The Renaissance of Holy Hip Hop

Currently listening to: “It Is Not Death To Die” by Sovereign Grace Music
Total disconnect from the content of the post you’re about to read, but SGM makes some amazing worship music (better yet, they write thick, deeply theological lyrics for that music). Definitely a go-to group of musicians in the Bolton residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m white. I’m middle class. Suburban. Only gun I’ve ever shot was my dad’s hunting rifle at target practice out in the woods at grandma’s. I draw graffiti on paper, not illegally on walls. I’m anything but “rough rugged”. Certainly not a “Playa” of any significant Game. I have soft spots in my heart for indie rock and uptempo metal (not that I should call any metal “uptempo”, doing that’s not very metal of me). Oh, and for folk, electronic, and (recently) jazz.

Apparently, that makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. And I do. Boy do I love me some deep bass, a sharp snare, and clever instrumentation all slathered together into tasty beats. I have no affection for a lot of the ‘culture’ that usually gets packaged with it (after all, hip hop is not on the radio) – the bling and sexploitation and violence and whatnot. But I have a great deal of affection for the sounds of hip hop.

Let’s make matters worse: I’m an English and Philosophy major with a background in Biblical Studies. I LOVE words. My brain plays with words. Sentences are like playgrounds to me – places to frolic and laugh exuberantly and enjoy life. I’ve always been enamored with communication and the means by which we accomplish it. Most of all, I’m dumbfounded by how God has chosen to communicate Himself to me (and the rest of you humans) through words – recorded in text, preserved through aeons of history, study-able, deep deep depths of words. As I’ve been reminded much lately – God wrote a book. It is written – “it” being the communication of God to man, the holy Scriptures. Inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, complete… profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, exhortation… all of it communication from God, put in human words for humans to read, know, and understand. We serve a God who communicated his Word with perfection – we should strive for excellence in our communication. It should be our goal to grow in clarity, conciseness, robustness, ‘copiousness’ (depth and breadth), and total self-control.

A love for words makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. See, rap is the music of words in a way unparalleled by other forms. Hip hop is the modern theater for poetry – it really is. I don’t read modern poets, I listen to them “spit rhymes” (read: recite) over beats. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy such (otherwise neglected) vocal magicks as cadence, flow, rhythm, meter – all the hallmarks of performed poetry. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy sonnets and rhyme schemes and rhyme forms of all kinds – polysyllabic, internal, complex, couplets – the list goes on. In terms of structure alone, rap is responsible for so much remarkable innovation in poetry. Besting that, hip hop provides the ideal theatre to showcase thoughts and treatises on subjects far more detailed and technical than most other forms of music. Long words aren’t frowned upon, but indeed are often celebrated (this is significant when we consider the potential for proper theological, philosophical, scientific, or linguistic use).

I love hip hop. Particularly, I am drawn to hip hop that honours and glorifies Christ Jesus the King of Kings. I was first introduced to what is sometimes called “Holy Hip Hop” back in the late 90’s when my bimonthly copy of now-defunct music mag 7ball arrived in the mail, sporting its usual compilation CD filled with usually unheard-of artists. Although the mag focused primarily on rock and alternative music, it sometimes ventured into the then-risque territory of hip hop. This particular issue featured a song on the pack-in compilation called “Cypha The Next Day” by The Cross Movement. I was hooked – great old-school beat, clever and talented emcees busting out wonderful God-honouring rhymes, and to top it off, theological depth. This wasn’t some campfire “sing-songs to Jesus” deal, this was a bunch of Pastor-Rappers roughing me up with biblical insight and not only dropping poetry, but sermonettes, expositions, and commentaries on biblical passages in their verses. Average people like me started calling it “holy hip-hop” (hereafter “HHH”) and the name stuck.

Here’s something that excites me greatly – there’s been a real renaissance of HHH over the course of the last decade. What began with artists like P.I.D., SFC, and Dynamic Twins in the 80’s and continued in the 90s with artists like The Cross Movement, Urban D, and Corey Red & Precise… has experienced a renewed fervency and urgency in the last five years in particular. Artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, 116 Clique, Shai Linne, Sho Baraka, Flame, and Tedashii (not to mention solo efforts by Cross Movement members Ambassador, Phanatik, and Tonic) are quite literally tearing things up. The beats are amazing, the rhymes are full of bounty, and the biblio-theological depth, missional focus, and Christocentric emphasis is both refreshing and disarmingly confrontative.

So, this post (which has been on the backburner for two months) is just a simple expression of my thankfulness for how God is using men (and women) that he has greatly gifted in wordplay and music to glorify Himself through hip hop; to glorify Himself through the proclamation of his word and his Gospel through skillfully crafted poetry put to the kick and the snare.

Thank you, Lord:

  • for the gift of living at such a time as this
  • for the gift of ears to hear the kick, the snare, and the wordsmithery
  • for the gift of a mind to follow and comprehend what’s being said
  • for the gift of faith to believe in the biblical truths being expressed through your servants
  • for the gift of hip hop music, the gift of rap

James 1:16-17 ESV
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

I’ll close with a personal favourite. There’s this one guy named Shai Linne, and you won’t have to watch for long to see that God has given him a remarkable gift for compacting complex biblical truth into memorable, remarkable, mind-blowing rhyme schemes.

Check it.

Shai Linne with The Greatest Story Ever Told (live) from Grace EV Free on Vimeo.

…i stole my confessions from a kleptomaniac



Title: Confessions
Artist: Pillar
Label: Sony BMG Home Entertainment & Essential Records
Length: 11 Tracks / 37:59
For More Info: http://www.pillartour.com | http://providentpress.com/

It’s just been a year since Pillar’s last release, 2008’s For The Love Of The Game. Not much has changed in a year – Pillar is still cranking out generic, derivative rock music. Pillar, as always, remains a competent band with decent money behind them and a reasonably-sized primarily-Christian fanbase.

That’s about all the good I can say here. I get the impression they’ve been really trying hard to do something interesting and different since rapcore died, but this album is a train wreck… and the Confessions should be about how many “hard” rock, grunge, and rock-and-roll bands they ripped off trying to make things sound different. Apparently, they were going for a reinvention of their approach to “songwriting and studio production as well as half [their] line-up”. This means, among other things Confessions sports “guest songwriters” (five of them – all from outside the band), a producer other than Travis Wyrick (a first), and most distinctly a grip of songs that is anything other than the “rich, melodic, transparent, and hard-hitting … with weighty appeal” claimed in the press release.

