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As an independent music critic, I get a slew of hip hop artists across my desk on a daily basis. Put plainly, most of them tumble painfully into the realm of mediocrity, never to be heard from again. Their music is often inundated with cheap-sounding Garageband preset beats and lyrical cliches, making critics like myself somewhat jaded to the community they come out of. On occasion, however, there are indie hip hop artists that are doing great work. I think that’s the case with John J and his new EP, ‘Still Howling.’

‘Still Howling,’ a new six track endeavor from the Bronx-based artist, lives and dies on its lyricism. While it’s a well-produced effort, the musical composition of this EP acts as a simple bed for John J’s ideas and musings. The production sits elegantly in the backdrop, never exploding beyond the artist. Thus, John J is at the center of this picture, which is excellent, because he’s a strong wordsmith.

‘If I Only Had,’ the introduction to the album, is quite an introspective jaunt through John J’s life. He explores what would happen if only had one life, one love, one night, etc. There’s a darker side to it, however, because John J explores less romantic ideas: if only he had opportunities that others did, if he only had the ability to explain his pain, and so on and so forth. The lyricism is profoundly poetic, and a beautiful portrait of John J’s inner triumphs and demons.

The next track, ‘Move Me,’ is highly reminiscent of classic hip hop, especially in regard to the old school turntable scratching and between-verse vocal banter. It’s essentially a gritty inspirational track, and John J’s presence on the song is excellent. ‘Lonewolf,’ however, eclipses its predecessor. The atmospheric, eerie composition of that track is absolutely fantastic, evocative of Kanye West’s style of intensity. The track of resolute solitude is a completely intriguing one, offering a perfect halfway point to ‘Still Howling.’

‘Our Father’ is another well produced track, complete with cascading string and choral sections backing John J. The song incorporates some heavy religious imagery, but it’s somewhat skeptical about the whole affair, pondering the motivations behind religious deities and what they choose to do and not do. ‘All Odds’ furthers John J’s inner conflict with religion. “Finally made it through the night against all odds,” John J declares amidst a chorus of howling wolves that harken back to ‘Lonewolf.’

The final track, ‘My Sounds From,’ throws shout-outs to artists like Jay Z that helped John J develop his sound. It’s a good homage to the early years of John J’s artistic endeavors, and a strong ending to an equally strong album. ‘Still Howling’ breaks the mold in that regard: it’s well written, performed, and produced. That’s a rarity these days.

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