The temperature in Los Angeles this past week hit 90 degrees most days, a searing reminder of a long, hot summer refusing to relinquish its grip. As more black men—Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Alfred Okwera Olango—continued to die on the other end of police officers' guns, the late September heat seemed a physical reminder of America's roiling tribulation, the re-opening of old wounds prematurely bandaged to reveal long-held and hidden racial tensions.
Javon Johnson's latest EP N.ever I.gnorant G.etting G.oals A.ccomplished (which as you might have already been able to tell, shortens readily to N*GGA, a fact certainly not to be lost on any prospective listeners) arrives as a reaction to recent events, but truly a response to the chronic rupture that has made 2016 at times feel like a portal back into the brutality of the Reagan Era and the open, unapologetic racism of the pre-Civil Rights Era. N*GGA is Johnson's best work yet, a tightly focused exploration of what it means to be a young black man in Houston.
As on his past releases, the formerly homeless Johnson explores the triumphs and perils of life on the edge with clever clarity and densely coiled rhymes that require repeat listens for decoding. Crime, nightmares, dark streets, and death waft across the EP's jazzy, rough hewn production, like the creeping quiet that sometimes overtakes the air after the delivery of bad news.
The EP's high point comes on the second verse of standout song "The Talk," a deft entanglement of the personal and political that shows Johnson's rapping at its sharpest:
"I should probably talk to you while I'm focused on the subject so, fuck it/
They dying for us to lose, they hope we fall on our faces/
That lack of education is a portal that eliminates young black imaginations in training, our brains wasted/
We multiply by a million heads every few years/
Our mothers crying new tears, stressing their lives until they faded then we try to embrace 'em make no mistake of it/
My moms did a lot of foul shit but I'll empty eight for her, nigga/
Die for the color they judging and wanna be like/
Dig up my family and mark the top of their graves right/
Bury my uncle where the pigs can't see 'em cause these demons will dig you up if they feel safer when you're deeper/
The adrenaline in this pen that I'm gripping while I'm carving these scriptures is beneficial to my livelihood/
I'm just doing the right then like Spike Lee would/
While I'm talking to 'em/"
"The voicemails from my mother are real," says Johnson of the project's interludes. "She tried to reach me for days during the process of creating this but I was so focused. A lot needed to be said about certain things happening out there in the world. Everyday there is a new obstacle."