Album Review: J-Tong – Mohawk and Bare Feet

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Release: October 8, 2012
Distributor: CJ E&M
Genre: Hip-hop

No other album in recent memory has given me this much trouble in translating song titles. Do I use “Nipple Twister” or the more vulgar but accurate word for the same prank? How do I properly express the state of total disarray and bovine excrement implied by the word “개판”? These are the profound questions raised by J-Tong’s much-anticipated studio album, 모히칸과 맨발 (Mohawk And Bare Feet). And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let’s get this out of the way first. J-Tong is, undeniably and unequivocally, one of the absolutely craziest rappers in the Korean scene. He raps with explosive energy and charisma, represents crew and home (especially this latter) with attitude, and just does flat-out wild things (baring his buttocks in a music video and starting a diss war based around the concept of feces is only the beginning). And he obviously enjoys making, er, unconventional music. But the reason that he’s become this big this quickly is because there is talent underneath the outrageousness; the man has an ear for beats that make people jump out of their seats and writes lyrics that adapt uncannily well to his music.

Mohawk lets you know what you’re in for real quickly. After a rather generic, Southern-inspired intro track and an interlude, J-Tong suddenly screams “BOOBS” as controversial pre-release single 찌찌뽕 (Nipple Twister) begins. It’s about exactly what you think it is: three minutes of the rapper extolling the virtues of this prank in unnecessarily detailed language. Vulgar? Check. Juvenile? Sure. The saving grace is that if not for J-Tong, there’s nobody in the country who could pull this off. The song is set to a rocking beat produced by Psycoban (incidentally the only other Korean rapper that rivals J-Tong in wildness, in my opinion), though: the stuttered punk-rock rhythm and vibrant bass set the tone for the rest of the album.

The two tracks that follow are both remixes of tracks from J-Tong’s award-winning debut EP, Busan (2011). In the case of 개판 (Clusterf*ck), the remix is hugely successful. The rapper invites No Brain to upgrade the original’s rock accompaniment to explosive levels; the opening 30 seconds of this track is frankly one of the best moments in all of Korean hip-hop this year. The power snare and deep riffs are electrifying throughout the song, and Lee Sung-woo’s new hook adds a new dimension to J-Tong’s methodical, pushy rapping.

The new-look 구구가가 (Gugugaga) yields more mixed results. Don’t get me wrong; casting Lowdown 30 was a fantastic idea. But I think the keyed-down guitar beat here is actually inferior to the original’s synths. The new beat lacks the heavy echo and the embellishments of the 2011 version, and so ends up with less dimension and ominous vibe. Fortunately, the seminal hook-driven core of the track remains, along with J-Tong’s fierce representing of his hometown.

And there’s plenty more where that last part came from; Mohawk, like the Busan EP, is yet another love letter to J-Tong’s home city. Nobody reps home as hard as this guy does; there’s at least one reference to Busan, or its ports, or the ocean, or the Lotte Giants baseball team in practically his every song. It’s fitting, then, that Mohawk’s lead single is pride-filled 사직동 찬가 (Sajik-dong Anthem). (For reference, Sajik Stadium is the Busan-based Lotte Giants’ home field.) The lyrics are actually a little disappointing, in that it regurgitates a lot of the same ideas found in Gugugaga or Busan – sometimes copying whole lines, like the Mun Sung-jae shout-out and the “rural hillbillies” line. But the always-energetic beat and anthemic hook make up for that to some degree.

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The last third of the album tries some different things, moving away from the rock sound-set and the Busan rah-rah fare. The most interesting is 취해 부르는 노래 (A Song Sung While Drunk), which expands the album’s spectrum with mellow sax and surprisingly tender lyrics, framed as a conversation between drinking buddies. The group performance in 혼란속의 형제들 (Brothers In Chaos; in context, Illest Konfusion) is a welcome one, reuniting the biggest names in the Illest Konfusion crew and getting a good hook out of Beenzino. (Although why they didn’t have Zion-T do that instead is beyond me.)

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From the sound and concept perspectives, it’s hard to ask for much more. Instead, my biggest gripe with Mohawk and Bare Feet lies with the rapping. J-Tong’s lyrics are rather simplistic throughout the entire album – even aside from the repetitive themes, he often settles for predictable rhymes and uninteresting wordplay, and the album’s best lyrics are found in Gugugaga – a year-old track. Meanwhile, J-Tong’s aggressive, primal flow is as good as ever, but the lack of variation is starting to catch up to him. This might be a good time to reconsider tricks like the tongue-twisting technique he showcased in Champion.

Still, Mohawk and Bare Feet deserves high praise. It’s not often that we see such plausible thematic focus (in this case, on the Busan thug mentality) in any album, and rarer still that we see it executed this perfectly. The album’s high-octane sound should set a bar for future metal-rap collaborations. J-Tong’s confident flow is a joy to listen to, and is made nigh heady by the entertaining backdrops. But here’s the highest praise I can give for Mohawk: J-Tong, and only J-Tong, could have made this album. It’s a career-defining kind of work for a rapper in a singular position in this scene.

Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)

1. 깡패 (Gangster)
2. 등장 (Emergence) – Interlude
3. 찌찌뽕 (Nipple Twister)
4. 개판 (Clusterf*ck) – Featuring No Brain
5. 구구가가 (Gugugaga) – Featuring Lowdown 30
6. 4번타자 이정훈 (Cleanup Hitter Lee Jung-hoon) – Interlude
7. 사직동 찬가 (Sajik-dong Anthem)
8. 취해 부르는 노래 (A Song Sung While Drunk)
9. 혼란속의 형제들 (Brothers In Chaos; or Illest Konfusion) – Featuring Simon Dominic, Beenzino, and Zion-T
10. 모히칸과 맨발 (Mohawk and Bare Feet)

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the individual and not of hellokpop as a whole.

Sources: Photo – Bugs Music; Video – jtong051 and NewEraHustler on YouTube

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