Critic’s Corner: Johnnyphlo – Basic Strategy

Although Johnnyphlo debuted with a mini-album last year entitled The Notebook, he is making his first feature length album debut with his latest release, Basic Strategy. His mini-album was a very strong, albeit short, collection of songs that showed a lot of potential and promise for the relatively new artist. Though he’s spent a lot of time behind the scenes in music, only in more recent years has he stepped into the spotlight and he’s really had a strong start to his career since then. With the release of this album, the biggest question to be answered was whether he could sustain the quick pace of his artistic growth and development or would his progression stagnate? Looking at the track listing it’s clear that Johnny’s enlisted the help of a lot of other artists so let’s jump right in and see if all the work and collaboration paid off. Note: The album includes a couple re-releases from The Notebook, which I will not include in this review since I commented on them in the last one.

Basic Strategy ft Viruss 44, EXP, DJ Zo – The title track of the album starts things off with a bang with a bass heavy track that encourages all the artists to go in hard on this one. It looks like a deliberate choice was made to feature other bi-lingual Korean-American emcess as Viruss 44 and EXP both deliver verses following JP’s opener. Everyone gave a solid performance while DJ Zo’s cuts bring it all together brilliantly. I though a lot of great choices were made here.
Too Late ft James Ha – This song was released before the album dropped and it’s as strong a listen now as it was back then. James Ha’s light R&B vocals blend very well with the track and add a great touch. For me, this took a few listens to fully appreciate but I found that it grew on me quickly from there. It’s a smooth song and completely different in tempo and sound from the album opener. The instrumentation is anchored by an acoustic guitar, which really helped the sound stand out.
Rollercoaster ft Ailee – I can already tell you, this is easily the catchiest track on the album. It’s a fun Hip-Pop song and the Johnnyphlo x Ailee combination continues to prove to be a winning forumla. Is this the most lyrical track you’re gonna hear? No. Is it the deepest? Certainly not. But it definitely serves its purpose as a strong commercial single for the album and it’s nearly impossible to get out of your head. At the end of the day this is a great pop song. If there was a platform for it, this would be a sure-fire radio it.
Live Your Life [니 멋대로] – In yet another change of pace, JP decides to try his hand at a Southern style of track. I’ll be completely frank and say it took me a while to get used to this song, simply because I’ve never heard this style from him before. Once I was able to move past my reservations I found the song enjoyable though I wouldn’t say this is one of my favorites. I imagine this would be great live though. While I’m glad the entire album isn’t done in this style I will say it’s a fresh track that adds variety within the context of the project.
One of the Best ft Decipher, Manifest, JL, Lyricks – This is pretty much the definition of a posse cut. MUzO (Johnny, Decipher) goes in on the track with the fellas from The Beautiful Cycle (Manifest, JL, Lyricks). This song was released last summer with an accompanying music video, the only difference being JL was added to the repertoire. I though the original MV version was an incredibly strong track as each MC killed their respective parts though I’m not sure JL added a whole lot to it, which is odd considering how strong his verses typically are. It’s not that his contribution wasn’t well done, rather something about it just felt a little bit out of place. That being said this is one of the best collaborative tracks I’ve heard in quite some time, and though released a year ago, it’s inclusion on the album is still welcome.
Don’t Phase Me – If you ever wondered how JP felt about the various criticisms and opinions that he’s faced, this track aims to shed some light on the very subject. The song has a mellow, almost jazzy influence to it that gives it great sound. The chorus is serviceable, but felt a bit thin in comparison. Lyricks makes his second appearance on the album and his flow is bananas here. In fact, the highlight of the track is probably the smooth, lyrical delivery from both MC’s.
내 안에 있으니 [03.03.2009] – This song starts off with an interlude where Johnnyphlo explains the experience of his Father’s passing before moving on to what is easily the most somber, but moving experience on the album. I thought this was a perfect example of where music transcends language as you can feel the heart and emotions he poured into this song regardless if you understand Korean. In a way, this track makes one view Johnny not solely as an artist or a rapper, but instead as a child who lost a loving parent. Although it’s terrible that this song was based on such a heartbreaking experience, it’s truly helped mold what I consider to be the best track of the album.
