BlackCalvinist June 30th, 2010
Christian hip hop (CHH) is not monolithic. Anyone seeking to understand exactly what kind of artists are in the genre need look no further than the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) industry to understand it. Their theological underpinnings come out in the music they make. Shallow theology and shallow theological commitments produce shallow music. There are people in CHH who are simply doing ‘inspirational’ music and write about life, ‘practical issues’ and how Jesus makes it better. There are people who write songs which aren’t overtly secular (some are) nor overtly ‘churchy’ so they can get appeal to a wider audience. Finally, there are people who write songs that are overtly Christian and very theological.
Evangel falls into the third category. His music is anything but shallow. Hailing from Maryland via NYC, and a member of the group ChristCentric, he’s no stranger to the Christian Hip Hop community. The group put out several solid projects over the past decade -The Mind of Christ (2001), Reformation (2003), City of God (2006), Didactic Music Vol. 1 (2009) as well as his first solo project, Expository Journey (2008).Those not familiar with him already should also look up his guest spots on Timothy Brindle’s album Killing Sin album, shai linne’s Solus Christus Project, Voice’s Not Guilty: The Process of the Pardon and The Crucible and the newly-released Lampmode Project The Church: Called and Collected. His first album, Expository Journey, served as a bit of a “Pilgrims’ Progress”, detailing the process of God calling, convicting, regenerating and saving him along the course of the album. It’s more than ‘good listening’ and I highly recommend picking it up (I probably need to do a ‘back review’ on that one).
Thematically, Elation is probably the best ‘concept’ album I’ve heard because the topic is very narrowly focused (Matthew 5:3-16). Any believer serious about the message of the beatitudes will enjoy this album and feel as thought they are being led through a systematic bible study on the topic. Every song serves as an exposition of each portion of the passage until the listener comes away not only entertained, but more importantly edified.
Musically, the project is solid and some tracks will definitely be played and replayed and replayed. The production has a distinctive east coast flavor with a
lot of ‘old school’isms, which I love. It took a few tracks a bit of time to grow on me (mainly because of the hooks), others will grab you the first time
you listen to the CD and stick with you for hours after you’ve hit the ‘stop’ button on your CD player or MP3 player.
Pound for pound, Evangel remains (as shai linne has called him) “the tightest emcee you never heard of”. Clever punchlines, ridiculously complex lyricism and insane rhyme-schemes all make this album beyond ‘worth picking up’. I believe this one could easily become a ‘silent classic’, gradually working its’ way into people’s listening rotation over time and being something that people listen to repeatedly without even realizing it. A word of caution: if you’re looking for something to treat like a secular CD and constantly ‘bump’, you might be disappointed. For the brothers of Christcentric, their albums are deliberately intended to be didactic – teach and entertain at the same time. While artistry and musicality are important, their primary focus has always been content over entertainment. As such, when serious material comes up, the tone of tracks tend to reflect the nature of the topic being discussed.
The title track, Elation Foundation, serves as the intro the album. It comes at you out of left field (up tempo and you are probably NOT expecting it) and leaves you wondering what to expect until Evangel drops the first few bars. It serves as an intro not just to album, but also illustrates the state of a newly converted believer. God begins the work of sanctification in a person who has walked in darkness for so long that it takes their eyes a bit of time to adjust to the light of Christian living. A visual representation of this is described in the song as a man getting on an elevator in the basement and gradually being elevated to different floors in the building (each represented by a different track). Skit #1, Mr. Smiley Face featuring “The Elevator Man” (more on him and the skits later) serves as an explanation of the album in a humorous fashion.
Bankruptcy Department begins the trek into the album with Michael Armstrong on lead vocals for the hook. The track musically is what you’d expect for a song designed to provoke mental images of sorrow for one’s sin, mirroring the first beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I love Savings and Moans. The hook is memorable, biblical and does exactly what Evangel intended – teaches the text of scripture and gets it ‘stuck’ inside of your head for the purpose of further meditation long after you’ve stopped listening. Soul Beneficiary Division is a straight boom-boom-bap track. It serves as a call for believers to both believe the words of Jesus and to walk in humility in light of it (Matthew 5:5).