Confessions starts out with an “Intro” that’s basically 10 seconds of ramping-up guitars that segue into the lead track “Fire On The Inside”. I’ll warn you straight up, this is one of two songs on the album that actually sound like a Pillar track (the other being the last track on the album “You Are Not The End”). There’s very little rock happening on Confessions – perhaps the album’s title is meant to be a sign… that says in big, capital letters:

WARNING! PILLAR THOUGHT IT WOULD BE REALLY COOL TO MAKE A ‘SOFTER, GENTLER’ ALBUM. PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND EARPLUGS. AND CYNICISM.

The next couple cuts on the record display this perfectly, as well as hinting at a lot of what’s to come on the record: plagiarism.

Earlier I mentioned that Pillar ripped off other bands to make Confessions. What exactly did I mean by that? Well, when you reach track five and it starts up, you’ll be expecting to hear these words:

“Everything’s so blurry, and everyone’s so fake.
Everybody’s empty, and everything is so messed up.”

Why? Because the verses of “Better Off Now” snatch their chord progression, vocal pattern, harmonic picking, and general aesthetics from Puddle Of Mudd’s hit song “Blurry”. That song is almost 10 years old now. Maybe they thought nobody would notice. The only real change from the song they stole is that Pillar wrote a non-grunge chorus for the otherwise lifted music. Which could have been a good thing, except they replace it with their brand of soft rock radio-friendly jello. Not exactly a positive spin.

It’s one thing to borrow a page from great musicians, but Puddle of Mudd was basically a Nirvana cover band in disguise that ended up being essentially a one-hit wonder. Hearing this kind of drivel makes me wish Pillar had just called it quits after Above. Or before that, preferably.

If that weren’t enough, I used to think that Rob Beckley (Pillar’s vocalist) at least had a distinguishable voice – particularly after he gave up the rapping he was never any good at. Confessions does away with that concession, since it finds Beckley pulling a page from the vocal tones and styles of Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida on various tracks – most distinctly on “Will You Be There”. He also borrows heavily from Thousand Foot Krutch’s Trevor McNevan on “Call To Action” and elsewhere.

The fact that Pillar chose this album to be their first LP with cover songs on it shouldn’t come as any surprise at this point. Late in the album, Pillar turns in an entirely unremarkable cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” and a cover of a song that hasn’t even been released yet – “Call To Action” by Knoxville band Copper. In both cases, the reproductions are faithful but add absolutely nothing to the songs. In fact, Pillar’s covers are far less interesting, far less detailed, and far less listenable than the originals.

Cover songs aside, the original songs on Confessions are a confused bunch. Pillar’s intent to pull off some kind of softer, gentler side comes off as forced and uninteresting. Every once and awhile they try to bust out some kind of ‘hardcore breakdown’, but it falls flat and empty because it never fits nor does it actually sound heavy when its in the context of an otherwise ‘trying really hard to be both rich AND melodic’ song (see: “Whatever It Takes”).

Lyrically, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t already expect from Pillar – who have never been home to particularly deep, introspective, or… well… confessional lyrics. Their misguided attempt to go against the grain of what they’ve done prior to this comes off as awkward, forced, and derivative as the music and the vocals do.

It’s telling that Pillar made it their goal to make “every song on this album … a great fit for radio”, because – bottom line – if you’ve listened to rock music on the radio during the last two decades, you have heard this album already. I can respect wanting to change and evolve, but in attempting to do so, Pillar has put together a selection of 10 songs that neither cohere nor rock, and the utter lack of originality or innovation conjures up but one utterly horrific comparison: Nickleback.

So, essentially, what you’ll get with Confessions is a couple bad covers, a handful of flagrant unoriginality, and an earfull of sounds you’ve already heard elsewhere. If you’re a Pillar fan, stick to their old stuff. If you’re not a Pillar fan, stay away from this one just like you’d stay away from Frankenstein’s ravenous monster.

Zero Klepto’s out of Five.

Standout Tracks: None of them. Sorry.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 28th, 2009

…man, machine, and progressive christian death metal worship


Title: Dichotomy
Artist: Becoming The Archetype
Label: Solid State
Length: 10 Tracks / 43:22
For More Info: http://www.becomingthearchetype.com | http://www.solidstaterecords.com

If you’re as old as me, you remember third wave ska. In Christian circles, that meant Five Iron Frenzy, The OC Supertones, and The Insyderz – the band that turned out some (admittedly decent) ska worship records, appropriately entitled Skaleluia!. On one of those records, at the beginning of a decidedly non-metal song, one of the band members introduces the track by saying “Christian Metal never dies, baby!”. I remember when that record came out, and I remember my friends repeating that quote ad-nauseum (of course, when I was a teenager, it was cool to “be metal” – whether you actually were or not). Either way, I appreciated the sentiments – Christian metal really never does die. Thus, although the source is suspect, the addage rings true.

Becoming the Archetype (hereafter BtA) burst onto the metal scene in 2005’s Terminate Damnation. At the time, the record was quite a departure for label home Solid State, who hadn’t had an honest-to-goodness metal band on their roster since the legendary Living Sacrifice folded a year or two prior. Full of great riffs, solos, and varied and complex orchestration, Terminate Damnation was a bright spot the year of its release. The band followed up with The Physics of Fire in 2007 and it was largely more of the same – lots of metal riffage, lots of great solos, a great mix of pacing, and more of the interesting orchestral accompaniment. Throughout both records, BtA explored traditional metal, progressive metal, death metal, doom, metalcore and other various styles within that spectrum.

This past year, 2008, brought BtA’s third and most recent outing – a collection of ten songs by the name of Dichotomy. Borrowing some of its lyrical themes from the science fiction “Space Trilogy” of C.S. Lewis, the titular ‘dichotomy’ lies between biology and technology – man and machine. Fairly typical sci-fi fare, but rather atypical for metal fare. Of course, seeing as this isn’t a concept record, and seeing as this is Becoming the Archetype, there is also a good smattering of biblically inspired lyrics to round out the content. Demon Hunter’s Ryan Clark comes through with some great guest vocals (clean and scream) on a handfull of tracks. Topics covered range from considering the superiority of the things God has created relative to the things man has made (“Artificial Immortality”) to a retelling of one of the Bible’s most damning passages (Romans 1 – on “Dichotomy”) to an imaginative and powerful account of seeing Christ’s empty tomb (“Self Existent”). The best song on the record, though, undoubtedly goes to the one track that BtA didn’t write – namely, their dominating and intense take on the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art”.

Becoming the Archetype follows in the lyrical footsteps of some of the great “Spirit-Filled Hardcore” of the 90’s – bands like Focused and Unashamed… and rides the musical wave that started with Living Sacrifice’s legendary album Reborn. In 2008, the result is bone-crunching progressive death metal (real metal, not a hybrid) with unabashed Christian lyrics whose primary source is Scripture, whose primary tone is worship, and whose voice is unapologetic, direct, and bold. Highly recommended, high-quality metal. The music is great, the vocals are great, the production is great, and the solos (yes, the solos) are great. This is this band’s best album to date. All of that being said, the thing which most impressed itself upon this reviewer is that Becoming the Archetype has finally arrived at a place where they write really catchy songs – the kind that get stuck in your head. The technical proficiency and musicianship has always been there, but this time around BtA really nailed their sound, their content, and their focus. Dichotomy is amazing. Christian metal never dies, baby.

