The latest spotlight being given to the High Focus emcee roster is far from a surprising choice. With his staccato drawl flow and THC-infused lyrics, Cracker Jon fits in comfortably alongside nationally respected boom bap introverts like Fliptrix and Verb T. His latest release, a collaborative effort with old partner in crime 2Late on production set for release on the kingpin record label, is named “You Can Take The Cracker Out Of Croydon…”. It’s Cracker’s first official album, following up on his well received EP The Funk Off (2 tracks + instrumentals, the title track of which appears here) & the older mixtape Only Built 4 Croydon Linx (with Toast Based Dinners), plus a recent string of appearances on tracks from other rappers in the High Focus stable.
2Late has been turning (and bumping) heads for years, arriving on the scene around 2008 with a fully-formed funk drenched style that makes the Croydon lad sound like he’s been punching pads in Bed-Stuy since the 90s. Having produced the 2LiT EP with Dirty Dockers last year as well as a standout track on Lee Scott’s latest album Tin Foil Fronts, 2Late is quietly cementing his position as one of the UK’s bona fide beat maestros. His shuffling basslines and quirky, restless samples (“Dank” is a perfect showcase) sit softly under the vocals to the point you almost don’t notice they are there- in a good way. Choruses are rare, giving the production on this album centre stage and lending the whole project a free-form, jazz influenced atmosphere. 2Late clearly knows his stuff when it comes to hip-hop culture (obscure vocal samples throughout the album such as one from Boot Camp Clik’s “And So” prove this) and it’s partly through the recognition gained from his production that long time collaborator Cracker Jon has been gathering some recent shine, building links with respected figures in the scene such as Split Prophets and RLD, both of which 2Late has worked with. This will be 2Late and Cracker Jon’s 2nd album as a duo after 2011’s slightly more playful, groove-filled introductory effort Delusional Crackerz.
The album starts off with a skit featuring Cracker Jon getting booed off stage at a squat party before he has a chance to spit, presumably for not having the appearance of a stereotypical rapper. As most readers will be aware, Croydon is the birthplace of dubstep and home to more ketamin fans than hip-hop enthusiasts. Despite professing vague involvement like most people in South London at that time (he reminisces on hitting SE1 raves back in the day), Cracker Jon appears alienated from this cultural movement which has no place for him, his uniqueness or his unfashionable love of hip-hop music.
Despite the hallmarks being there (habitual weed smoking, distrust for the government, antisocial demeanour) and the look being fairly unremarkable, Cracker Jon is keen to let you know that he is most certainly not like other UK rappers. One of the YouTube freestyles (on The Lowdown) that helped him blow up started off with the words “I’m individual but not a follower”- a statement of intent that shows a man striving to forge his own path to recognition in a culture swamped with cardboard cut-out characters. Every track contains vehement criticism of other types of music or lifestyle, with the lyricist keen to dissociate himself from pretty much any group of people going. This attitude is both Jon’s biggest strength and his weakness. One line on “Summatyme” hears him state that “me and my mother are both Croydon born and bred, but rather rep our Irish heritage instead”. On an album named “You Can Take The Cracker Out Of Croydon…” which is supposedly all about a character shaped by the South London borough, this bar feels out of place and contradictory- an unfortunate symptom of Cracker Jon’s overpowering need to reject cliché and be viewed as unique.
This desperation and the raw emotion in Cracker Jon’s voice bring a sense of urgency to his delivery which simultaneously forces you to listen and brings the content under scrutiny. A rapper can be close to tears whilst talking about the death of a friend or the birth of a daughter and it will help the subject matter to hit home, make the listener feel their pain. A lot of the time Cracker Jon’s voice becomes strained with frustration about something as simple as bus fares being too high or 20 bags not being on point and this only serves to undermine his street wise persona. Jon comes across as an intelligent man distracted by trivial matters. Despite these criticisms and Jon’s dismissal of “Mormons and beehives and any other masonries creeping in the night” (a simplistic rejection of conspiracy theorist paranoia, again purposefully setting himself apart from a large swathe of the UK hip hop scene) there are occasional nods towards cultural signposts like George Carlin which betray a deeper psyche. If Jon could harness this rawness of feeling towards slightly more meaningful subject matter, he would instantly become one of the best rappers in the UK.
Despite his flaws, Jon’s flow remains on point throughout and rarely does a couplet seem forced. He appears to rhyme effortlessly and whilst he definitely has the potential to be a master lyricist he appears limited by his surroundings. The hopeless greys of Croydon in the day and bristling hostility of Croydon at night don’t offer themselves readily to introspection; “who in their right mind wants to even move for a living”, “getting anywhere but my ends is improbable” and “that’s my home so that’s why I wanna stay there” are just three of many bars which demonstrate the restless frustration of a rapper stuck in dead end surroundings with no means of escape outside of (or maybe even including) the music into which he pours this frustration. A generous sprinkling of energetic features from established leaders of the scene such as Dirty Dike, Leaf Dog and Datkid as well as gifted up and comers like Lee Scott and Smellington Piff serve to immediately elevate the album in parts whilst demonstrating the limitations of its lead MC.
Hopefully as his career develops and bridges with even more of the UK greats are built, Jon will cure like high grade or mature like a fine wine. Right now he seems like a man limited by his own pessimistic world view and expectations, still better than 90% of people releasing music in the UK yet with the potential to be something special bubbling under the surface. This potential has obviously been recognised by the gang of UK heavyweights dotted about the album who are ready and waiting for him to join their ranks.
Regardless, this is a good album that feels tantalisingly close to being a great one- about half of the tracks are addictive on some level and every listener will find a couple of favourites that stay in their rotation for a while. It certainly deserves a place in any UK hip hop head’s collection, if only so you can go back in a few years and see where Cracker Jon first forced his way into the nationwide consciousness.