What I'm Listening to Now! muzeONE - Cold War, Japhia Life - Westside Pharmacy, Taelor Gray - Jacob and Judas, Brinson   - Reversing Tomorrow

muzeONE - Cold War



Album length: 14 tracks: 43 minutes, 18 seconds
Street Date: May 31, 2011

In 2001, eight emcees got together in Philadelphia to form a crew called Redeemed Thought. Over the next six years, the crew dwindled down to only two guys: Stephen the Levite and muzeONE. Both of the emcees started making music on their own; the latter of the two found his way into a record contract with illect Recordings in 2009. muzeONE was also involved in the hip hop crew Scribbling Idiots

muzeONE isn't well known to the majority of hip hop fans, so this album may be easy to miss without a second thought. But if you actually take some time to listen to it, you'll find that he's some underrated talent. It's clear that good lyricism and flows are essential to him when he's making his music, which is an important aspect of hip hop music. This is evident in the track "Literary Lyricism," where he talks about his love of the English language and how mainstream hip hop artists are just destroying it with terrible raps. He also makes a few shoutouts to some of his lyrical inspirations, like Pharoahe Monche. His excellent lyricism is on full display in just about every track, even the intro, "First Blood." The intro is pretty similar to most intro tracks on hip hop albums these days, with a short rapped verse followed by some scratches from the DJ, but it's solid and serves as a good introduction to the goodness to come in the next forty minutes. It leads into the upbeat title track, which was well-placed, feeling like the natural progression from "First Blood." I feel like the hook could've been a little stronger, though, which is the one drawback to "Cold War." But it's hardly enough to label it as a bad track.

The beats are pretty diverse, which comes from the fact that muzeONE used multiple producers and emcees for Cold War. muze himself produced four of the tracks, as well as some producers I'm not familiar with (Medi-CAL, Teddy P and Witness). One of my favorite beats is from the track "Lights On," produced by an emcee who goes by the name Othello. On the rapping side of "Lights On," muze utilized KJ-52 and Wonder Brown on guest vocals. While I had faith in Wonder Brown (who met expectations with his verse), I was a little iffy on KJ, who is most known for gimmicky and much poppier hip hop. He was able to hang pretty well with Wonder Brown and muze, but his flow isn't as tight as theirs, and some of his analogies are a little flawed ("Stop sleeping like a mattress you lie on" doesn't make sense). "Clones" is a great track, produced by muze, and has a message similar to "Literary Lyricism," which follows "Clones." muze wonders aloud why the radio is so willing to play every clone rapper that comes along with no message, creativity or talent. "Literary Lyricism" contains a nice, thick beat courtesy of Humble Beast artist Theory Hazit - a very talented emcee/producer whose beats shine on this track. Tunnel Rat and Deepspace 5 member Sev Statik makes a laidback appearance in the track "News," which follows into "More 2 Say," which gets its beat from DJ Official, who works with Cross Movement and Reach Records artists most often.

Cold War is a pretty good release from the illect Recordings family.  It's refreshing to listen to it and not be disappointed. There have only been a handful of good hip hop albums to come out so far in 2011, and muzeONE's Cold War is one of them. 

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Japhia Life - Westside Pharmacy

Those in the underground know Japhia and hail his first mixtape, Pages of Life: Chapter One, as a classic often compared to Illmatic from Nas. With his newest release, Westside Pharmacy, Japhia finds himself ready to be discovered by the masses. He's a Christian and doesn't hide from his beliefs (Japhia states "I saw the light when I was 17, man, that's the flyest thing I've ever seen. I've been a Christian in Christian Dior, ducking the triple six in Seven jeans" in "Lifey's Revenge"), but isn't looking to be called a "Christian rapper" or even to be closely associated with CHH.