Curious about the name? The band’s website says this: “According to Genesis 1:26, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image'”. Since Jesus was the only person to ever live a sinless life, He is the ultimate archetype (or original design) of humanity. As a result, the life of a [Christian] is all about being conformed to the image of God or in other words; becoming the archetype.”

I wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who loves metal and is becoming like our archetype, Jesus.

Four Classic Hymns out of Five.

Standout Tracks: How Great Thou Art, End of the Age, Ransom, Self Existent.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 22nd, 2009

…sailing shallow


Title: In Shallow Seas We Sail
Artist: Emery
Label: Tooth & Nail
Length: 13 Tracks / 41:10
For More Info: http://www.emerymusic.com | http://www.toothandnail.com

I’m going to come right out with it: this is Emery’s finest album, and it all started in 2004.

The year 2004 was the year most people were introduced to a fledgeling genre we now remember as “Screamo”. Screamo blends the screamed vocals and technical guitars of post-hardcore with the pop sensibilities and pretty singing of mid-nineties Emo. It quickly fell out of fashion because of a litany of talentless copycats and extreme overcommercialization, much like Rapcore did in the late 90’s.

Emery’s 2004 debut, The Weak’s End, garnered quite reserved reactions. At first glance, they seemed to be another Screamo band sporting dual vocalists. I think this rubbed a lot of critics and listeners the wrong way because it seemed like a cash-in on the popularity of other acts of the time – after all, 2004 was the year of Underoath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, as well as Dead Poetic’s New Medicines, and ultimately it was the year Linkin Park’s Meteora solid a gajillion copies.

The Weak’s End was a decent debut – nothing spectacular, but since Screamo was the flavor of the year it sold quite well. The melodies were pretty good, the screamed vocals were satisfying, and the heart-on-sleeve, honest lyrics resonated with many. The record was ultimately driven forward on the strength of its most visible track. That track is “The Ponytail Parades”, and it represented Emery at their best – soaring harmonies and impassioned, agonizing screams told the story of a broken heart in a way that continues to resonate with fans to this day. Emery has since released the song in both acoustic and live versions on subsequent albums.

Just as violently as the Screamo tides came in, so they left not too shortly after. Pioneers in the genre such as Underoath quickly abandoned it, largely citing what it had come to represent – a stale, pigeonholed genre that held little long-term interest.

Emery was right alongside such bands in leaving Screamo behind, and they did it quite quickly. Their sophomore 2005 effort The Question focused much more on sonics, melody, and songwriting… and left behind almost all of the screaming. Their third release, 2007’s I’m Only A Man entered more experimental territory, adding in electronics and dancehall beats (among other things).

Then came 2008’s While Broken Hearts Prevail EP… which, if you heard it, you heard a significant shift in their sound back toward where they began.

What makes In Shallow Seas We Sail the finest record that this band has put out is the very thing that they’ve been largely avoiding for all these years since The Weak’s End – that being the proverbial “Heavy”. This is a record that starts with a rather delicious, throaty yell. The opening 30 seconds of “Cutthroat Collapse” set the stage well – covering more than a few screaming styles, and hailing in the return of a more confident, more mature Emery.

One of the things that’s allowed Emery to survive and thrive in the years since 2004 is that they have had at their disposal two extremely talented vocalists – both of whom are excellent singers and screamers. This has allowed them a great deal of flexibility and freedom both to experiment and to push themselves in ways inaccessable to most. Throughout In Shallow Seas We Sail, Both vocalists are at the peak of their craft, trading harmonies and conjuring some impressive back-and-forth intertwining lyrics and styles all throughout. In addition, the band’s rediscovery of heavy musical intensity rises up to match their ever-present lyrical boldness and heightened emotional appeals. The combination of these factors, which is ultimately a culmination of the lessons and progress recorded on all of their previous albums, results in an extremely impressive, challenging, and enjoyable collection of songs.

I believe that they have finally laid to rest “The Ponytail Parades” as their magnum opus. From its subject matter to its hooks to urgent crescendo, “Inside Our Skin”, is proof positive that Emery is presently in the best place they have ever been. When the song’s climax hits, and you hear the appeal “WISDOM LIGHT MY WAY INTO THE DARK / WE CAN’T MAKE A CHANGE ‘TIL WE KNOW WHO WE ARE”, these conclusions are utterly inescapable. A close runner-up is also on this record – the incredible “Dear Death”, which is split into two parts, the first quiet and sombre, the second pulsating, energetic, and impassioned.

If there’s one downside to this outing, it’s that Emery’s lyrics often don’t stray from the mold they set five years ago. Much of the album’s textual content is spent on relationships, and without much in the way of insight… instead focusing largely on venting emotions and feelings that most (myself included) would associate with high-school drama. Frankly, Emery’s most impacful songs are the ones where they deviate from that path – and although this record has a decent number, it would have been nice to see a wholesale shift in emphasis.

Ultimately, Emery builds on years of experience and their handful of previous releases and delivers to us their finest work to date. If it is truly In Shallow Seas We Sail, the seas are calm, the water is perfect, and the music is just right.

Four and a Half Sailboats out of Five.

Standout Tracks: Inside Our Skin; The Smile, The Face; In Shallow Seas We Sail; Churches And Serial Killers; Dear Death (Parts 1 & 2).

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 10th, 2009

…from nine to nineteen


Title: Cloud Nineteen
Artist: Braille & Symbolyc One
Label: Hiphop is Music
Length: 16 Tracks / 55:35
For More Info: http://www.braillehiphop.com | http://www.hiphopismusic.com

Fresh off his fourth LP, 2008’s The IV Edition, Braille has teamed up with S1 aka Symbolyc One to deliver this new project entitled Cloud Nineteen. The most immediate benefit of teaming up with a single producer like this is that it results in a cohesion and togetherness of the record’s sound that was lacking on The IV as well as 2006’s Box of Rhymes.

In the role of beatmaker and production heavyweight, S1 brings his A game. Cloud Nineteen boasts some of the best and most enjoyable beats on any of Braille’s releases, at times rivalling 2004’s Shades of Grey, widely considered to be Braille’s finest album. Actually, it’s fair to say that every release since Shades has been held up against it – and in this regard I don’t feel that Nineteen takes the title as “best Braille”. With that said, Cloud Nineteen maintains the high levels set by Braille’s other post-Shades releases – no small feat. In short, the music here is fresh and enjoyable – with songs like “Megaphone Phonics” and “That’s My Word” standing out as highlights.

