Although she’s usually pegged as a backpacker, Jennifer Johns can pull her own weight in the hip-hop club scene. The 28-year-old singer is up on her slang. She’s got the vocal chops of a Goapele or a Keyshia Cole. And she’s swaggeringly self-confident, having graduated from Oakland Youth Chorus to doing voice-over commercials while running a successful open mic. She’ll josh her backup, elicit a call-and-response with the audience, and rap over hair-trigger drum ‘n’ bass beats. A refugee of the cubicle world, Johns made a pact with her god several years ago to never again work a nine-to-five. So far, she’s never had to break it.
Johns migrated to Seattle in 2003 to record her first record, Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop. It looks like a self-conscious attempt to encompass all of hip-hop, but it’s actually about catharsis. “I was going through this really fucked-up break up, and I was like, bleeding on wax,” Johns says. “A lot of interviews would be like, you know, “How did you feel during this process?’ Like, I recorded that, girl, in like, ten days with bronchitis that then turned into pneumonia.”
Heavy garnered a few earnest fans but failed to draw wider attention. Johns moved to West Oakland the following year, where she shared an apartment with jazz singer Valerie Troutt and house artist Solas B. Lalgee. That’s when she started recording her sophomore album, Painting on Wax, in the Oakland Hills home of Alan Dones, an East Bay developer she’d met through a mutual friend.
The CD — which drops this month on Catz Go Round Records, with Hiero Imperium doing cross-promotion — is a brazen second effort. Culminating with the multilingual dancehall number “Ghetto International,” it’s sexier and catchier than its forerunner, and reveals Johns’ musical depth. The beginning hook of her reggae song “Let the Drum Moan” features a Malaysian hand drum called the compang.
The second track, “Move Wit It,” features a cameo from the Team’s Kaz Kyzah with Johns in the background urging him to get this party started. Her most sophisticated track is a Curtis Mayfield-ish love ballad called “Like You,” with background vocals by ex-roommate Troutt. “That song happened like magic,” Johns says. She, Solas, and Troutt were futzing around in Dones’ studio one morning and the idea just came together. “Everybody I think that has ever loved someone can relate to the idea of wanting that feeling again,” she explains. “And sometimes we get caught up in the idea of that feeling representing a person in particular.”
For the most part, Painting on Wax is Johns’ attempt to break free from the rarefied backpacker world. She tried a new gambit, swapping long-ass album titles and genre-straddling pretensions for something more accessible.
The new album also represents a more direct attempt to sell Jennifer Johns: On the back cover she poses in a spandex dress and gaudy gold necklaces, pointing a spraypaint can at her audience while making what could be a thizz face. On the title track, she raps in a slangy drawl over a chunky party beat: Painting on the wax fresh strokes with my tizz-ung/Bombing off the wall as the DJ bizzumps/World goes crazy as the Yay goes dizzumb, thizzuuuummmmb,(ha ha!)/Go get ‘um.
Johns’ sexuality seems uncontrived. She shows up at Berkeley’s Au Coquelet on a recent morning clad in a USC Trojans sweatshirt sans makeup, her big, liquid eyes looking droopier than usual. Even so, she cuts a striking figure. “I wasn’t comfortable being sexy before,” she says. “Three or four years ago I’d be out [performing] in sweats. I’m five-foot-eight-and-a-half, wear a double-D bra. I’m thiiiiick, you know what I mean? To be willing to show that much flesh, to do it right, is something that requires confidence.”
That confidence translates into two particularly salacious numbers: “Goody Goody Gum Drops” (featuring Matt Jocelyn) and “Nasty,” in which Johns trades fours with emcee Zion. It’s a rare instance in which Zion expresses sexual interest — and only Johns could have brought it out.
Onstage, her ruthless sex vibe helps her kick the ass of whatever act she’s opening for. Jean Grae at 2232 MLK? Not a problem. Les Nubians at the Shattuck Down Low? Sssth. Johns got the Down Low crowd so pumped that a tremendous girl-on-girl brawl broke out during the Nubians’ spoken-word set.
Perhaps the only time a group ever outpaced Johns was at radio DJ Sterling James’ recent bash at the Independent. It should’ve been her night, but she was wedged between two captivating performances. The opener, free-jazz group Broun Fellinis, ended with a spirited jeremiad against Yoshi’s, the Independent, mainstream radio, and by extension, Ms. James herself. The headliner, Martin Luther, never stopped playing despite a conflagration that erupted, apparently from within his bass player’s speaker cabinet. For once in her life, Jennifer Johns seemed relatively tame.