If hip-hop is indeed "the proverbial sad clown of music," as New York rapper J-Live proclaimed on 1999's unreleased and unofficial anthem, "The Best Part," then J-Live himself is quite possibly the art form's Emmett Kelly. Despite personal and professional heartache, he's managed to maintain his optimism and love for expression and music, elevating the standards of a genre and industry that seem hell-bent on ignoring his talents.

J-Live took hip-hop by storm in 1995, releasing the cocksure "Braggin' Writes," only to immediately take a three-year hiatus from the rap game to finish up at SUNY-Albany. Returning in 1999, he recorded his amazing debut LP, The Best Part, both an attack on the material world of hip-hop and a personal testament of strength, honesty and discipline. Collaborations with top-shelf producers DJ Premier, Prince Paul and Pete Rock seemed icing on the cake. Unfortunately, a premature Internet leak caused London/FFRR to postpone--and ultimately shelve--the release. Heavily traded during Napster's heyday, The Best Part received much praise from the hip-hop community, eventually surfacing in the shops as a truncated vinyl bootleg ripped straight from MP3. In the meantime, J-Live continued writing and performing, contributing to many a freestyle session and recording a track for Prince Paul and Dan the Automator's Handsome Boy Modeling School disc.

All of the Above, which J-Live describes as his "first second album" (although Seven Heads Entertainment recently released the official version of his debut), presents us with an older and wiser J-Live, a bit more jaded and foul-mouthed, but still a devout optimist. "Life gets better with age...and rhyme books get better with each page," he proclaims on the self-affirmation "A Charmed Life"; and the rhyme books are indeed better. J-Live's lyrics act as journal entries, letting the listener share in thoughts both personal and universal. From the opening, "First Things First," which reintroduces the rap world to J-Live the tortured artist, to the aforementioned "A Charmed Life," J-Live lets us into his world, a place both fascinating and uplifting. Perhaps the strongest piece is "The 4th Third." It's a companion piece to "Get the Third" (i.e., the third finger) from The Best Part, in which J-Live replaces the anger of the original with understanding as he makes peace with the memory of the woman who broke his heart.

But it's not all Proustian reminiscence. "Satisfied," built on a Ras Michael and Augustus Pablo-inspired dub foundation, addresses September 11, accusing the tragedy of masking a faulty government with false optimism: "The same devils that you used to hate/They got you so gassed and shook that you're scared to debate/The same one's who traded books for guns/Smuggled drugs for funds/And had fun lettin' off 41/But now it's all about NYPD caps/And Pentagon bumper sticker/But yo, you still a nigga." As a whole, All of the Above has the impact of a complete composition, strengthening J-Live's place in the hip-hop history books. The album acts as an expertly executed notebook, filled with random ideas, yet unified by themes of introspection and positivity.