What is there to say about Braille’s rhymes that hasn’t already been said before? As always, he brings honesty, true-to-life experience, and an increasing breadth of wisdom to every track. For quite some time, Braille’s vision for Cloud Nineteen has been to give away freely to folks in schools, correctional facilities, and community centers. This vision seems to have informed the content and the topics of the record, which revolve around the idea that if ‘Cloud Nine’ is the best this world has to offer, then Christ offers us something much greater… Cloud Nineteen, so to speak. Throughout the album’s 14 non-interlude tracks, Braille shares from his life and learnings to encourage and challenge his listeners. A great example of this is “Found Her”, which shares his own fledgeling mistakes with women and eventual success in meeting and marrying his wife. It’s also a great follow-up to the only track on The IV Editon produced by S1, “Blessed Man”. Another highlight for me personally was one of the albums most polarizing tracks, the atmospherically dark and brooding “Heart of God”, wherein Braille asks:

How many times have I failed to represent the heart of God with my filthy rag righteousness
It’s painful to admit my lack of discipline when I commit sins, it’s shameful, I can’t live like this

…and later…

How can I dumb down the heart of God?
He sent his Son to come down and die for me.
I was in dire need.

…and finally…

All I really want is the heart of God
But I don’t live my life like I really mean the words that I say,
I want the heart of God to speak through my lyrics,
Why should you listen to me, when I don’t listen to the Holy Spirit?

To me, this track was the album’s highest highlight – brutal honesty from Braille about his own weakness and inability to do anything truly valuable apart from what God does through transforming his heart to be more like Christ.

Between S1’s consistent and engaging production and Braille’s consistent and precise vision for Cloud Nineteen, this is one of 2009’s best hip-hop records and will retain that status despite being released early in the year. Once again, I find myself impressed by and thankful for Braille and his desire to be a voice for hope and our need for the redemption and heart-level transformation that can only come through Christ. His vision to share this record freely with kids in group homes and cons in prison is to be applauded, and much more than that, it’s something to support. Here we have a guy who, rather than trying to cash in on his abilities, feels called to share his life, his talent, and his Saviour with the broken and outcast. That’s something worth getting behind. Getting behind it requires that you pick up a copy of this great album to enjoy, and that goes way beyond ‘cloud 9’ status and on to Cloud Nineteen. I’ll see you there.

Four clouds out of five.

Standout Tracks: It’s Nineteen, Broken Heart, That’s My Word, Heart of God, Megaphone Phonics, Hardrock.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 13th, 2009

…glitching to fix something


Title: Future Stars And Small Wonders
Artist: Bizzart
Label: Joyful Noise Recordings
Length: 12 Tracks / 32:33

What do you get when you combine bizzare with art? Bizzart, apparently. Future Stars And Small Wonders, the most recent release from Bizzart, is certainly bizzare – whether or not it’s “art” is ultimately up to each listener.

The record comes in a basic package with no indication of who the artist is, or of what the album is called. The liner notes are printed on a single square page, coded in HTML. The distorted, out-of-focus cover image kindly gives a hint at what the sound contents will resemble.

If you load up Future Stars And Small Wonders, Here’s what you’re going to hear: shout-rap vocals that generally favour oblique lyrical abstraction, weird juxtapositions of sound, erratic/glitchy electronics, schizophrenic loops, acoustic guitar/piano, and vocal samples that seem to bear no connection to the songs in which they are placed. Certainly, there’s a lot of effort that’s gone into this, even just to achieve the amount of layering and mashing of sounds (sometimes complimentary, sometimes intentionally dischordant). Song structures are anything but standardized – constantly doubling back on you and breaking conventions that have been set up in the first two minutes of a song only to frusterate or intrigue the listener. The same can be said of the album, which will follow a spazzy electronic indie rap song (“Android Hearts”) with a quiet piano number (“Changing Stars”) – though both of the songs named fit those descriptions in only the most basic sense. The only thing that comes to mind as a basis for comparison is Soul Junk (particularly at Glenn Galaxy’s more rappish and/or contemplative moments).

With all of these things in mind, this is a complicated record to listen to, and that’s probably an intentional move. The most important things to note about Future Stars And Small Wonders, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of substance here to take hold of, much less to reward a listener’s time and effort.

The promotional material for the record calls it “sound-collage hip-hop meets belligerent poetry for robots in love”, I’m more inclined to call it “difficult to enjoy”.

Check out Bizzart if you’re into Soul Junk and other crazy schizophrenic “sound-collage” music, as this will likely be a profitable listen. Otherwise, you’re better off elsewhere.

Two future stars out of five.

Standout Tracks: Android Heart, Future Girls, Wood Is Whyte.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 11th, 2009

…a story about falling in love


Title: it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright
Artist: mewithoutYou
Label: Tooth & Nail Records
Length: 11 Tracks / 44:55

MewithoutYou has always numbered among those bands whose sound is an “acquired taste”. From the start, there has never been a shred of pop-informed accessibility to their work.

Remember back in 2002 when [A->B] Life came out? Remember the first time you heard vocalist Aaron Weiss’ bizarre mix of talking and shouting? Remember being sucked in by the energy of it all – the broken heart of the protagonist, the churn and ferocity of the music to match?

Remember 2004, when Catch For Us The Foxes came out? Remember the intricate bass lines and the swirling crescendos of the guitars? Remember hearing Aaron talk quietly and, in his fumbling but endearing way, sing?

Remember how well all the new instrumentation introduced on 2006’s Brother, Sister seemed to fit? Remember how it added a lot to the depth and variety of their sound?

Remember falling in love with mewithoutYou?

If you’re like me, there are two key things that made it happen.

First, excellent musicianship. I know I’m not the only one who wept on the inside when Dan Pishock left after Catch For Us The Foxes – taking his ridiculously complicated and beautiful bass work with him. I know I’m not the only one who can’t help but dance or at least make spastic body movements when the opening peals of “January 1979” rise up, carrying with them a wash of joy.

Second, Aaron Weiss. Don’t his lyrics have a way of shining light on such difficult things? Don’t his words get stuck in your head such that you find yourself using them as profound poetic injections in the middle of conversations about God, theology, and life in general? Doesn’t his delivery make you grin?

MewithoutYou’s strengths have always been the music and the man in front – and they have been such great strengths that those who enjoy them might even consider them to be superpowers. Such is the draw that mewithoutYou has upon their fanbase – faithful, passionate, and intensely proud of the intimate and meaningful work that ‘their’ band has given them.

