It seems like a lifetime ago that DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince warned us that “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble.” Some 20 years later, the Prince has been crowned Hollywood royalty, while Jeff continues to solidify his icon status as a versatile producer. The Philadelphia jock made his solo debut in 2002 with The Magnificent, whose languorous beats were sometimes too smoothed-out for their own good. But on his second LP, The Return of the Magnificent, Jeff reaffirms his affinity for subtle arrangements, sampled break beats and deft scratches.
This time out, Jeff enlists a group of better-known friends and ramps up the production. On “Jeff N Fess,” Jazzy resuscitates Gang Starr’s “Manifest” beat with layers of congas, while Rhymefest crams in witty wordplay (“Even though my neck ain’t icy/The jewels in my head is pricey/The Jews at my label, they like me”). He also updates the classic Substitution break to create “Supa Jean,” a lesson in irresistible feminine swagger by Jean Grae. Jeff proves equally adept at constructing moody hip-hop grooves. Take “The Garden,” which features a solemn Big Daddy Kane reflecting on rap’s fallen heroes, from Jam Master Jay to Big Pun.
At times, though, the nostalgia feels overwrought with unnecessary remakes like “Go See the Doctor 2K7,” with Twone Gabz, and “Brand New Funk 2K7,” featuring Peedi Peedi. There are also collaborations that look good on paper but don’t live up to their potential—for instance, Method Man’s undistinguished rhymes on the scratch-heavy “Hold It Down” and Raheem Devaughn’s awkwardly phrased chorus on “My Soul Ain’t for Sale.”
Thankfully, those are just minor distractions on an otherwise solid effort. With artists like J-Live (“Practice”) and De La Soul’s Posdnuos (“Let Me Hear U Clap”) stepping up and delivering standout performances, The Return cements Jazzy Jeff as more than just Will Smith’s bespectacled sidekick—he’s a prince among beatsmiths. —BRETT JOHNSON