Top of the World ft Schoolboy Duke – Once again switching gears, Johnny goes in a more pop-oriented direction, enlisting the help of Schoolboy DUKE for this one. DUKE is a perfect choice for this style of song as he tends to defy genre constraints himself. I have mixed feelings about the final mixdown of this track as DUKE sounded kind of muddy on his sung chorus, but his verse contribution kept things fresh. This is another one that I can enjoy as a one-off, in small doses but can easily grow tired off after too many repeated listens. In short, it’s fun but too stylized for me to completely love.
Just a Friend – Also released as a single last year, this is an enjoyable, light, summer love song. The track also had an accompanying music video. It’s got commercial appeal but is chill enough to enjoy no matter what the mood. Like most of the songs on the album, this track serves a very specific purpose and is another cut that strengthens the LP’s mass appeal. It’s certainly not ground breaking, but a good listen nonetheless.
내 꺼 – Johnny relies heavily on the autotune for the hook and bridge of this song, and it actually worked a lot better than I thought it would. This is another easy-listening song but there isn’t a whole lot about it to set it apart from the rest of the album. I gotta admit though, the chorus melody is pretty catchy. It makes me wonder what could have been if JP had used another artist to fully sing the hook. This cut is a good song but there’s nothing particularly note-worthy about it.
Be ft Shogunna – If I had to choose my favorite beat on the album, this song is it. The bluesy electric guitar adds so much flavor to the song and almost paints a picture on it’s own. JP delivers a Tiger JK-esque performance here, and it suits him and the track as a whole perfectly. Shogunna adds a lot of texture in contrast and really helps anchor the song. This may be one of the most well balanced songs I’ve heard in quite some time. I thought every element complemented each other beautifully. Easily another one of my favorites.
One Day ft Decipher – Ths entire track is pretty much an extended shout-out in rap form. That said I think some will appreciate this song more than others. For anyone that’s invested in or is a fan of the Asian-American music community, this song will serve as an encouragement and fond acknowledgement of the scene and many of it’s major players. If you have little interest about  AA music and it’s artist then this one will likely go right over your head.
Once Again ft Sam Ock – Featuring production and vocals by Sam Ock, this is a gorgeously arranged song though it’s certainly not without it’s faults. As JP addresses his struggles in reconciling his spiritual life with his day-to-day life it all comes off a little bit flat. I don’t feel the same emotional connection and comittment to the song as I did in 내 안에 있으니 [03.03.2009], though it could easily be that JP is more connected to one topic over the other. The song is well written and produced but falls short of some his other work in delivering a genuine experience.
Conclusion: The most interesting thing about this album is the fact that I was able to appreciate it in two very distinct ways. There are a handful of choice singles on this album that I absolutely loved, and would throw them into my favorites playlist any day. Conversely, there are some songs on here that I wouldn’t appreciate as much as singles, simply because they may be too stylized or unexpected for my taste. But when heard within the context of the entire album, even those songs become truly enjoyable as they offer a refreshing change of pace by adding variety and flavor into the mix. In fact, if I had to sum up this collection of songs in one word, it would be variety. And believe me, in this case variety is good. One of my main complaints about his mini album was the lack there of and it seems Johnnyphlo had directly addressed that. Some may point out that all the different genres and styles on this album indicate a lack of focus and authenticity but it seems more to me that it’s just a deeper representation of the fact that JP is a multi-faceted artist with diverse tastes. I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t limit himself to one box or label. He certainly made some very smart choices here, and although he pulled of some styles better than others, there is very little that I actually dislike about this album. Genre purists and elitists may want to avoid this release but for anyone else that has an eclectic palate for their music, I highly recommend this one. Now the next test for Johnny will be to see  if he can pull it off again, only without the abundance of strong supporting features.
Must Listen: Basic Strategy, Rollercoaster, 내 안에 있으니 [03.03.2009], One of the Best, Be
a-Tunes Score: 9.5/10

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