I’m one of them. I first heard the band shortly after the release of their debut, and was happily carried along through second and third releases. Each one has been unique, yet all bear threads of similarity – music and man. I was sucked in first by the lyrics. Long before I grew to love and enjoy Aaron’s unique and, for most people, unlistenable delivery… it was his words that caught me. Consistently insightful, consistently grappling with the difficult yet most important things of life – meaning, existence, God, pain, relationships, and most of all the complicated realities of following Jesus in our present world. The grooves and pulses of the music didn’t hurt, either.

As you know, mewithoutYou has a new album and it comes out very soon. It is called it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, and for many, just like me, the album’s title will summarize their first response upon hearing it. After some thought, I have a feeling that this kind of initial response actually provides a good framework for understanding this new album, as well as the many differences (and occasional similarities) it has with everything the band has done before.

So, without further ado:

It’s All Crazy!
When you start up this new album, and the opening carnival-organ notes of “every thought a Thought of You” hit your ears, it should be apparent very quickly that musically, this isn’t the mewithoutYou you’ve become accustomed to. What’s incredible is that this first track is about the closest to their “old sound” that you’ll find here. A couple of lines in, the band’s trademark guitars make their entrance (and, in many ways, take their leave – more on that in a second).

Behind the producer’s desk is none other than Dan Smith, who you might be familiar with from his work with Sufjan Stevens as well as heading up Danielson and all of its variants (Tri-Danielson, Danielson Family, Danielson Famile, etc). His fingerprints are all over the sound that mewithoutYou has adopted here – high falsetto background vocals make numerous appearances, not to mention generous and sprawling instrumentation from such varied sources as tubas, violins, xylophones, squeaky hinges, trumpets, pianos, banjos, and ultimately an entire orchestra. The trademark guitars still bring the heavy from time to time, but such occasions are few and far between – typically only at the climax of certain songs. If they’re present otherwise, they are mixed low and the other instruments take center stage. That said, there’s a lot more acoustic guitar (and bass) than electric, and really, that’s the craziest thing about this new album. Musically, this is really much more of a folk record than the post-hardcore or “artcore” we’re used to hearing from these guys.

Think about the coloured Spider vignettes on Brother, Sister and imagine them expanded to album-length, surrounded with lush accompaniment, and just generally tweaked in all manners of interesting, perhaps even “crazy” ways. That’s really what’s ‘crazy’ about it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright – it represents a huge shift in sound. To think that the direction taken on this new project was hinted at most clearly by the brief and incidental “arachnid interludes” of the preceding album makes it all the more perplexing.

It’s All False!
This album will probably be controversial, but you could have said that about any of their records – remember “Seven Sisters”, when Aaron said “Oh my God – I want to shoot myself just thinking about it!” and followed that up with “You think I don’t mean what I say? Well I mean every word I say!”. It’s not as though mewithoutYou have shied away from tense subject matter before – thoughts of suicide being the most easily recognizable.

The reason this album might be controversial is handily summarized by the title of the last song on the record: “Allah, Allah, Allah.” It’s the content rooted in faith and theology that will be most upsetting and divisive for both long-time fans and new listeners. Sometimes, it will be in a very good way – for instance Aaron’s proclamation on “a Stick, a Carrot and String” of Jesus as “our Lord”, come to replace the sacrificial system with his willing and obedient sacrifice on the Cross. Other times, as in the above example of “Allah…”, the knee-jerk reaction will likely be negative or at least confused. Let’s examine this.

Now, particularly in the West, we associate the word “Allah” with the specific god of Islam. Generally, the result of combining a song title such as “Allah, Allah, Allah” with our Islam-specific association is that we might conclude that mewithoutYou has converted to Islam. Listening through the song likely wouldn’t do much to assuage those fears, either. The problem lies in the association. The word “Allah” is merely the word for “God” in the language of Arabic. Aaron and his brother Michael (who plays guitar for the band) grew up with one of the most interesting religious heritages one might conceive of. They grew up with Sufi parents, their father a convert from Judaism and their mother from Episcopalianism. Sufism, for lack of a more concise description, is like mystical Islam – they believe, contrary to traditional Islamic teaching, that God is personal and personable rather than lofty and removed. For this, and other reasons, Sufism is about as close as any form of Islam gets to many of the most important distinctives of Christianity. It’s not the Truth, but it has elements of truth in it – many of which have inspired Aaron from the very beginning. None of this is a secret to fans of the band, who have likely already spent some time in the past investigating the Sufi poets and writers that Aaron derives much of his inspiration from. That said, this kind of far-from-normal background behind the lyrics creates an interesting and complicated set of juxtapositions for the listener. Begun on their sophomore effort, Aaron continues his pattern of utilizing Arabic primarily for purposes of praise (think back to “My Exit, Unfair”). With these things in mind, I would suggest that his use of “Allah” on the final track is simply that – just using another ‘name’ for God. It’s akin to calling Jesus “Yeshua” or “Haysoos” or perhaps the Arabic “Isa” – which, incidentally, Aaron has already done on Brother, Sister’s “The Dryness and the Rain”.

More than ever before, Aaron draws from his Sufi roots on this album – less from his usual source (the poet Rumi), and more from the “shiek” Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who seems to be big on writing children’s stories – some of which Aaron retells. With all of this in mind, there’s a lot on the record that might cause some to cry “False!” reactively. However, I am certain that repeated listens (and a good, thorough time checking out the lyrics) will reveal that Aaron has delved into these Sufi proverbs and stories and dug up a lot of actual truth. The numerous places where Sufism parallels Christianity seem to be a treasure trove for interesting, thought-provoking content. Resist the initial urge to call it all “False”.

It’s All a Dream!
Aaron isn’t shouting! At all! Well, he might for a brief second at the beginning of “Bullet To Binary (Pt. 2)”, but that may have more to do with paying homage to the original song than with any desire to revisit old territory.

Actually, “breaking new ground” might be the best way to describe the lyrical content of the record… “storytelling” also comes to mind. There is, after all, a truckload of stories on this record – fables and tales and parables, as it were. They range from the apparently light-hearted (“the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie”) to the biblically-inspired (“the Angel of Death came to David’s room”), to simple and elegant spiritual metaphor (“the King Beetle on a Coconut Estate”), to what can only be described as a Christmas song (“a Stick, a Carrot and String”). The cast is equally as varied, from animals and bugs, to baked goods and the ingredients needed to make them, to vegetables and plants. I’m reminded of Brother, Sister‘s “O Porcupine”, which reminded us that “all creation groans… listen to it!”. This record feels like a response to that admonition. In many ways, these stories could very well be called ‘dreams’. Each one serves to share a moral or a collection of thoughts, touching on subjects like mortality, the mystery of God, and the fleeting and ultimately empty fancies of our sexual appetites. The aforementioned ‘Christmas song’ (“a Stick, a Carrot and String”) is perhaps the best example of the approach Aaron has taken this time around. Shifting the focus from one stanza to another, the story of Christ’s birth and sacrifice are told through the animals that feature in those accounts (ie. the sacrificial lambs, the manger’s horse, the donkey Christ rode into Jerusalem, and of course the titular Snake – our Enemy). The song is powerful, despite its loose pacing and the warbles of the accordion that permeate it. Ultimately, it captures some of the incredible wonder induced by considering Jesus’ willing and obedient sacrifice on the cross. So, in that sense, this is a record full of ‘dreams and visions’ in the form of parables and fables and stories – believe me when I say that the lessons therein are helpful and worthwhile.