Mercy Mutual is another of my favorite tracks on the album. Building on “Blessed are merciful, for they will receive mercy”, Evangel goes straight to the text of scripture and draws from the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) and presents it in lyrical form along with the implications of it in verse 3 of the song, even relating the last bar back to the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6. One of the standout tracks on the album, though the production could have used some more layering. Food Court was one of those tracks where the hook took a while to grow on me. Other than that, there’s nothing wrong with this track. In contradiction to my expectations, the crowd at the release party was very into the song and hollered the chorus very effusively. Evangel engages in crazy wordplay here and the result is a song that any believer who hungers after righteousness and daily fights against their sin can use for meditation.
Jewel graces Pure in Heart with her angelic vocals. Yes, all of those voices are hers (come on folks – anyone who’s seen Ray or has listened to ANY song by Michael Jackson from Off the Wall forward knows you can layer and multi-track your own voice). From a musicians’ standpoint, this is the best that I’ve heard her and the arrangement of her voice on the this track is perfect. Another of the stand-out tracks on the album both for content and production.
Rejoice is another one of Evangel’s outstanding tracks on this album because of the content. He shows out with different rhyme-scheme patterns in this one and does so effortlessly. Shalom Factory has a tight beat, great lyricism….but I didn’t care too much for the hook. It sounds a bit ‘mechanical’ (straight on the beat) and a better choice of words could’ve been put together for it. Even with that, it still grows on you after a few listens. Maybe apologist will do a remix with the same beat, different background and a better hook. Maybe. Other than that, I’m being hit with a straight east coast, golden age of hip hop feel with this track…and I’m loving it.
HR department is on the album at a great place. Good beat, good lyricism, good hook and it picks up well from where Shalom Factory left off. The rest of Christcentric joins him on this song, with Israel Felix on verse 2 and Apologist with verse 3. Israel has always been beastly as a lyricist and does not disappoint on this track. Honestly, I think this is one of the best verses I’ve ever heard from him (and I’ve yet to hear a wack verse from him). Apologist gives us a Christian history lesson, pointing us back to other saints who’ve endured suffering and persecution over the centuries without turning from the faith as examples to us to keep pressing toward the kingdom. His verse serves as a good reminder of why all believers need to be familiar with church history in the first place. Musically, this sounds like a ‘classic’ Christcentric track (anyone familiar with their discography knows what I mean by this).
Hilltop Housing slows the pace of the album back down as Evangel gets serious with a call for the church to be holy in its’ worship and it’s lifestyle – as individuals and collectively. Nothing is off limits – homosexual choir leaders, pastors conferences being the highest rated in pornography, excommunication and restoration for repentant saints and working for our employers as we would if Christ was our employer. I’ll definitely say that is one of the most powerful tracks on the album and really ‘sits with you’ if you take the time to consider exactly what’s being said.
The skits (Mr. Smiley Face, Still the Elevator Man and Elation Summation) show up at the right times throughout the album, prepping us for the next section of the album as we go. Brother Redeemed (Derek Pulliam) is known for normally being a serious dude (listen to his tone on Elation Summation or the clips of him on Bmorr’s “Wake Up” off of his Self-Denial album). You see a completely different and hilarious side of him as “The Elevator Guy” on this album, and it helps to provide the listener with some needed ‘breaks’ in the topic, lest you end up feeling melancholy for the entire thing.
I’m sorry, I missed a track, didn’t I ? Every good hip hop CD needs a cypha.
Quincy ‘Q-DOG’ Jones makes a return to Christcentric with a hot opening verse to Immigration Services. I don’t know about you, but I miss hearing this brothers’ voice spittin’ verses. Israel and Apologist follow close behind. Ackdavis, Azriel and New Jeruse hit the next three verses with 16 ill bars a piece, followed by up and coming emcees C-LOS and B-doe. B-doe not only has a project coming out (Please Listen, release date TBA), but he’s also grabbed a few guest spots on B-morr’s albums as well as on the Plumbline Collective’s Semper Reformanda Vol. 1. Now THAT is a line up.
Oh yeah, Evangel spits a verse on here too. And it’s 32 bars. And it’s SICK.
That pretty much summarizes my trek through the project after a few dozen listens. I’d caution folks not to simply toss it aside based off of superficial reviews. The words of John Owen (paraphrased) come to mind when I think of this project – if you come in looking mainly or only for entertainment, you might as well leave after the first track. This one’s designed to edify and build up and long after the music stops, you’ll be left considering each track and driven back to scripture to meditate on these great truths.
Production – 3/5
Lyricism, Artistry and Wordplay – 4/5
Concept Cohesiveness – 5/5
Content – 5/5
- Christian Rap and Hip Hop