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Rich Jones’ has a new album, ‘Smoke Detector,’ and a new approach — ‘I think for myself, I think I’m really lucky.’ – Chicago Tribune

There are many beloved Chicago musicians, and then there is Rich Jones. Charismatic, prolific and unique, Jones is a hip hop artist not afraid to embrace theatrics, hilarity and heart in his music. On his latest project, “Smoke Detector,” Jones further steps into the role of mixer, adding another personal layer to his new, jazzy, cinematic and soulful creation. “Smoke Detector” is out June 15 on Filthy Broke Recordings/Alpha Pup.

Part of this transformation was due to the pandemic, a turning point for many artists. As Jones noted, in the “before times,” he was, if not content, then accepting of the creative hustle required for contemporary musicians. From the frenetic yearning to create to the rush to release music, Jones understood that kind of focus was part of the picture. But the forced slowdown of the pandemic also helped Jones discover new methods of creation with his music.

“2020 was a learning experience for a lot of people. Either people woke up and saw things differently and (they have) maintained that or people woke up, saw what it was and went back to bed. And I think there’s definitely a certain disappointing percentage of people that have just gone back to bed,” said Jones. “But I think for myself, I think I’m really lucky.”

Jones is a guerrilla marketer, a job that requires him to roam the many different corners of the city. And while many people had the privilege to stay indoors during the height of the pandemic, Jones was still traversing blocks and neighborhoods for his work. “I’m driving around to different areas, different neighborhoods. I think for me, it’s just appreciating that I could at least see new things, both good and bad. And then from there, just try to make sure that’s part of my practice,” he added.

For “Smoke Detector,” Jones linked up with producer Iceberg Theory, who sent Jones a folder filled with beats. Unlike past projects where a producer may have sent Jones a small handful of tracks to choose from, Jones said the abundance of selections from Iceberg Theory allowed him to sit with the music.

“I was just listening to the music while I was moving around in the world, without writing anything down, just kind of seeing how I felt about things and seeing where things might fit,” Jones said about the writing process for this record. “You know, different ways I could approach that, or what other voices I heard and who I might reach out to. In this instance, it’s kind of dark, because I’m seeing both good and bad things.”

Rather than utilizing a strict practice of creation, Jones used his “external” time of isolation — his journey through the quiet, the despair, the beauty, the history of Chicago while traveling for work — as the source of his inspiration. Iceberg Theory’s beats became a playlist of sorts, with the music living within him, sometimes for weeks or months, before he transformed them into song. In this instance, Jones’s luxury was time. Album opener “Chilly” was the first song written for the record and it was composed weeks after first receiving beats.

“I tried to live life with a certain joie de vivre, even in the darkest of times, because joy is important to try to maintain,” he explained. “I feel like the character that kind of comes through in the album is like a mix of like, a non-perverted Travis Bickle meets The Dude. Because that’s the thing: I’m just driving everywhere and just kind of in my own little bubble, surveying things, but then also trying to find a way to still feel hopeful and excited, even if I’m seeing some not so good things.”

At times, “Smoke Detector” sounds transported from another place and time, one that feels rooted in life before the world unraveled. Jones’s smooth, captivating flow mixed with warm, throwback beats makes for a record that will fuel nostalgia in a few generations of listeners. In the overall scope of Jones’s artistic canon, it is also one of his strongest, eeriest, yet most compelling records yet.

“I think, coming into my own and maturing as an artist, it’s all happening at once,” Jones said. “It’s been really wonderful to experience and I just feel more confident moving forward into other things as I come out of this.”

“Smoke Detector” will be released June 15;

Britt Julious is a freelance critic.

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