It has been four long years since Fly Exam, JGivens’ magnum opus. In the time since, much has changed. After coming out as gay in 2018, he later revealed he was HIV-positive. His string of show-stopping guest verses continued, including the best Lecrae song ever made and multiple collaborations with Christon Gray. Beginning in early 2017, singles began to trickle out, and another album was announced and then delayed several times. Initially titled My Brother And Me, crowdfunded through Patreon, now titled Domino, at long last it is here.
Rate Us begins on a very strong note. The beat gradually constructs around a haunting soul sample, first with a modest Bass progression, then with some simple percussion, and finally a smattering of hihats. Givens begins the album by admonishing his audience to support the vulnerable around them, before setting the stage for the project to come.
There He Go Again re-establishes his prowess as a fire-spitter. I’ve already raved about this some, but just to reiterate, he is the best for a reason. The intricate rhymes and google-requisite punchlines, the versatile flow, and Givens’ ever-magnetic personality all made this the best single off the project.
Determination continues this vein, with a much better beat. The synth arpeggios and syncopated percussion provide a great canvas for Givens & Foggieraw to display their chops. Foggieraw does get severely outclassed here, but his verse is far from bad. Especially of note is the hook, which is built around backing vocals provided by JGivens himself, creating an ethereal, somewhat danceable atmosphere.
Make It was my favorite song for almost two full years. Nuff said.
Get Away also features Christon Gray, but with a much different vibe. The energy here is much more relaxed and decidedly melodic. The repeating padded synths and looser percussion create an almost liquid tone. Christon assists on the hook with flawless vocals as always. This was one of the songs J and Chris made while on tour in Canada, and its predominantly about tour life.
Lotto is another single, also from 2017. It’s relaxed, with one verse and an extended hook from John Givez. I’ve overplayed this one pretty badly over the last two years, but it still holds up.
The first of many extremely personal songs, What About That touches on the artist’s diagnosis, showing his struggles, from financial to artistic to social. It’s a phenomenally written, passionately delivered, and starkly intimate look at the life of one struggling auteur.
Code Switch continues the dive into heavier subjects, but with a much different tone. The beat is quick and danceable, with plenty of distortion and a killer hook. J talks about race, among other things underlining that white gay men do not get a pass to use slurs that are not their own and uh. Yeah. They don’t.
The One That Got Away has the best storytelling on the album. He tells of a past relationship, and how circumstances drove them apart. The beat is quick and loose, with a slather of hihats over some simple chords. Still more excellent sung vocals from Givens as well.
Back To My Job is the only full song I don’t like, and it’s not even bad. The beat is sleepy, with soft touches of acoustic guitar and ambient synths under intermittent spurts hihats. I’ve never cared for JGivens tracks that operate below a certain energy level. Not to imply that every song needs to be a scorching battle rap, but his more stream-of-consciousness style needs a lusher beat to play off of. Again, not bad, just not what I’m looking for.
Now that I can finally hear the opening verse, 2Up is great. The meandering bassline and chorus of backing vocals create an unsettled, oily atmosphere. Despite a slower beat, J’s flow is still as virtuosic as ever, ratcheting up as the track progresses before dying out at the 2:30 mark for a distorted interlude.
Let Me Out is a direct criticism of Christian subculture and its standoffish-at-best relationship with race issues. Took me a while to understand, but now that I do, it’s great.
After a bizarre interlude comes Bandwagon, the final bandwagon. Between the lumpy sub-bass, the looping synth line, and the rattling hihats, the instrumental is almost Bay Area. Of course, J lights the beat on fire once again.
Wan Win is the most direct contrast between the melodic side of this album and the rapid-fire, aggressive side. I have to confess, this song is one I haven’t fully digested yet. The chopped and screwed outro is a little out of nowhere, but otherwise it’s a great track.
Idk addresses his coming out and what that meant for his career as an artist. The instrumental is listless, forcing the listener to focus on the pointed, personal lyrics.
The album closes with Get There, an ode to his mother and grandmother. Reminiscent of early Kanye, Givens’ storytelling is beautifully vivid, as is the beat. With piano arpeggios and phenomenal drumwork, it is a fantastic finale to the project.
There was a time I despaired of this album ever coming out. Of course, under the circumstances, the delay was perfectly understandable. Completely independent, with an unfortunately splintered audience, and a day job to balance, the complications were sure to arise. And I am happy to report that the wait was absolutely worth it. This album is a gorgeous synthesis of Soul, Hip-Hop, and even some ambient elements. The production budget is clearly lower than it was on Fly Exam, but JGivens works within his limitations perfectly. Instead of wonky, thick tones, the instrumentals are more stripped back, with some excellent use of percussion. While sparingly used, the samples add some much needed color, and there are a handful of truly inspired melodic moments throughout. Most of these moments can be attributed to JGivens himself, who incorporates his own vocals into many of the hooks on here. He’s a pretty solid singer, though of course his chops as a tenor pale in comparison to his chops as an emcee. Speaking of which, Givens once again displays why he is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. With a virtuosic flow, intricate wordplay, and an ever-increasing depth and range of emotional resonance, JGivens holds onto his throne, and in spite of all the clear adversity facing him, delivers a nigh-unimpeachable offering. As if there was any question, I’m giving this a strong 5/5. If you have ears, listen to this. Make your friends listen to it. I will probably have new insights into this album when list season rolls around. But for now, LISTEN TO THIS MASTERPIECE, I IMPLORE YOU!