Music - Joell Ortiz - Mona Lisa A work of art from a Renaissance Man.
It's always hard to judge a Joell Ortiz album without wondering what might have been. From being featured in XXL's Unsigned Hype as well as their Chairman's Choice, to signing with Dr Dre but never dropping an album on the Aftermath label, forming Hip-Hop supergroup Slaughterhouse, signing with Eminem's Shady Records but never releasing an album on the Shady imprint or even sharing a track with Em. His talent and lyricism has never been in doubt - anyone who has ever listened to his 125 Grams parts 1 through 4 will agree on that count, but it is always tempting to think what could have been if he had stayed under the tutelage of Dre or Eminem.
Which brings us to his latest effort Mona Lisa. In conjunction with Detroit's Apollo Brown, Joell sounds more serious and focused than ever before, the sound of a man more determined than ever before to prove to the listeners that he has a talent for lyricism and deserves the self-titled of People's Champ.
And he largely succeeds - on the introspective track "Reflections" he acknowledges the trend in hip-hop to champion drug use - "Bein' simple is a yes and bein' skilled is a not/ Havin' substance is lame/ usin' substance is hot" or accepting he never expects to chart "So here I am still the hottest nigga in my barber shop/ To get a number one but not that number one spot/ I'm in a weird place, my fans don't expect me on the charts/ Guess when you gifted, sometimes you rap yourself into a box"
Elsewhere on "That Place" Ortiz talks about his hatred of hospitals since he saw friends die there - "I swear to God I hate the hospital/ I can't even stand the smell of that place/ It's the sin of sickness and death, tears dwell on your face/ They whisper news but hit you like they yelled in your face/ Man I swear to God I hate the hospital/ I mean no disrespect to what the nurses or the doctors do/ Sometimes y'all make a miracle appear from the impossible/ But when my people there, gettin' outta there's an obstacle"
With bars as heavy as this producer Apollo Brown wisely keeps the beats and production firmly subtle and to the background, allowing Joell's bars the room they deserve.
Its 11 tracks long and a quick 36 minute listen meaning its over long before you want it to be and re-affirms Ortiz's status as one of the most gifted lyricists in the game.
It sounds like an instant-classic mixtape album as opposed to a fully-fleshed out studio album which only makes you dream of a Dre-produced Joell Ortiz album but such is life. As it is Mona Lisa remains a work of art just shy of a masterpiece.