If you're not familiar with Japhia, he brings a slightly retro sound (90s era hip-hop) similar to that of Nas or Common. The record features fifteen songs (plus three interludes/skits). The beats don't necessarily hit hard, but the album is musically deep. Couple an excellent sound with outstanding lyrics and flow and you may wonder why Japhia wasn't recognized earlier in his career. The lyrics focus on real life issues like drugs and street violence while others are an honest look in the mirror, like "Last Night" and "I'm a Mess," as Japhia admits, "I'm a mess right now; tryin' to do right, but goin' left right now." No matter the message, Japhia always claims God as the reason he made it, and continues to make it, through his problems. Another interesting track in theme is "Letter to Lindsay," which starts with a news clip discussing Lindsay Lohan's May 2007 arrest for DUI and cocaine possession. Japhia tells Lindsay that he did a lot of things he viewed as unforgivable in his younger days, including drug use and being arrested, but offers to talk to her about real love. Despite the serious nature of the album, Japhia finds time to show his sense of humor in the skit "Phone Call." In the skit, Reverend Tithes calls the studio asking for "Jafee" in order to complain that he is taking members away from his church. It's a funny moment in the record and is almost necessary to break the serious nature of the record up a bit.

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Taelor Gray - Jacob and Judas

Jacob and Judas,  a Taelor Gray project executive produced by Christon dropped exclusively through Pledge Music with limited time to purchase in 2017. Well now everyone can bump it!

 


“Executive produced by his brother, Christon Gray, the album will be upgraded version of the sound fans have come to love, while exploring a deeper level of vulnerability concerning family, friendships, marriage, the church and the music industry,” 
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Brinson   - Reversing Tomorrow

Reversing Tomorrow. While you may not comprehend exactly what that title means, the message inside Brinson's ninth solo project is (and remains) abundantly clear: The creator of the universe loves us so much that He provides a miraculous plan of salvation through belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, His one and only son. 

The attractive 11-cut package (Have you seen that cover art?!?) finds the rapper/label owner flipping between modern and classic hip hop sounds to cover a variety of topics.

The song "Aquadrip" taps into both the author's affinity for comic book culture and the superhero mythology of the Marine Marvel. Its trap-heavy track blends an ocean's worth of water references into a believer's anthem about the confidence the Holy Spirit brings to one's identity.

"Mind Clear" showcases the artist's increasing proficiency as a lyricist and even includes a pleasant Easter egg that will be familiar to long-time listeners of Christian hip-hop. Later, Brinson uses a soothing piano loop on "Talk To 'Em" to straightforwardly address the intersection of faith and mental health.

Elsewhere, "No Rewind" employs a super-catchy chorus to urge the audience to live a life without regrets. Even the non-music skits and interludes emphasize the value Brinson places on a life in service to his Savior.

"It's been a while since I've had this much fun writing and recording an album. I believe my joy can be felt throughout the project and pray it helps listeners connect with the message on a deeper level as a result," Brinson said.

Sho Baraka and Vanessa Hill - So Many Feelings

The pair's new hip-hop record, 'So Many Feelings,' is another bold step forward in Christian music.

In 2013, Sho Baraka veered away from the Christian hip-hop (“CHH”) playbook and dropped Talented 10th, an album that broke new ground for a faith-based rapper by challenging systemic racism and other social issues head-on. From that point forward, the rest of CHH spat lines they’d previously held back. 

But courage often comes with a price. Two years later, Baraka released The Narrative, and despite a product description stating the music was “saturated in a gospel worldview,” Christian bookstore chain LifeWay stopped carrying it in stores. Customers complained the album pushed the envelope too far, and the controversy made national news.

Baraka narrows his focus from the social to the personal on So Many Feelings, a joint effort with up-and-coming R&B vocalist Vanessa Hill. So Many Feelings once again goes where no one in CHH has dared tread before. It’s a journey through modern marriage and relationships, touching candidly (but not explicitly) on the happiness, tension, sex and conflict that every couple deals with. We sat down with Baraka and Hill to discuss their latest sonic innovation.

There’s never been a hip-hop project that even closely resembles So Many Feelings. Where did the idea come from?

