For fans of brainy, gimmick-free hip-hop, J-Live has been the go-to guy since his dazzling rhyming-while-cutting performance on "Bragging Writes," which garnered Unsigned Hype accolades in 1996. One drawback that has hampered his career (aside from label complications) is the complaint that his albums' beatwork often lags far behind the man's consistently above-bar lyricism (see 2005's The Hear After). On his fourth official studio LP, the New York MC seems to have once again found the winning balance that made his long-shelved debut, The Best Part, a near-flawless classic of late-'90s backpack rap. The production here never veers too far from '90s-inspired East Coast boom-bap but, thankfully, the stable of producers who lend a hand to Then What Happened? (including established vets DJ Jazzy Jeff and DJ Evil Dee, underground favorites Nicolay, DJ Nu-Mark, and DJ Spinna, and up-and-coming beatsmiths Probe DMS and Floyd the Locsmif) contribute inspired beats that perfectly match the record's engaging lyrics. As usual, J-Live builds his rhymes on subject matter that he knows without resorting to the hard-headed gangsta posturing or hyperbolic braggadocio that most rappers resort to when in doubt. The 2008 J-Live finds himself "a one-man Odd Couple, as he puts it, "strangely estranged from my wife, kids, and cat"; older, disillusioned, but not disheartened, this thinking man's rapper has taken his share of life's lumps. Hence the album cover: a filmstrip of stills portraying J face down on the floor, which he explains on the question-and-answer confessional album opener, "One to 31": "Visually, that was me knocked out/Musically, this is me getting up off of the ground." Elsewhere, he takes inventory of his life on the introspective "The Last Third," muses on hip-hop's potential for rejuvenation on the upbeat "It Don't Stop," and looks at the circumstances that led him from a house party ("Ole") to a one-night stand ("Ooweee"). Throughout his fourth LP, the ever resourceful J-Live relies on his linguistic skills and a discerning lyrical eye to turn trash to treasure -- resulting in one of the most engrossing indie rap LPs of 2008.