’ status in New York rap had somewhat receded. Artists like Max and Stack Bundles had carried his steam-engine style to divergent extremes: Where Max had made elastic the rigid frameworks of what Jones was doing, Stacks, a remarkable rapper who was murdered in 2007, coiled it around him like a snake, rapping in a booming, slightly processed voice as he wended through complicated technical passages and staccato bursts of syllables, all arranged into arch DJ Clue-era punchlines.

At the beginning of the 2010s, it briefly seemed that French Montana would be the one to keep Jones’ brand of brawny linearity in the mainstream. Instead, New York rap splintered: into the woozy, slight psychedelia of A$AP Rocky’s work with Clams Casino; into the minimalist revision of ’90s mafia rap that Roc Marciano pioneered; into the drill music ported over from Chicago and London. When stone-serious punchline rap by men approaching middle age came back into vogue, it was via Buffalo natives Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher, whose songs sound beamed in from an alternate timeline where Dipset never existed.

Though not technically his debut, Harlem: Diary of a Summer is Jones’ version of the widescreen, cinematic introduction that rappers had been making for two decades, scanned through a thousand Xerox machines until the degradation and distortion became part of the work itself. Whether it’s “My Diary”’s conflation of the innocent and the rugged or “Harlem”’s refusal to cater to the uninitiated, Jim Jones made his one truly essential record by isolating what was at his core—what was no longer reducible.