Oreo Jones' 2012 LP Betty established the rapper as a force in Indianapolis music, and earned the emcee positive notices outside the Hoosier state. In the wake of Betty's release, many in the Indy music scene laid great hope and expectation at the emcee's feet. In the four year's that have passed since, it's my assessment that Jones ably met and surpassed all the artistic promise reflected in Betty.
To some, four years may seem like a significant gap between albums for a young artist working hard to breakthrough. "It was that long ago?" Jones laughs when I remind him of Betty's issue date. But Jones has hardly been standing still. During those intermediary years he's toured diligently, co-founded local super-group White Moms, recorded collaborations with David "Moose" Adamson, and continued to refine and improve his web series Let's Do Lunch.
But perhaps most importantly, Jones has become a catalyst for, if not the face of, an important music scene in this city in Fountain Square that has merged various strains of rap music with indie rock and more experimental forms.RELATED: Our 2012 Oreo Jones cover
Like many neighborhoods in the midst of gentrification, Fountain Square is a place of contrasts. Decades old mom-and-pop hardware stores share street space with avant-garde galleries. Freshly minted art school students move into age-worn city blocks filled with homes that have provided shelter for generations of conservative working class families.
In recent decades Fountain Square has felt the harsh and unforgiving crush of poverty. The sharp bloodletting of American manufacturing jobs wreaked havoc on blue collar areas like Fountain Square, where neighborhood blocks are dotted with abandoned, boarded-up homes lost to foreclosure and other financial disasters. It'a a tragic turn of circumstances that leads to high crime rates and low property values, opening space for hordes of starving artists and real estate speculators to move in.
In the center of this culture clash lies the soul of Oreo Jones' Cash For Gold, out Friday on vinyl, tape and digital platforms. Whether intuitively or overtly, Jones created a soundtrack for the wide spectrum of residents that make their homes in struggling neighborhoods like Fountain Square. There are art rap jams on Cash For Gold that will provide background fodder for the next GPC gallery opening, and lyrically heavy tracks that will animate long nights for a struggling father hoping to sell enough dime bags to buy a box of diapers and formula for his newborn.
One of the most striking tracks on Cash For Gold is "Mud." Jones calls it his "social justice record," adding that he wrote the lyrics "last summer when the crime rate was running rampant, especially killings and shootings." "Mud" weaves together a pair of vignettes that speak to the youngest victims of inner-city violence, and for me evokes thoughts of 15-year-old Andre Green killed last summer by IPD officers.
Oreo Jones' Cash For Gold album release party
Action Jackson, Metavari, Hoops, Showyosuck all joined the bill for Oreo Jones' Cash For Gold album release party at Pioneer in Fountain Square.
Musically this is perhaps the most traditional hip-hop track on the record, but lyrically "Mud" marks a noticeable change of direction for Jones who seemed surprised by the song's subject matter himself. "I don't know if it's just me getting older, but I felt like it was important to tell a story about people affected by these shootings here in the city," Jones says.
The DMA-produced "Sufficient Funds" provides another strong moment. Adamson always impresses me as one of Indiana's musical visionaries, putting his warped stamp on every genre of music he touches, in this case an ominous, grinding hip-hop beat. While "Sufficient Funds" travels well-worn hip-hop territory, the story of a street hustler trying to come up, the inspired verses from Jones and his Ghost Gun Summer colleague Sirius Blvck enliven the set piece. "Sufficient Funds" succeeds in recreating the sort of eerie crime sagas perfected by Golden Age artists like Mobb Deep, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. "When I wrote "Sufficient Funds" I was super-duper broke" Jones tells me, Adding the song is about, "just being able to create and live without the looming thought of money over your head."
I don't want to give the impression that Cash For Gold is filled with depressing tales of struggle and poverty. Jones also delivers the fun-filled, reference-laced escapist fantasies that fueled his Black Fabio project with Action Jackson. "Coogi Sweater" is a highlight, with the catchy repetitious chorus easily lodged in your head. The chillwave vibes on "Stevie Knicks House" will also please fans of Jones' larger-than-life-on-a-low-budget wordplay.
Somewhere in between the social justice tracks and party cuts lies "Caravaggio," featuring an unhinged guest spot from emcee Flaco. "Caravaggio" marks another of Cash For Gold's best moments. Having exhausted the potency of name-checking top shelf alcohol, luxury cars, and haute couture as symbols of privileged social rank, many outlier rappers have turned toward referencing the world of fine art for evidence of their big baller status. While on the surface "Caravaggio" appears to be fashioned in that mold, Jones tells me he has a deeper emotional connection with the master painter's work: "He's my favorite artist. Teddy Panzer gave me the beat and it just screamed Enlightenment Period. It was dark, and Caravaggio's paintings are super dark."
Flaco and Jones use the theme to make larger points about the art world. I ask Jones about the Flaco-led chorus "Black boy go to the IMA, let a Nigga sway."* "I feel like it's important for art to be accessible to everyone," Jones says. "I've been to galleries where I feel out of place. It's not always culturally diverse and it's kind of uncomfortable. You feel brushed aside and that's the reference with Flaco on the chorus."
And what exactly is Jones' overarching vision on Cash For Gold? The title itself provides a nod to that question, referencing those ubiquitous pawn shop signs that seem to blot every poor and working class inner city neighborhood. The signs entice residents to turn over their most valued treasures for that quick hit of cash they desperately need to scrape by one more week. But, here, Jones flips the script: "It's about finding wealth in love and memories. It's about being spiritually wealthy and finding riches in something besides money."
Jones has clearly found gold in the fertile Fountain Square music scene he's been mining over the last couple years. Cash For Gold shines brightly from the effort. It's a superb LP and a satisfying follow up to Betty, expanding on that album's best attributes while developing richer textural nuances both musically and lyrically. This record cements Jones' position as the most artistically ambitious rapper in Indy, and also establishes the emcee as an artist who has chosen not to ignore the the struggles besetting the impoverished residents of Indianapolis neighborhoods like Fountain Square.Editor's note: This lyric has been clarified for accuracy.