Movements: East Coast Rap, Boom Bap
Lane: J.Cole, Logic
In January 2018, it looked like it could have been a wrap for John River, not for his career but his life. He took to Twitter to explain to his fans (and anyone who’d listen) that he was in dire need of help, but had no idea what the problem actually was. After a laundry list of symptoms and a run around through Ontario’s healthcare system he was finally given a diagnosis: paraspinal pain, severe anemia, and most importantly intracranial hypotension. He was leaking spinal fluid, causing his brain to sag in his head but was treated to a full recovery. A little more than a year later and he’s delivered his latest mixtape, The Academy.
Press play and you’d think John River was an up-and comer-out of Brooklyn or Queens instead of Mississauga. In an era where thumping 808’s and rattling hi-hats are the wave River opts to spit over boom bap. Rap is indebted to jazz and John River is more than willing to pay homage.
The first track after the intro, ‘Lowered the Heights’, is opened by a freelancing sax and simple piano chords as though John River is the lead act at The Cotton Club versus Rolling Loud.
When John rhymes about the difficulties in making it in the rap game and making promises to those around him “When you tell your momma that gonna move her off the block/ ’cause you’re headed to the top, you just wish somebody lowered the heights/” the ghost of J.Cole haunts his lines. The spectre of J.Cole looms over this entire album. Not only does John River’s voice sound very similar to the Dreamville founder but so does his delivery which is a double edge sword. River’s Cole World delivery is a proven form but it lacks ingenuity which can take away from River’s true strength, his storytelling.
Before I Go is led by a twinkling melancholy piano over a simple boom bap beat where River attacks topics like drug dealing and student loans but also flexes his narrative muscles. A la MF Doom’s ‘One Beer’, John River vividly describes robbing a convenience store for only 100 dollars while unintentionally killing the clerk behind the counter. River isn’t an exquisite lyricist but he’s able to rhyme scenes from action to visuals all the way down to the emotion of the characters seamlessly.
John River is even able to dance between perspectives like on ‘Lisa’, a track about the aforementioned girl being drugged and sexually assaulted. John River plays Peter, Lisa and her friend Tiesha (sometimes all within a single verse) with acuity; flawlessly holding conversations between the characters without ever losing the listener. The out of tune piano followed by skittering hi-hats coupled with the subject matter make the track thrilling yet queasy. It’s pretty nervy for a mixtape track but John River is willing to attack topics few others are.
River can be smooth and sex driven if he wants to, not every track is pensive. ‘Pouring’ and ‘Pull up’ feature some of the raunchiest bars of 2019:
I hear that shit whenever I’m home/
Plus the bitch that’s sucking dick used to never give dome/
I know that deep down she thinks that I’ll never get on/
I should bust in her face like bitch I’ve never been wrong/
Meanwhile, River maintains a steely delivery. If John River isn’t flooded in emotions, he keeps a chill demeanor that translates to very breezy tracks.
But River is at his best when he has something to speak on. ‘Neither Am I’ features a similarly trappy beat but with woozy synths in place of a piano where River raps about wanting a girl he slept with to abort her pregnancy. River’s initial lyrics pressure the girl but are ultimately critical of his own character, “It’s kinda sad you don’t keep it/ ’cause cowards like me, slut shame you call you whores and tell you ‘keep that shit a secret’/” in a way very few of his contemporaries are.
John River wears his emotions and influences on his sleeves. While The Academy is steeped in J.Cole’s The Warm Up, there’s emotionality and contemplation that’s rare for a young artist in 2019, especially from the GTA.
If you need a story, John River has multiple to tell.
Fire: Lowered the Heights, Before I Go, Bastard of the North, Lined Up, Lisa, Offseason Freestyle
Ice: September 29th, The Academy