On her breakthrough project, executive produced by Phonte, the polymath rapper-singer displays her love of classic hip-hop and tries to soothe the sting of survivor’s guilt.
California-via-Boston rapper Lyric Jones’ latest album Closer Than They Appear begins with a crisis of conscience. After spending the last eight years honing her skills, she devotes the early moments of her biggest album to date to reflecting on the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland and wondering if her career was worth the blood, sweat, and tears. “Survivor’s guilt cause many ain’t beating the odds/Often faced with ‘That could’ve been me’; fuck the facade,” she says on “Face to Face.” Jones uses her art as a balm to soothe the sting of systemic oppression and finds confidence in her ability to rap anyone under the table. On Appear, her sincerity and musical range are her greatest weapons.
In many ways, Jones is a formalist, a craft-first MC and a classically trained musician who’s released music professionally since 2012. Appear feels like a breakthrough, amplifying her rapping and singing voice on a scale several steps beyond her similarly varied 2014 EP Love’s Trail Mix. The album is executive produced by Phonte, a fellow rap/R&B polymath whose experience in groups like Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange undoubtedly helped pinpoint Jones as a kindred spirit. She doesn’t coast on the co-sign. On standout track “Cruisin,” Jones and Little Brother, including Rapper Big Pooh, kick bars while riding their respective state highways—I-405 in California, I-85 in Virginia, and I-95 in North Carolina—and she holds her own over Focus…’s crisp breakbeat: “At times it often takes removing caution tape/To let the right ones cross it safe/And pretty soon I’ll be in awesome shape.” Rap is clearly a healing element for Jones, and her energy reflects the good vibes.
She brings just as much energy to rapping without pretense and simply wearing her love for classic hip-hop on her sleeve. “2020 feels heavy, singing D scales/Lyte as a rock, this audio too detailed,” she spits on the Nottz-produced “Rock On,” shouting out Heavy D, MC Lyte, and Audio Two in two easy-to-digest passes. Her bars are battle-tested and referential, hitting with the snap you’d expect from someone who can rap and play drums at the same time. While there are plenty of showcases sure to make backpackers of all ages smile, Appear has more in store than straightforward bar-fests. Jones regularly jumps between rapping and singing in a light and airy voice contrasting with her mid-register rap tone. The beats shift and morph accordingly, taking on elements of flamenco, disco, and the more adventurous side of modern R&B occupied by artists like Kaytranada.
Whether flirting with Vic Mensa over H0wdy’s roller-rink-ready beat on “Show You How” or weaving through Phil Beaudreau’s guitar strums on “Angelina,” Jones’ transitions are effortless. She credits Phonte with Appear’s mostly stellar sequencing, which brings cohesion to the project’s various sounds. It shines brightest in the album’s first quarter where the first three full songs all flow seamlessly into one another. The effect works so well it draws attention to the more jagged transitions elsewhere. Opening track “Objects In The Mirror” is a pretty but unnecessary introduction, sapping momentum from the thundering drums on “Face to Face.” The short interlude between “Cruisin’” and “Show You How,” where Jones interrupts her own desires to shoot her shot with a new love interest, feels more like a random voice memo than a fully fleshed-out thought.
In an Instagram post celebrating the album’s release, Jones recalls meeting Phonte at Atlanta’s A3C Festival in 2019 after a decade of keeping her dream collaborator on her vision board. “I saw an example of individuality, versatility, and I was so inspired at how Tigallo was RESPECTED in various side music scenes,” she explained. These were all qualities she possessed before meeting her idol, and they’ve been supercharged on Closer Than They Appear. Standing on her largest platform yet, Jones’ dreams are finally within reach.