It’s Alright.
In the pair of months I’ve had to preview this album, I’ve gone back and forth on myself many times as to whether or not I enjoyed this new direction taken by mewithoutYou. After much reflection, primarily on what I’ve written about above, I trust you can understand that despite the “craziness”, the “falsehood”, and the “dreams”, this record is alright. MewithoutYou has taken some pretty massive steps away from their “sound” (many of them steps towards the folky, experimental sound of guys like Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, and the Psalters). Further, a new and less Aaron-centered lyrical direction and much more listener-friendly vocal style has opened the content up to a much wider audience. As much as I might want to play the snob and say it’s “not as good as old mewithoutYou”… I’m not convinced. For the first time ever, my wife could stand listening for more than 10 seconds. Call me crazy, but in my books that counts for something. MewithoutYou has chosen not to keep making Catch For Us The Foxes, and I believe they’re all the better for it.

So, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright is crazy, false, dreamy, and ultimately… it’s quite alright in spite of these massive changes. Lyrically, it’s more sedate and thoughtful. Musically, it’s restrained in tone yet expansively layered. This is a worthy addition to the mewithoutYou canon, an unconventional but very enjoyable collection of songs that will alienate many long-time fans, but will create many more new ones.

Remember falling in love with mewithoutYou? I do. It just happened to me all over again.

4.5 Cookies out of 5

For More Info: toothandnail.com | mewithoutyou.com

Standout Tracks: every thought a Thought Of You; the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie; a Stick, a Carrot and String; the King Beetle on a Coconut Estate; Allah, Allah, Allah.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 15th, 2009

…a tsar, falling from the sky


Title: Falling Tsar
Artist: Falling Tsar
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 10 Tracks / 33:45

Let’s imagine for a minute you’re tasked with throwing together a shortlist of skilled hip-hop artists for a benefit project. What names would you come up with?

A couple years back, a man by the name of Eric Place passed away. He had a dream of naming a musical endeavor “Falling Tsars”. Turns out, shortly after his passing, his 8-year old son Mason came down with bone cancer. Turns out, Eric Place had a shortlist of skilled hip-hop artist friends, and those friends saw fit to do up a project called “Falling Tsar”, all of the proceeds of which will go directly to Place’s son Mason. Talk about moving in excellent circles.

The names of Eric Place’s friends are Tunnel Rats & Deepspace5 pointman Sev Statik, and Scribbling Idiots’ JustMe, Wonder Brown, and Theory Hazit. Call them Falling Tsar.

Life is love, and love is a choice – a voice for Jesus is what we are.
Just know that we promised, in His name to be honest – not perfection, but direction.
(chorus of “What We Are”)

Think of the Falling Tsar project as Scribbling Idiots, minus Cas Metah, and plus Sev Statik. Make an exception for track 2 (“Table of Content”), which features Cas Metah (HA!). For the rap fans, that should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into here. Production is primarily handled by Theory Hazit (who does up six of the project’s ten tracks), with the rest of the production falling into the hands of other Idiots members. What seals the deal is distribution by Illect Recordings, who seem to be making a habit of putting out the freshest music of late.

On second thought, think of the Falling Tsar project as Illect Recordings does:

We feel like God has given us an opportunity to use hip-hop to really make a difference.
(illect.com/fallingtsar)

First things first, I have to give credit to Eric Plant for coming up with such a sweet name – Falling Tsar. Brings to mind images of Russian monarchs, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, etc. The project’s subject matter is heady enough to rise to the standard set by its name, as the crew moves through such issues as predatorial women (“Medusa”), deception and false love – with shoutouts to Judas and Cain (“Brotherly Love”), and the weight of representing Jesus faithfully (“What We Are”). It would be vain repetition to praise these emcees for their skill at wordplay – Sev, JustMe, Wonder, and Theory all possess the fire and grey-matter-crunching power to flood these tracks with wisdom, cleverness, and skillfull wordplay. Expect nothing less, because that’s what the project is filled with. Best example offhand? That would be “Argue Believe”, which features a complex piano loop that each emcee caters their rhyme scheme and pitch to match.

So yeah. Plan to pick up this record. Expect memorable beats, fine rhymes, punchlines to the face, the Gospel, the freshness, deep bass, crisp hi-hats, and definitely your ten bucks worth. Until you remember it’s a benefit project and all the money just went to a kid with bone cancer. Which makes it worth probably more than ten bucks.

I’ll just be frank: Buy this record. Zero cents from your purchase go to pad the pockets of deserving rap artists, because they’re passing it all on to honour the memory of their friend and give his kid a chance at life.

You know those “buy the album early and get a free (insert random swag and/or threads here)” promotions? Yeah, this one is much better – “buy the album any time and help a kid survive bone cancer”.

Picking up the Falling Tsar project gives you the right to feel like “King For A Day”, right along with track 10.

4 Iron Curtains out of 5.

For More Info:
myspace.com/fallingtsarproject | illect.com/fallingtsar

Standout Tracks: Table of Content, Medusa, What We Are, Argue Believe, King For A Day.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 13th, 2009

…idiots, scribbling rhythms and rhymes


Title: The Have Nots
Artist: Scribbling Idiots
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 15 Tracks / 55:58

Add Scribbling Idiots to your shortlist of “Supercrews Worth Listening To”, alongside such mainstays as Deepspace5 and the Tunnel Rats.

Their debut, 2008’s The Have Nots on Illect Recordings, is a well-conceived introduction to this posse. Featuring such up-and-coming emcees as JustMe, Wonder Brown, Cas Metah, Mouth Warren, and Theory Hazit as the core of the group – this bunch of “Idiots” brings heaps of talent, imagination, and passion to this record. Others involved, as members of the extended crew, include such folks as MattmaN, MotionPlus, Elias, Ruffian, Kaboose, and Re:Flex. There are also guest appearances by Griffin from the Tunnel Rats, as well as LMNO and Masta Ace.