Sho Baraka: The project was originally a joke post by my wife and I. We put up some pictures of us in hip-hop poses and I posted that my wife and I were going to drop this album. I had a tracklist of songs related to marital issues, too. And people just ate it up. People thought I was serious. And I was like, wow, this is pretty interesting.

So I just said, ‘Hey, if I wanted to do this album, who could I actually do it with?’ Vanessa and I had done some shows together—she was on The Narrative—and I loved what she did with that. Funny thing is I thought she was married …

Vanessa Hill: And I am not married. But that was funny.

Baraka: Come to find out about halfway working through the project she wasn’t married.

Halfway? That’s a little late.

Hill: We were just writing, there wasn’t any time for personal questions.

Baraka: She had been dating this guy for 20 years, and he kept showing up with her everywhere. When we did shows together, they were together the whole time. They argued and communicated like they were married, so I just thought they were married.

Hill: You know, we’re heading down the path.

When you made the fake tracklist, how many of those actually became real songs?

Baraka: About 80 percent became real songs.

Sho, your wife is speaking on the record, on the interlude tracks. How much of the record is what your life looks like and how much was hidden behind the veil of art? Is this supposed to be taken as an autobiography or as a metaphor?

Baraka: I think the beautiful thing about art is we have the creative license to blur the lines of reality and fiction. We are creating fictional characters while drawing from personal experience. Everything I communicate on this album is either something I’ve experienced, something I’m going through right now or something I’ve had a conversation about with a friend. So these are not things I’m making up. That’s the reason I think people are able to connect with this, how authentic and real it is. 

Hip-hop has a long tradition of creating interludes for people to connect the stories. I thought it would be like counseling in helpful moments because something can get lost in the communication of art. If we could create a dialogue artistically, I thought it would be good to include the biographical piece.

Hill: That’s the cool part about creating these fictional characters. People who are listening who are not married can still get a lot from the record because the subjects are love, communication and trust. Those aren’t confined to marriage. You can take these principles to how you deal with your boss, how you deal with your aunt, how you deal with your coworker. I think us creating these fictional characters but speaking from a real place is going to give a lot of people wisdom and hope.

Baraka: That’s brilliant. Because really, the idea of marriage is just an intensified relationship. It’s not just a marriage album, it’s a relationship album. This is why I brought Vanessa on; she is a genius.

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 Sareem Poems - Black and Read All Over

So Sareem Poems is not your typical rapper. While others in hip hop celebrate sinning, he raps about living righteously. You could almost call him a Christian rapper, given that he is Christian and a rapper, but that seems like too constraining a label, especially since "Christian rap" isn't exactly a quality cue. You could call him a conscious rapper, and that description fits better. However, he doesn't sound like a conscious rapper, or at least the mellow, bohemian variety. They all smoke pot, anyways. Sareem has a authoritative, commanding flow that is one part preacher, one part Chuck D., and one part Black Thought. It gives his rhyming a gravitas and a sense of anger. Even when he is rapping about love or other positive things, he still sounds slightly ticked off.

He's gone by Sharlock Poems performing with the LA Symphony (the rap group, not the orchestra group), and he released an album as Poems in 2008 on the Hip Hop Is Music label. "Black and Read All Over" originally came out in July of 2009, but it is being rereleased as a digital "Deluxe Addition" with instrumental versions of the songs and a handful of remixes.

Poems is a passionate, fierce rapper. He raps about things that are important to him, and does it in a commanding, uncompromising style. While he does sometimes show a lighter side, he doesn't really crack jokes, and he doesn't mess around. There's a trade off with this. One one hand, it's nice to hear a rapper addressing serious issues and taking a strong moral stance. However, Sareem sometimes comes off like a stern father upset with his son for hanging out with the wrong crowd. Just as your dad had reason for hating your stoner buddies, Poems has reason to be upset with a lot of things in his community. Still, there are times on the album when Sareem's raps feel uncomfortably like lectures. And this from someone who doesn't smoke pot and is generally in line with Poems' opinions. His style is equally unrelenting, and begins to feel limited in the course of the fourteen tracks.

