On the first track of his debut album, Dragonfly, Chicago’s Ajani Jones raps about performing in front of thousands, but he ends his verse with “Just dreaming as I’m working this long shift, can it save me, dog?”
The storytelling device immediately juxtaposes Jones’ youth, his present, and his imagined ideal future. It effectively sums up Ajani Jones’ persona: an everyman determined to blow up, no matter the sacrifice necessary.
As he told DJBooth, Jones left a full-ride scholarship to the University of Iowa behind in 2015 to move back to Chicago and focus on his music, supported by his mom all the way. Last year, Jones signed to Closed Sessions—a beloved local label that’s released records by Kweku Collins, Jamila Woods, and Femdot—for Jones’ Cocoons and ONE PUNCH projects.
True to the metaphor implicit in its title, Dragonfly shows Jones emerging with greater control of his talents.
The album’s sound is grounded in neo-soul, both by way of turn-of-the-millennium acts like Lauryn Hill and Musiq Soulchild, as well as Chicago contemporaries like Collins and Mick Jenkins. There are nimble guitar parts all over this project, a clear sign of studio time paying off. Other than some familiar drum sounds, Dragonfly avoids the in-the-red minimalism of Atlanta and Florida, which has taken over the hip-hop mainstream.
Instead, Jones takes a kitchen sink approach to his production that hearkens back to the beginning of the decade, when bubbling rappers were trying new genres rather than pop artists learning from rappers.
The synths on “Dragons” wobble with menacing glee, like a pitched-up bass drop from an early Skrillex track. The aforementioned “Jani’s Intro” strives for the bombast and melodrama of Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye with dynamic production and Broadway-caliber yearning from Jack Red on the hook. “Black Power Ranger” opens with a subtle dance groove before lurching into half-tempo for the second verse.
Jones flows capably over each beat. He works the phrase “apostolic lullabies” into a verse without it feeling forced. There’s an inherent melodicism in his delivery (even when he sounds half-asleep flirting on “Sea”), and it helps to blend his disparate memories into cohesion through the course of the album.
On “Lucid,” his mom calls in the middle of a five-in-the-morning recording session after seeing his bank balance, wondering how he’s going to make it through the month. After mourning the loss of his uncle Ty, dead at age 23, Jones recounts watching a drive-by shooting at 12 years old on “Quicksilver.” The killing leaves the neighborhood “tryna cope with the pain of the shots not theirs like Maury.”
It’s not all bad memories, though: “Dutchmasters” is the story of a relationship told through smoke sessions and evolving wrap preferences, complete with one of the project’s many catchy hooks.
With its warm sound and variety of flows, Dragonfly is perfect for the dog days of summer, especially a humid day along the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s a compelling debut statement from an artist with loads of potential.
For all the album’s variety, I know who Ajani Jones is, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what the Ajani Jones sound is. Not yet, at least. This project sometimes feels unfocused as it shows off Jones’ range; a more cohesive sound might allow his story to shine even brighter.
On Dragonfly, Ajani Jones takes flight; don’t miss where he lands next.
Standout Track: “Black Power Ranger”
Best Bar: “Kamikaze man we waiting for timing / This is The Shining, here’s Jani / Man on fire think I’m Ricky Bobby”
Favorite Moment: Ajani singing and the guitar playing the melody of “Come Alive” in unison