So what does it sound like? Summarizing the sound of a hip-hop record, especially a quality one, is always a daunting task. The Have Nots features some great instrumentation, and I think the best way to assess it is to talk about some of the common “themes” in the beats. First, plenty of the songs feature really brilliant piano work – seriously. Best of all, with very few exceptions, the loops, piano or otherwise, aren’t just thrown on repeat and walked away from. There’s some great fills, breakdowns, and bridges scattered in the progression of each beat to keep it fresh. The second “theme” to the music, is the presence of soulful, impassioned sung choruses. A lot of the time, you can bank on rap records featuring choruses that number among either the boring or the annoying. Not so on The Have Nots – this stuff gets stuck in your head and you don’t feel guilty for having it there.

Speaking of annoying, the final audio “theme” of the record that must be mentioned is the Idiots’ apparent taste for “Chipmunked” vocal samples – where the sample has been sped up, resulting in the sample sounding like Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers. There’s a few of them on the record, and I’ll be honest – most of them fall flat. There’s at least one exception – the chorus of “Where I’m Going”. Taking that into consideration, I was surprised that Chipmunked vocals can ever sound remotely interesting… after we all grew up and got over Alvin & his buddies. Yet, for the most part, I can’t really “get” why they thought it was a good call. Thankfully, with only a couple of exceptions, these Chipmunked samples don’t really do much damage.

Long story short, the “music” portion of The Have Nots is stellar. Outside of the piano, singing, and Chipmunked stuff, there’s a lot of generous instrumentation slathered on the tracks, which range from some really grimy, grungy sounds to much more poppy, light fare and most places in-between. Expect to hear some good, jazzy acoustic bass (“Publicity Stunt Doubles”), effective harmonica (“Is That You?”), and what seems to be harpsichord (“Residual”), among many others.

So that’s the beats. Let’s talk about the rhymes.

Every emcee in this crew is considered “up-and-coming”. All of them have basically showed up on the scene within the latter part of this decade – at least, showed up enough for a kid from Canada to have heard them on some projects, compilations, and guest spots. Most of them have at least one solo joint out, some a couple more. None have really been around long enough to be considered highly experienced or old-school, per-se. Most likely, the vast majority of those reading this review won’t have heard of any of these guys (except perhaps some of the guests on the record, like Griffin and LMNO).

With that being said, you can’t tell that they’re fresh to the game. Every emcee displays upright skill consistently throughout The Have Nots.

One of my favourite examples is the track “Residual”, in which each verse captures what we might call a ‘moment of clarity and repentance’. I’m not sure if the stories told in the verses are personal or fictional, but they are definitely full of impact. The third verse in particular resonated with me:

My 9 to 5 residual wins with a few more than 40 hours a week
And more responsibility than the power to speak / convicting truth
To your children in the pews, living the proof / of your grace to the sinners and saints
And I give more than I take, plus I bend and I break
And attempt to lift the whole weight of the whole body
Dear Lord, I need some delegates to spot me
I’m on dropped knees,
I know I’ve dropped seeds / in the congregation
So why aren’t they responding?
Don’t they want to follow their calling?
How can they come every Sunday morning and still not desire being godly?

God, I’m crawling, on the verge of falling-
Too distraught as a pastor to be a proper father.
This job robs me of quality time with my personal harvest,
‘Cuz I’m always at the church’s office
Where my neglected wife often calls me
Wondering if I’ll be home late for dinner again
And with all the “I’m sorry, Darlings”,
I know she’s gotta be sick of it.
There’s gotta be a different predicament You can put me in.
But until then, enter in.

Revive with me with love
Your biggest gift.
Drive me with love
Your biggest gift.
(from “Residual”)

The song also features one of the most soulful and stick-in-your-head, worshipful choruses on the disc:

This life that I live every day for the weekend and the payday, maybe
I live my life in the darkness, shine bright and hope that you’re watchin’
‘Cuz I started livin’ the moment I was forgiven,
and I’m living for You in everything I do.

(chorus of “Residual”)

That’s just one example of the care and heart that the Idiots have loaded this record with. The overall tone of the record is positive, or at very least encouraging. Scribbling Idiots don’t shy away from being transparent about who they are, what they’ve been through (good and bad), or who their Boss is.

Yeah, I’m from America
But you can call it the Divided States of Mass Hysteria
And no, I’m not a pastor or a politician,
But rather a genuine Christian on a mission to follow wisdom
And no, I don’t have to ask Oprah where to call to get it
My heavenly Lord is bigger than earth-worms care to give Him credit.
Yeah, that’s the church included
Let’s forget the war and explore the holy water that’s been diluted.
And no, that’s not a metaphor,
Meant to settle scores or divide denominations
I nightly cry to God for patience
To understand this wasteland where I’ve been sanctioned
Yeah, the pacing back and forth is placing pains in my side
But until the day that I die,
I’ll fight to keep this plank out my eye
So focus is daily applied
‘Cuz the final hours are near
Yeah, that’s right
I’m taking firepower out of the choir and back to the battlefield
(from “Where I’m Going”)

From lighthearted reflection (“Start Livin'”) to paying homage to their wives (“Easily A Muse”), the lyrical content in The Have Nots is well-conceived and presented effectively. The best way to summarize my impressions of the Scribbling Idiots’ skills in rhyme is just to say that “if The Have Nots is their debut, we have the makings of a rap dynasty up in this piece”. Sound good?

Here’s the bottom line:

Choruses, soulful. Raps, meaningful. Beats, an “earful”.
Results? Wonderful.

Scribbling Idiots’ debut? Make sure it isn’t something you “Have Not”.

4 Scribbles out of 5.

For More Info:
scribblingidiots.com | http://www.illect.com

Standout Tracks: That’s Life, Where I’m Going, Is That You?, Publicity Stunt Doubles, Residual, Told You So.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 7th, 2009

…is another man’s treasure


Title: One Man’s Trash
Artist: JustMe
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 15 Tracks / 54:10

I’m the antithesis of those who want they bling
And flaunt they things, but I ain’t impressed
By ya transportation and your augmented breast.
I’m in a vest, like Safir in Iraq
Packin’ a MAC-10 while under attack.
But I ain’t all that, I’m a snivellin’ brat
A white male in America that likes to rap.
Slap me with your stereotype, I can take it
I’m like a bad actor, man, I can’t fake it.
(from “The Song”)

I thought I had no idea who JustMe was, but a quick spot of research online revealed that not only do I know who he is, I’m also a big fan of his previous work. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of this decade, when mp3.com was the hotspot for all internet music goodness and everyone was still using WinAmp, a Christian hip-hop crew called The SolSeekers took their song “Audience of One” to the top of the site’s rap charts. Their song beat out mainstream acts like Slikk the Shocker, Master P, Snoop Dogg, and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest for cumulative listens and downloads for a duration of multiple weeks. The group went on to release a string of great tracks on mp3.com, an album entitled People Watching in 2000, and appear on Sackcloth Fashion’s somewhat infamous double-compilation record Fashion Expo in 2001. One of the emcees in SolSeekers went by the name Sage.