Most of the production is handled by Theory Hazit, who offers vibrant beats that jump out of the speakers. Hazit is clearly not a fan of the "less is more" philosophy, and crams sounds together. "Come Get It," mixes ringing bells, a spaghetti western whistle, and a chugging beat; "Hard Labor" layers wailing ograns over booming drums with some background noise for good measure;  and "Shake It Up" works a loop for all it's worth. Done well, Hazit's beats are energized, exciting, and loud. Hazit can also veer into noisy and cacophonous, and he doesn't always find harmony in the different samples and sounds he mashes together.

Hazit's work is contrasted with a few tracks produced by Oddisee, the D.C. beatsmith who worked on this year's excellent Diamond District album. Oddisee's beats are more soulful and restrained than Hazit's, and he demonstrates the value of a few carefully placed samples on "She's So So." His tracks provide a nice foil to Hazit's beats, and showcase why Oddisee is one of the best producers of the year.

The remixes offer variations on the songs rather than radical reworkings. They are a nice bonus, as are the instrumentals, but don't warrant another purchase for those who already own a copy of "Black and Read." The real audience for this album are fans of conscious rap music that slept on the disc's July release. Sareem Poems offers his take on positive Southern Californian hip hop, and walks the path paved by acts like the Freestyle Fellowship and Jurassic 5.

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 Indian Colors -  Alert312

 DJ Promote The Wages of Syntax Returns

  
   
Second installment in hip-hop’s truest mixtape series is ‘a party in a box’

Syntax Records does it again. Last November, the San Diego-based hip-hop label dropped The Wages of Syntax Volume 2, a compilation bringing fans the best of its roster. Spun by DJ Promote, Wages mixes several of Syntax Records’ hottest songs featuring over 15 artists.

This album was produced with hip-hop lovers in mind. DJ Promote remixes 60 minutes worth of street-worthy beats and rhymes. “There’s never been a mixtape like this in our market…  It’s a party in a box,” says Syntax Records President Tim Trudeau, who goes by the moniker “sirROCDOMZ” when producing. “I believe that this second round of  Wages nailed the heart of a mixtape. Anyone who listens through entirely will walk away impressed.”

Wages kicks off with Kaboose’s “Goin’ Outta Control” featuring Royce Da 5’9″ — just in time for the brand new animated music video that was one of the five featured on Yahoo Music. Wages continues to hit fans hard with a constant stream of bangers such as “Universal” by LA Symphony and “Hawthorne’s Most Wanted” by RedCloud featuring Tonex and Kurupt. It goes as classic as 2003’s “I Sigh” by Sackcloth Fashion to the 2008 title track from Braille’s The IV Edition.

Wages was a collaborative effort  that strove to showcase singles that genuinely blended. Tim Trudeau explains, “We took into consideration music theory, such as what key a song was in, and the dynamics of the song. These are things people don’t think hip-hop has. We’re going back to the era when DJs were mixing and remixing songs together. There are years of music here, and we didn’t even go through the whole catalog.”

Wages of Syntax 2 is a wonderful orchestration of intelligent lyrics, classic beats and well thought out, cross-genre blending that have raised the standards for all future studio mixtapes,” says Newville. “If you’ve never heard of Syntax Records, now is your chance to taste what has been missing from today’s music industry.”

Featured artist Braille says, “For me, this mixtape is very forward thinking and proves that people should be paying attention to Syntax Records.  It takes moments from the history of Syntax and incorporates them without ever loosing speed or energy. It tells a story.”

“It’s underground hip-hop in its purest form. Tight beats, dope rhymes, top-notch scratching and blending every song in an outstanding fashion,” RedCloud praises. “If you consider yourself a fan of ‘real hip-hop’, then quit reading this and buy this album immediately.”

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