So you put out one of the most acclaimed albums of your era, and it’s your debut. You can practically hear the phrase “difficult second album” coming. But you wouldn’t know it from the confident and coolly crafted Wrath Of The Math. Jeru The Damaja, known to his mama as Kendrick Davis, first tweaked the ears of hip-hop fans in 1992 as a guest on ‘I’m The Man’, one of the best tracks on Gang Starr’s classic Daily Operation. Gang Starr had a major hand in his rise, with the duo’s DJ Premier producing all Jeru’s records in the first phase of his career, including 1996’s Wrath Of The Math. That’s a good ally to have, especially with Premier being in his inventive prime at the time.
The title alone will tell you that Jeru was not looking to cover the standard hip-hop subject matter, though he wasn’t above responding to the criticism of other rappers, taking on Fugees in ‘Black Cowboys’, and, without fear, wresting hip-hop from Suge and Puff on ‘One Day’. Jeru was concerned about the direction the music he loved was headed, wasn’t afraid to attack what he saw as the growing commercialisation of the rap industry, and had the verbal prowess to back up his righteous anger. Lyrically, he can be as complex as anyone in the business, but when he decides to be direct, he cuts to the bone: just listen to ‘The Bulls__t’, where he lays waste to the credibility of showbiz rappers who talk street while being anything but.
Jeru was always one of rap’s more philosophical characters, and the brief title track lays his credo bare: know what you are about, and you will not be shaken when a crisis hits. ‘Physical Stamina’ takes it out of the mental arena and brings readiness to the body: Jeru is a lyrical shaolin, ready to respond before you’ve reached your gun. The track also features rapper and martial-arts stalwart Afu-Ra, who appeared on Jeru’s debut set. In an era where hip-hop albums were littered with guests, it was the only song that featured verses from another talker: Jeru’s lyrical discipline was maintained alone.
As for his delivery, it was as clear as water: you couldn’t mistake a single word he said, ensuring that his message was heard, strong, masculine and calm. Listen to ‘Whatever’, an attack on MCs he perceived as “pagans” stealing his style, not knowing the meaning of what he was saying and why he said it that way. Every line comes through loud and clear. As for ‘Scientifical Madness’, it’s at times apocalyptic, casting a net so wide it covers everything from environmental damage to the de facto reckoning for the black American male, prison doors slamming shut on them. His influences are just as broad: he quotes from dancehall duo Michigan & Smiley here, mentioning a God-given medical epidemic. And for continuity, there’s a follow-up to one of the standouts from his first album, ‘Revenge Of The Prophet (Part 5)’.
It goes without saying that the unheralded star here is DJ Premier, his unfussy production delivered in a style that’s just as complex as his work for Gang Starr, if less jazzy, allowing Jeru the space to deliver those lessons. Jeru by numbers, if you like. For once, it’s a math lesson the kids wanted to hear: the album made No.3 on the hip-hop chart and Top 40 on Billboard. It would be three years before we heard from Jeru again, but he left plenty of homework in the meantime, leaving other MCs trying to calculate how he did it.