“I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
One of hip-hop’s most venerated lyrics is incorrectly attributed to the genius of Nas. Not that the man isn’t a genius―it wouldn’t be surprising to find the title stamped on his birth certificate, it’s just important to know that this particular nugget of brilliance didn’t come straight from his dome. It’s actually an African proverb. The genius of Nas was to remix it in a way that masterfully suggests street life hustling and the quiet drama that comes with it. Shakespeare for the pavement.
Jon Connor is no Nas, but his new mixtape, While You Were Sleeping, makes it obvious that somewhere across the long landscape of busy midnights, Connor used the above lyric as his Duracell. While You Were Sleeping is his third mixtape in a year’s time, and shows very little signs of fatigue. The Flint native, like Nas before him, is channeling something beyond himself. The self-ascribed ‘People’s Rapper’ sees himself as something of a messianic figure, someone to lead the people away from the slums of wack rap. Just listen to the angelic billow of the title track. Like the Terminator character of the same name, Connor has been appointed by the people (of Flint, in this case) to win back the world they lost to their own invention. While the fictional Jon Connor had to retake his world from mechanized overlords, the emcee seems intent on taking hip-hop back from the mechanized system that has robbed it of its proletariat roots: the Industry. Even Nas has lost his way; in a recent interview he says that rap is “about bragging and talking about things the average person doesn’t have.” Hip-hop used to be about rapping about the things the average person was kept from having.
Potential critics of Jon Connor might get hung up on the amount of preachin’ done on While You Were Sleeping. After all, Connor postures as much as the emcees he criticizes. In “Don’t Want To Be”, one of the strongest tracks on the album, Connor quips “Another rapper like we fucking need it/See, this is ain’t rapping this is teaching, and what I preach/The reason that I’m breathing. . .” But what distances Connor from the pack is that his posturing seems to come from a good place. In a case similar to Lupe Fiasco’s “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” fiasco involving Pete Rock, Connor found himself on the wrong side of a lawsuit. MC Breed’s widow sued Connor after paying homage to Midwest hip-hop’s pioneer, through the track “Ain’t No Future”. Sometimes even good vibes get you in trouble in the rap game.
But overall, it is Connor’s heart and resolve that win over any listener of While You Were Sleeping. Though his lyrics never reach the measured intricacy of a young Nas, they come off as heartfelt as Goodie Mob at a family member’s intervention. Connor had said in the past that “a mixtape is a vehicle for reaching my goal but my albums is a piece of my soul,” and this particular mixtape seems caught somewhere in the middle, which is a good thing. In the Stankonian “Diamonds” and the Optiks-produced “Dubby”, Connor lays his soul on the line at 200 bph (bars per hour). His verbal dexterity makes it hard for some of the album’s producers, especially Rio The Ghost & T. Boyd, who supply the tepid “Never Left”, “Rags 2 Riches”, and “Burn Notice”, to measure up to his talent. And other than the heavy-handed “Standing In The Sun”, Connor seems to do a good enough job self-producing. “Lone Star”, the album’s ripest cut, is a prime example.
In the end, Connor provides us with a well-flowing, intimate work that knows a thing or two about production value and everything about emotional cues. In a perfect world, I would be able to give it a 3.75 out of 5. But since I’m just as susceptible to the suck of gravity, and must work within both the realities of physics, and the Potholes’ rating system, While You Were Sleeping gets a 3.5. Points must be detracted for the very thing Connor warns against in his The People’s Rapper LP: “Back in the day, you’d do an album in a year, you were straight/Now you gotta drop a song every day to be great/The niggas start falling off just tryin’ to keep up the pace/And in a sense, it devalues all of the music we make.” Somewhere, Connor should be sleeping; slumber might be related to death, but it also shares a parent with perfection.