Sometime around the release of their 2003 EP Halfway There, Sage and The SolSeekers combined forces with another well-known and respected group, Future Shock (who released The Art of Xenos shortly thereafter). For a short time, Sage was even a member of West Coast supercrew the Tunnel Rats. During the mid-2000’s, Sage and his crews were all over the place on compilations and mixtapes, appearing on the records of friends and fellow artists, and just generally making a lot of good noise.

It turns out, sometime in the last few years, Sage changed his name to JustMe, went solo, and helped to start up a new supercrew, Scribbling Idiots. So, confusing as it may be, I’ve shared this brief history lesson for a reason – JustMe isn’t a new face in hip-hop, he’s just a cat with a new name and a new crew, still churning out the rhymes we all recall so fondly from his days as Sage. If you’re skeptical, check out that decade-old SolSeekers track “Audience of One” for a real good time.

Fast forward. I last heard Justme on his combo EP with Sintax.the.Terrific, Merciless, and if you’ve read the review you’ll recall that I was duly impressed with where he’s at in his craft now. His interaction with Sintax on that EP gelled nicely and really helped to make it one of the more memorable rap EP’s in recent memory, both in terms of sound and content. As you can imagine, I was intrigued as to what his solo record One Man’s Trash would offer, as it was released by Illect around the same time in 2006 as Merciless and Sintax’s Curb Appeal.

I just realized that it doesn’t do me any good
to be a mad rapper, you can find those in any hood.
Besides, man, if it were to happen to me,
They could be laughing at me,
I just happen to be
The one that’s rapping for free,
Gettin’ a bachelor’s degree,
I got a family to feed and I’ll be damned if I be
The dad that got selfish and ran with his dream
But man, I’m not helpless; the Lamb’s on my team
And I’m glad that I’ve seen all the madness it brings
When these cats do they thing and the crowds all scream
I can only pray that we planted a seed
Your dreams are only shallow if you quit ‘cuz of greed.
(from “Shallow Dreams”)

With that as background, here are my thoughts on One Man’s Trash. Musically, the whole record has a really jazzy, bluesy, 70’s feel to it. The beats are noteworthy for their generous use of lush horns, strings, keys, and some old synths that sound like they were pulled straight out of an old cop-show theme. There’s also a good, restrained feel to the beats – they haven’t pumped the sound so full of sound that it gets in the way of the raps, and it’s seldom that samples comes off annoying or over-used in their songs. One exception would be the gritty, off-tune warble of the guitar in “Just Playin'” – which is one of the weaker tracks on the album, a brief ditty where JustMe sarcastically beats up on deadbeat gamers that choose their Playstations and Xboxes over family or… well… life. There’s nothing wrong with the concept, or the need to lampoon such folk, but the execution comes off a little weak and the game references waver between too cliche (GTA2, Madden), too old (Pacman), and too obscure (Crash Bandicoot) to really qualify as ‘hardcore deadbeat gamer trash’, even if this record is from 2006.

I wouldn’t cite “Just Playin'” as a stereotypical track from the record, though. There’s actually a lot of meaningful content to be found – some touching, some heavy. The record starts with “The Song”, a great manifesto track that sums JustMe’s approach to rap nicely – something that is, in many ways, also summed up in his assumed name. He’s “just me”, just who he was created to be. This attitude of humility pervades the record, particularly “Latenight Lullaby”, which really brings the Family Man vibe, as JustMe raps to his newborn son – musing on the hard work of his wife, the mysteries of growing up, and the value of relying on God for strength amidst the long sleepless nights. His aforementioned son is sampled for the track, crying during the first verse and progressively calming and happy by the end of the track. Initially this is grating (crying babies tend to be), but once you understand the progression that takes place during the track, it actually adds to the emotional impact of the song considerably to hear the son “responding” to the father’s words and singing. Speaking of singing, One Man’s Trash has great, smooth choruses, usually sung by JustMe himself. If there’s one thing to say about the choruses, it’s that he has a great ear for them – I’ve caught myself with them stuck in my head numerous time. If there’s a dud, it’s “Shallow Dreams” – an otherwise great, chill kind of song that is really only held back by the chorus, which comes across a bit too languid and, perhaps, just below JustMe’s ideal singing range.

Another standout track is “Louder Days”, marked by some beautiful saxophone sampling that really takes it over the top. The second verse really stuck to me:

Life is a series of obstacles, so many resources as your follicles
It’s a jungle out there, but not tropical
And I feel it’s my duty to stop the bull.
There’s no topical solution for these optical illusions
Some packin’ chips, stackin’ grips, losin’
‘Cuz of the lifestyle that they’re choosin’.
Yet they, still swing to knock while I deliver
And while they missing, I stand here and shiver –
Exercising my gift from the Giver,
Instead of despising my ship up the river.
(from “Louder Days”)

JustMe is a talented cat, no doubt. His Southern California pedigree in breaking, producing, and particularly emceeing over the last decade-plus really comes through on One Man’s Trash. The guests he chose to accompany him on the record (fellow Scribbling Idiots like Cas Metah, Mouth Warren, and Theory Hazit, as well as underground mainstays like Pigeon John and newcomer MotionPlus) all come on point and add nicely to the tracks they are featured on. Nowhere is this more clear than on “Just Raps”, which features the entirety of the Future Shock and Scribbling Idiots crews, in all their rap monstrosity – absolutely one of the record’s highlights.

Overall, this is a great hip-hop record – there’s plenty of memorable beats, noteworthy rhymes, and enough cerebral content to keep you ponderin’ long after the record stops. The production is tight, as is arguably the case on all of the records that Illect Recordings has ever pounded out of their camp. If One Man’s Trash has a weakness, it’s that the qualities it possesses don’t always synchronize – as in the earlier example of “Shallow Dreams”, where the otherwise great song is held back by its weak chorus. Of course, this is the area where subjectivity reigns – where I find a beat weak, others really dig. Where I find a chorus to be excellent and praiseworthy, others may find it to be a dud, and so on.

I think the principle remains though – it’s difficult to get your verses, your choruses, and your beats to all come together in a “symphony of awesome”. Sometimes, JustMe succeeds on One Man’s Trash, and that makes it worth the price of admission. For some, they’ll find more trash than treasure, but some of what you’ll find here is undeniably fresh. The record has been out for a couple years now so there’s no way you’d pay more than 10 bucks for it, so my recommendation is to check it.

3.5 treasure chests out of 5.

Trivia: “Low Budget”, which features RUSH, Cas Metah, and MotionPlus, has a great guitar sample that is immediately recognizable from Phonetic Composition’s song “PC Tools” from the classic record of the same name.

Standout Tracks: Favorite Rapper, Low Budget, To The Toppers, Let Go (Dream Sequence), Louder Days, Just Raps.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
April 7th, 2009