In October of 2006 J-Zone retired from rap. It was a symbolic ending, as he did so at CBGB’s last hip hop show before closing its doors permanently. That night J-Zone performed alongside The Juggaknots and Louis Logic, while Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse joined him on stage. What should have been a night for the history books is hardly documented. Such is the career of J-Zone.
Many would surmise it was the countless defeats the business issued in his direction like middling success: dropped by digital distributors, becoming a tax write-off for a major label, having his records destroyed rather than collect dust in a warehouse. While his independent hip hop contemporaries at Definitive Jux, Rhymesayers, and Anticon fixated themselves as permanent beacons, J-Zone struggled through his successes and faded into obscurity. In an interview with A.V. Club, he offers his perspective on retirement, attributing part of the decision to a personality conflict in which J-Zone was supposed to be a character who gave him the confidence to rap, but that character became his Tyler Durden, plotting his destruction. He was in his 30s, so were his fans, and he decided this J-Zone character was ruining his life.
Two months ago J-Zone put his first album in nine years on Bandcamp only to have it go out of print on cassette in less than a month. The aptly titled Peter Pan Syndrome enters as though it’s a lost album from 1999 discovered at a Jamaica Queens yard sale and bootlegged by a well-connected nostalgist. The tape immediately sold out, and a vinyl re-press is in the works, but this fact defies the self-established J-Zone narrative. The purchase page for Peter Pan Syndrome jokes, “Bound to be a best seller in Uzbekistan and dominate the pop charts in Nepal.” The reality is he’s sold a little over 500 copies, which isn’t grounds for a new lease on a rap career, but it does exceed his imaginary farflung Soundscan numbers.
Peter Pan Syndrome begins with the dual intros “It’s A Trap!” and “R.A.’s Career Advice”. We quickly gather that J-Zone is still the George Carlin of rap and, when given the pedestal, can pinpoint on the absurdities of our daily routines and nuances. Posing as Reverend Real Talk, he declares “growing up is for underachievers” with a sermon detailing the guidelines of mediocrity. The intro gives way to the familiar territory of parlor music interludes eerily similar to those found on Music For Tu Madre, while R.A. the Rugged Man leaves a voicemail commending Zone for being unfit for the 9 to 5 work force. After establishing little has changed in the world of J-Zone, the record offers an answer to the question, “What would happen if J-Zone combined MF Doom’s Operation: Doomsday with Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and garnished it with a medley of J-Zone’s discography?”
The answer to that question defines the aesthetic of his career since the Bottle Of Whup Ass EP, but those attributes have never been as obvious as on Peter Pan Syndrome. A younger J-Zone possibly wasn’t aware or willing to admit how influential early Doom and Cube were on his art, but 36 year-old J-Zone is aware and proud. He’s not the first to appropriate conceits from Cube’s classic (it’s been done by Redman, 50 Cent, and Atmosphere, to name a few), but he’s the first to employ it as a criticism of “Rap Baby Boomers”—the aging disagreeables loathed by Soulja Boy Tell’Em—and the notion of a post-racial America.
Since he’s never growing up, the album martyrs itself to a “nothing new” philosophy. “Gadget Ho” is essentially “Bum Bitch Balad” (from Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes) for the iPhone generation—it used to be about fake Maya Angelou, headwrap activist chicks, now it’s girls who Instagram pictures of faux-guilt meals at IHOP. Original Old Maid Billionaires member, Al-Shid returns on “Opposites Attract” with two verses that exist as though time and Sean Price are fabrications. Al-Shid has not been heard on record since 2008, but he still commands idioms at will with “no need to camouflage your emotions / I know you’re feeling fatigued / when I tell’em breathe in / it resuscitates their fears / I threw caution to the wind / now there’s tension in the air.” The album liberally samples and liberally infuses the conceits of AmeriKKK’as Most..., and treats his own discography as source material. Yet these are not shortcomings of Peter Pan Syndrome. Deep down, Peter Pan Syndrome is everything that was great about J-Zone in ’99.
The problem with Peter Pan Syndrome is it feels like a concept record derailed from a lack of editing. If it’s an homage to early J-Zone, the era in which a college project became a debut album, then it’s disrupted by late career Zone who collaborated with Celph-Titled as Bo$$ Hog Barbarians and released instrumental albums. He doubles up on instrumental songs that reference narcotics, but neither feel vital in the tracklisting—”Roaches In The Kitchen” at least has a complement in “Crib Issues.” The album should end at the title track, with “Plan A” acting as the outro, but he tags on “Mo’ Pork” which deserves the “hidden track” addendum. Worse yet, “Mo’ Pork” cheats the listener of ending on a sobering voicemail from Zone’s former hypeman Dick $tallion, who declines appearing on the album. The problem with Peter Pan Syndrome is it’s so close to being a perfect album made by a rapper who’s pushing forty but who, despite all he’s learned and suffered through, chooses to be the version of J-Zone that’s caused him nothing but strife.
There came a time when we no longer needed J-Zone to help us check our egos and social habits. Much like the manifestation of MF Doom, Peter Pan Syndrome emerges when we lost our perspective on reality. Operation: Doomsday came to destroy rap. Peter Pan Syndrome is here to criticize our addiction to cell phones, rip down our veil of a post-racial America, and make gray-haired rappers think twice before getting back in the studio—and that goes for the gray-haired one making it. Daniel Dumile turned his vices in booze and shady business into a marketable character. J-Zone turned his inability to jumpstart a career into a memoir and followed it up with a concept record. It’s just tough to determine if he made it imperfect on purpose or if he truly can’t help but trip over his own shoelaces.