Il Bello d'Esser Brutti

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Galvanized thanks to the creation of Newtopia, his record company formed with kindred spirit Fedez, and banking on an unexpected surge in popularity due to his even more unexpected role as a jury member on the talent contest The Voice: Italy in 2014, J-Ax sounds absolutely delighted to be back with his first album of original material in four years, 2015's Il Bello d'Esser Brutti. The intro track is one of the CD's finest moments, as the veteran Italian rapper candidly examines the changes he has been going through over these past few years, a period of creative doubts, disappointments, and new challenges, most notably due to his breakup with producer Franco Godi and the Best Sound label, with whom he had spent his entire 20-year career. The confessional, mature tone of the intro, however, does not extend too much further. From the spoken jest that opens the second track, in which the forty-something J-Ax warns his mom not to wait up because he is going out to beat up some kid who posted a negative comment on YouTube about him, Il Bello d'Esser Brutti becomes as raucous as any other J-Ax album, or perhaps all of them mixed together. Clocking in at 20 tracks and 75 minutes, it is both the longest and the most wide-ranging of his records, showcasing every kind of song and style J-Ax has been dabbling in for the past two decades, which translates into an engaging amalgamation of rap with punk, hardcore, pop, reggae, dance, and even country. Lyrics-wise the album is equally diverse, gleefully switching at will between fine irony and gross-out comedy, intelligent insights and juvenile zingers, dealing with a variety of social and autobiographical subjects. Amidst collaborations with Max Pezzali, Fedez, Neffa, Club Dogo, Weedo, and Il Cile, as well as with two of his The Voice protegés, Emiliano Valverde and Valerio Jovine, Il Bello d'Esser Brutti includes direct references to old hits ("Ribelle e Basta" and "Maria Salvador" are rewrites of "Domani Smetto" and "Ohi Maria") and to his improbable TV celebrity status ("Sono di Moda"), an excellent reggae-flavored single with special guest Nina Zilli ("Uno di Quei Giorni"), and even a nod to beloved Italian singer/songwriter Enzo Janacci ("The Pub Song"), not to mention a warning about the dangers of watching Italian political talk shows under the influence of hallucinogens ("Santoro e Peyote"), the kind of track you would never find on a U.S. rap album and that still makes the Italian variety occasionally so refreshing.

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