A lot of digital ink has been spilled on how the world’s biggest musicians of the streaming era treat albums – both the traditional release of music and the concept of the album itself. But it’s ultimately meaningless. Drake can call his newest projects “mixtapes” or “playlists” to offset expectations or to downplay critiques of cultural appropriation, but they’re still albums. The same can’t be said for Jamar Neighbors’ AmeriKKKa’s Nigga, a standup release he rightfully calls a mixtape. Rightfully so not just because it’s available for download on hip hop’s main hub for mixtapes, Dat Piff, or DJ favorite Soundcloud, but also due to the tape’s free-flowing nature and unconventional structure. This is not your standard album taped over two nights after a year of touring to get the hour just right. There are bits that bomb and riffs he clearly thought up on the spot and jokes that go over the audience’s heads. But Neighbors, a Comedy Store regular best known as part of “The Wave” on the live and TV incarnations of Roast Battle, has released a mixtape that is as fearless as it is funny. It’s confident and messy as hell. Despite being overlooked by every “Best of 2016” list, it’s one of the most notable standup releases of this decade.
Produced by Roast Battle DJ Coach Tea, AmeriKKKa’s Nigga starts with the 911 call of George Zimmerman telling the operator he’s in pursuit of a hoodie-wearing black male mixed with David McCallum and David Axelrod’s haunting, something-ain’t-right instrumental “The Edge.” This mash-up stays with us and bleeds underneath two jokes that hit the listener like a bottle upside their head. First, a bleak one-liner about Jamar’s upbringing in Compton: “My mama always said y’all gonna smoke whatever I cook in this house.” That’s followed by a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. being so poor at the time of his assassination that he was shot in a motel, not a hotel, balcony outside his room… a room he was sharing with three other people. Neighbors has a nasally, slow delivery comparable to Dave Chappelle, but Jamar’s punchlines don’t come off as professionally loose like Chappelle’s most recent work. It’s more akin to Norm Macdonald’s lackadaisical approach to razor-sharp and extremely politically incorrect takes…if the jokes on Norm’s albums floated in between samples of jazz and Jadakiss and prog rock and Chuck D. Like J Dilla’s masterpiece Donuts, the unexpected shifts from laughs to murky piano notes to joyous horns and back again lays a foreboding undertone underneath the jokes.
These samples give Jamar’s jokes an extra weight without shoving subtext in the listener’s face. Getting overtly political can lead to preachiness too easily, even for the funniest comedian. See: David Cross’ latest Netflix special. But while Jamar goes for the outrageous laugh, the raunchy laugh, and the laugh you know is slightly wrong, he peppers his jokes with mood-setting music and clips that show the one laugh he’s not going for is an easy one.
One of Jamar’s bits questions if Abraham Lincoln was shot because John Wilkes Booth was annoyed by former slaves talking during the performance at Ford’s Theater. Jamar book-ends it with racist country singer Johnny Rebel’s pro-KKK anthem “Stand Up and Be Counted” and a clip of Bill O’Reilly dodging a question about his number of black friends. Before a joke about Bill Cosby not getting credit for barring his inebriated rape victims from driving home, we hear the disgraced comedian shilling Jell-O pudding pops in a commercial whose announcer calls the treat “wholesome.” As the track continues, Jamar gets almost no laughs with a rape joke that falls flat, but wins the audience back with another that seems to get a chuckle out of those in the crowd who think some topics should never be crossed. Acknowledging he dug himself out of a deep hole with a shout of “There it is!”, the track then fades into an interview clip of the sad, pathetic Cosby of 2014 imploring an AP reporter to not air an exchange about his sexual assault accusations. For many comics, they’ll shield their inappropriate punchlines with “But really folks” if they feel insecure about being considered a bigot/sexist/etc. or they think that their set will be uploaded to YouTube without context. But AmeriKKKa’s Nigga’s samples not only emotionally set up where each track is heading, but they also remind the listener of the sources of the darkness that inspire Jamar.
Speaking of darkness, there’s no shortage of it on this mixtape. The Compton native quips on extremely bleak topics from his upbringing like foster homes, dead friends, and crack-ravaged neighborhoods, yet he sets himself apart from comics with similar backgrounds with the comedic avenues he treads. For Jamar, the worst part about his childhood was not the foster homes, but how growing up ugly in foster homes led to more beatings than his prettier siblings. Jamar on his dead homies? Well, that’s why the muscular standup is so buff… from carrying so many caskets (he calls them “dead lifts”). Jamar’s ability to wring comedy from the unseemly is not just limited to his notorious hometown or the depths of his own psyche. On white friends wanting his reaction to the San Bernardino terrorist shooting, he tells them, “I’m from Compton. What do you want me to do, put all 14 of them niggas on a white t-shirt and wear it for two weeks?” On liberals who moan that the world only cares about terrorist attacks in Paris and not those in Iraq or Syria, Jamar lambastes their faux outrage. It’s simple to Jamar: Isn’t it obvious that society cares less about war-ravaged desert countries than beloved vacation destinations? “Remember the last time someone blew up a vacation spot in America? Pearl Harbor. Remember that? They bombed Boston and we really didn’t do shit because nobody vacations in Boston.” Fucked up? Yes. Truer than what most of Big Degree Swangin’ foreign policy experts have to say on CNN? Most definitely.
Halfway through the album, Jamar begins a bit with “I was thinking about some dumb shit.” What might be a catchphrase for a lesser comic is really just a way to couch his examination of heady, depressing subject matter. Never the didactic, Jamar gives his tracks names like “LOL @ Lincoln’s Assassination Tho :D”, “All My Dead Homies Tho :(“, and “Shout Out to Dem Unarmed Niggas Tho :/”. Don’t let the self-deprecation and ironic titles fool you. It’s like the straight-A student who, after being singled out by the teacher for his intellect, begins to purposely miss questions on his tests so his classmates don’t tease him. Even on the final track of this mixtape, a cell phone recording of Jamar and some friends in serious conversation, Jamar eventually drops the straight face. “Dat Philosophical Outro Tho ???” is four minutes of passionate debate about cultural erasure, white privilege, predisposed racial characteristics, and American wealth. But just when you think Jamar is going to end it earnestly, he flips it. A group of women knock on the car window and the mixtape fades out to them dropping the convo to spit some game. Jamar Neighbors is always joking. Except when he isn’t. And the only way you can find out is to listen.
Pablo Goldstein is a writer from Los Angeles, CA.