Listening to a Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon mixtape has the same episodic feeling as reading the latest issue of your favorite comic book. It’s just nice to hear what nuggets of hip-hop history he mines (“I’ma have to teach these new boys to stay on yo’ feet like the New Boyz”), pop culture references he weaves into his twisty wordplay (“Next year see my bitch on the cover of Time like Naomi Campbell, no more Campbells”), and double-take inducing relationship drama he gets himself into: “Don’t ask about my rising moon ma’, I don’t give a damn.” He reps his birthplace—Akron, Ohio—and the city where he was raised—Charlotte, North Carolina—but brings to mind wordplay virtuosos of ’90s and ‘00s New York, from Ghost to Cam to MF DOOM; in an interview, he geeks out over an Mm..Food? lyric that took him until his “30 or 40th” listen to comprehend.
His latest project, I’ve Really Never Been Better, is another solid entry into his fast-growing catalog. The raps are fly, punchlines sharp even when they occasionally border on nonsense; songs are sprinkled with comical tricks that only a hip-hop head would attempt. For example, it’s a cliché right of passage to pen a rosy ode to your first love, one that comes away with some sort of vague lesson (see: Slick Rick’s “Teenage Love”). But Jah-Monte is aware of how played-out that is, and on “Eight Pregnancy Scares” the skeptical voice of “the one that got away” chimes in repeatedly with fact checks. “You wrote this whole song about me being your truest love, stop lying,” the voice says at the end, an audio hand to the face. He’s basically putting on his rap critic hat.
Jah-Monte won’t bullshit you; he doesn’t shy away from describing his flaws in his affairs and flame outs, though he gets a kick out of acting irrationally. On “Receipts & Screenshots,” a fling is ruined after the items in the song’s title are presented against him; he responds by calling his lover a “cop” and proclaiming “If I’m sittin’ in the judgment seat, at least ho rub my feet.” Most of the time, he’s just having fun getting off flagrant boasts: “Don’t @ me unless you look like Tracee Ellis Ross,” he barks on “Nah She Got Little.” Or cracking jokes about the underground rap grind—from being done with Greyhound bus rides to imagining one day sending Beyoncé and Rihanna an invoice for a feature.
What holds back I’ve Really Never Been Better relative to better projects like 2021’s Too Little, Too Late and 2022’s Here, There & Everywhere, is the beats. They’re fairly warm yet anonymous soul and funk loops that feel like lesser versions of a style you can find everywhere in New York and New Jersey right now. To the credit of Jah-Monte—as well as guests like the sharp-tongued Denzel Davon—he often sounds too cool to suffer, like when he spits “New BBC apparel, cupid missed with his arrow/Was nominated like Will Ferrell, not singing Christmas carols,” which is rapped in such a blur that it took me three or four listens to parse. Savoring his rhymes and going back to find the wisecracks that previously went over your head is the point; his mixtapes are a world you want to spend time in.