Album Review: JFK – Building Wings On The Way Down

JFK – Building Wings on the Way Down
Camobear: 2010
Purchase on Amazon

The Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, is definitely on the rise in the hip-hop world. Jake One is the one of the most respected producers in the game, and his 2010 collaboration with Freeway, The Stimulus Package, has been critically acclaimed. Both Blue Scholars and Common Market (featuring stellar production by Sabzi) continue to bring the heat, and earn a greater following, with each release. And then there’s the godfather of the area’s hip-hop renaissance (with apologies to Sir Mix-A-Lot): Oldominion. The crew is more than 20 deep and features, among others, Smoke, Sleep, Snafu, Barfly, Onry Ozzborn and JFK. The latter two members also comprise Grayskul – one of a handful of groups under the Oldominion umbrella (including the criminally slept-on Boom Bap Project).

With credentials like that, JFK is on solid footing for his debut disc. But the story of Building Wings on the Way Down runs even deeper than his hip-hop roots. The MC known as JFK, Ninjaface, Recluse, Count Magnus, Little Bobby and Jay was born in the Philippines, spent some of his childhood in San Diego, and then moved to Virginia Beach. After falling into the street life, and dropping out of high school, the MC soon found himself with a criminal record – and on the run from the law. After moving to Seattle in 1996, he began rapping and fell in with Oldominion. While his attempts to escape his past ultimately failed (he received 10 years of probation for his early life of crime), his musical journey is far from over.

Unfortunately, that journey took some unforeseen turns. In 2008, JFK had to start over again after a robbery at the studio where he was recording Building Wings on the Way Down essentially erased more than two years of work, and about three-quarters of the album. Thankfully, for hip-hop fans, he re-created the album – and now, almost five years later, we get to enjoy the sounds of a man who has been through a lot.

Those familiar with the dark, almost cinematic, sound of Grayskul will definitely enjoy “12 Years”. Bean One’s production, a mixture of hard-hitting drums and distorted guitar, sounds like it would be right at home on Grayskul’s next release. JFK’s distinct and commanding voice details his move to Seattle and the reasons for doing so; the autobiographical track features lyrics that show the MC’s growth and maturity. The dark lyrics and somber production (the Grayskul sound) is also the backdrop for both “Paranoid” and “Building Wings on the Way Down”. While both tracks feature autobiographical lyrics, “Paranoid” also sees JFK utilizing a different flow; the double-time rap works to perfection with the heavy bells and horror-movie like production of WormWood Blazes also serving to create paranoia.

But the album also showcases JFK’s willingness to branch out. From the very outset, “Pass It” distinguishes itself from all the other weed anthems. Bean One alters the classic Pharcyde track “Passin’ Me By” for JFK and guest XP. The album’s host adopts the flow and cadence of three members of the LA underground kings – and definitely hits the mark (his Fatlip verse is particularly on point). While it’s hard to live up to the original (which, in my opinion, is one of the genre’s greatest songs), JFK’s homage is a track that will definitely get a lot of play.

“Still Running” features an outstanding string-based production courtesy of Mr. Hill – and a chorus that doesn’t sound out of place. JFK’s lyrical output is, once again, mature and autobiographical (“the more I grew older/the more I knew the fun was over/now it’s time to recover from these streets as a soldier”) and, perhaps most importantly, up to matching the track.

Both “Baby Mama” and “On the Regular” feature production that will appeal to folks outside of the normal Grayskul/Oldominion fan base. The former features a stripped down beat with heavy bass, an Auto-Tune chorus that is over the top and loaded with cliché lyrics – not the usual recipe for a song that works. Despite the apparent shortcomings, the track’s success, which lies in its catchiness, is undeniable. “On the Regular” is a club-ready track, with DJ Rise on the cut, that is sure to be a summer jam for Seattle and beyond.

The aforementioned Jake One also contributes to the project with two tracks. While “One of These Kids” and “High School Sweet Heart” feature solid laid-back production (as to be expected), the songs themselves, unfortunately, fall into the same category: laid back. Both the autobiographical lyrics of the former and the fictional love story of the latter fail to generate enough heat to warrant many replays.

Overall, JFK’s solo debut will only continue the streak of hot music from the Pacific Northwest. Fans of his work with Onry Ozzborn in Grayskul will appreciate the darker tracks on Building Wings on the Way Down, while those new to the Oldominion member will appreciate the MC’s honest, mature lyrics and the variety of tracks found on the album. It’s time for the entire hip-hop nation to take note.

[rating 3.5] 3.5 out of 5
[audio:|titles=JFK – Still Running feat XP]

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