It’s me again, your Breitbart editor with bad music takes.
Though it’s not really a regular beat for us, I do like to reflect on good songs I’ve discovered through the year — and in this here 2018, the list is a little different. As a believer in Jesus (“Yehoshua” if you just transliterate it once), you want to center your day on him, to keep him and his commands in your mind at all times. Music is a great tool for that — and while much of today’s contemporary Christian music is theologically solid, that overproduced Nashville sound is a real dealbreaker for me, and the Instagram-EatPrayLove-LivingMyBestLife lyrical imagery just doesn’t connect with most men.
At the same time, “secular” music succumbs more and more to the curse of mumble rap (one of the year’s most popular songs was a diss track of a retired porn actress in response to a fake tweet screenshot) punctuated mostly by old-timers who have sorely degenerated, now focusing more on memes and gossip/personal drama than any real issues. Whereas “Christian rap” used to be known for its corniness, Christian hip-hop now is the space where vital indie artists are flourishing. Most of them can’t make music their primary source of income; they release these songs even in the pennies-per-thousand-streams era for the sake of the Great Commission. They are speaking to America’s problems with real solutions. They are puncturing the monotony of paint-by-numbers radio beats. And they’re making great art as they do so.
These are a few (please attribute any omission to lack of exposure rather than disrespect) of the Christian hip-hop albums and songs that have inspired, encouraged, rent my heart, or blew my mind in 2018.
Timothy Brindle: The Unfolding
A whole-Bible commentary as a rap album. Like the debut LP of the Danielson Famile, The Unfolding appears to be a concept album grad-school project — but Brindle is an experienced emcee, and there is no schoolboy awkwardness here. This thorough exploration of God’s plan of salvation — revealed throughout the Tanach, and not just in a few messianic prophecies — is both accessible and deep. It is an easy starting point for anyone who questions the relevance of the “Old Testament” or wants to revitalize their Bible reading in general. Though Brindle’s voice is an acquired taste, the beats are terrific — lasting much longer than your typical 3-5 minute songs yet still not wearing out their welcome — and the teaching, with its companion book, is a wonderful initiation into the practice of exegesis and a jumping-off point for individual study.
Jackie Hill Perry: Crescendo
Jackie Hill Perry, a poet-turned-rapper who has sparked outrage for her maintaining that her former lesbianism was a sin, put out a solid sophomore album this year. Crescendo, she has said, is about continuing to grow in the Spirit rather than reverting back to our own desires. The songs are concise, the production is economical, her delivery is on par with some of the most acclaimed stars in the world, and the record is peppered with sweet vignettes of gospel music. Of particular interest for parents, her anthem to womanhood cuts through the confusion of modern gender expectations and encourages women to build their identity on the rock that is our God.
Jeremiah Bligen: Fighting Stance EP
No disrespect to K-Love, but you’re not going to hear such a clear articulation of Biblical ethics on their airwaves anytime soon. Jeremiah Bligen, often singing hooks on other artist’s songs, shines in the spotlight here with some truly weird and wild beats from producer Mach-Wun. Recalling his struggles with poverty in the deep south as both a child and a father, Bligen thanks God for instructing him through hard times and affirms his commitment to a daily “stance” of plowing (work), prayer, and praise. When was the last time you got pumped for… humility? Well, that’s exactly what you’ll get from these songs.
Alert312: Joy King Supreme
I was today years old when a rap song first made the hair on my neck stand up with… a chord change. That is the level of artistry on display in Joy King Supreme, this fall offering from Chicago’s Alert312. Esteban Shedd and Aaron Lopez, who also run the Streetlights audio Bible project (if you’re looking for a free audio Bible, get the app), express plenty of angst about the city’s corruption and violence but return again and again to the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven and its worthy ruler as their source of hope. This is the kind of jazz-heavy hip-hop you’d hear from a producer like Karriem Riggins — seamless use of both acoustic and electronic instruments, boasting much more complex structures than a typical one-loop song.
Stephen the Levite: The Verse of the Month
Rather than putting together a whole album to release at once, Lamp Mode’s Stephen the Levite released a string of singles over 11 months with food-themed titles — some of them more half-baked than others, built on a crate digger’s dream of vintage loops. He’s one of the industry’s most technically skilled performers, constantly pushing himself with complex meters and fearlessly taking on American cultural mores, particularly sexual ethics. You might not find something to like in every track, but it’s worth taking the time to evaluate it all.
IV Conerly: Don’t Just Listen
A former gang affiliate turned “theology nerd,” IV Conerly alludes to James 1:22 in the title of his latest album, Don’t Just Listen. His thoroughly West-Coast sound and deep understanding of Scripture come together for a compelling sermon to the SoCal communities that shaped him. “We could take dominion over the hood,” he implores his audience, conceding that he’s willing to look “soft” by submitting to the Lord and end the cycle of gang violence. Along the way, there are apologetics targeting challenges from Black Hebrew Israelites or the 42 Laws of Maat crowd, plus one very tender tribute to his wife’s battle with breast cancer.
Jered Sanders: Hurry Up & Wait
For the kids whose parents bought them Christian pop/rock CDs — e.g., the O.C. Supertones instead of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones — now you may be at the age where you can buy your kids a this, not that Christian album, like Jered Sanders’ Hurry Up & Wait. More than anything else on this list, Sanders would fit in easily on a playlist of pop artists like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar. That’s not a diss; it’s very hard to pull off this very modern strain of introspective, emotional concept album, and HU&W never sounds like it’s setting out to imitate what’s trendy — it’s just simply in the same league. This LP explores an episode in Sanders’ life when he lost his job with a baby on the way — and in contrast to Jeremiah Bligen’s positive instruction, Hurry is a raw interior monologue. Sins get confessed, complaints get aired, yet God keeps appearing to bestow comfort, even as Sanders idly channel surfs.
Braille: Set the Table
Bryan “Braille” Winchester, one-third of the supergroup Beautiful Eulogy, reflects on a turning point in his life as he is now a pastor as well as a performer, a father, and a producer/exec at Humble Beast Records. With great pathos, he relates this very specific struggle to anyone who’s weary in their life or in their work, concluding that Jesus is the reason to keep moving forward in hope. When that cello swells up…