Another year, another list of Christian hip-hop I’ve enjoyed.
A major caveat: I’m certain I’ve missed some great music, as I found out even after publishing my 2019 thoughts. In the craziness of an election year, I didn’t make as much time for music as I normally do. My most-played album of the year was probably the instrumental Drop Shadow from Eyeliner, New Zealand’s greatest and oddest treasure. Thus, any omissions are likely from lack of exposure and should not be seen as a slight.
Zae da Blacksmith — Irons in the Fire
I feel that art for art’s sake is worthless
‘Cause what God made He made with a certain purpose
I’ve previously admitted I’m a big fan of Jose Cañas, aka Zae da Blacksmith (pictured, top right), solely from his 2012 debut The Mosaic Mixtape. However, for the most part, he dropped off the map after 2013. After a mixed-bag EP last year, he’s back with what you could call his first proper solo album, which thankfully addresses the question: What happened to you, man?
Rather than just hide behind easy answers — he got married, he had a kid, he built up his career as a fireman — Zae owns his artistic silence on what will likely be the most-discussed track, “PityFool Pt. 1.” He whiffed it. He procrastinated and flaked on renowned producers and labels. God used this failure, though; the beats for an aborted collaboration with Tee-Wyla made their way to Ian Buchanan & Stract for the next album on this list.
Zae appears to have teamed up with Christcentric’s Apologist for much of the production on IITF, and these are straightforward, head-banging boom-bap tracks. On some of IITF‘s standouts, the beats sound more like the work of a funk band than a hip-hop producer (though there are some sublime sample-based beats: “Go Do!,” “Moving In,” and “Passport,” for example).
IITF is short on features; there’s the almost-obligatory Collective reunion and Christcentric showcase, and the rest of the runtime, Zae’s catching us up on what’s happened after so many years. Like The Mosaic Mixtape, there’s a thematic progression — the first half being a thesis statement for his old-school, Christ-first artistry, then confessing his failures, then resolving those feelings of guilt with joy in God’s continuing grace in His life. It’s great to hear Zae back in the saddle, overcoming his failures, and sounding genuinely glad in what he’s doing. The joy in “Unga Bunga,” my favorite cut, is simply infectious.
Ian Buchanan & Stract — Supreme
I got 99 problems ’cause my sin ain’t done
But in Him I’m 100 ’cause my sin ain’t one
This is an interesting one that caught me off guard; two independent Christian music labels (Christcentric and Wrath and Grace) put out a collaborative album between two up-and-coming artists. Stract (pictured, bottom left) is an experienced MC, active long before he became a Christian, and repeatedly flashes his skill in wordplay and deep theology. Ian Buchanan is newer to the game and opts for purely didactic Bible lessons over poetry. These two styles come together perfectly in the aforementioned beats abandoned by Zae; Tee-Wyla’s tracks are more experimental than boom-bap, with more emphasis on the musical arrangements than fat kicks and snares. As such, this record gets your mind in motion more than your feet, which makes it stand out in this subgenre. I think it’s the album I’ve replayed more than anything else on this list, given there’s so much to dissect in the lyrics.
Jered Sanders — Hope Is Dope! 2
They were clapping for the boy when I would get my sin on
Now they acting like they know me when I’m in the end zone
There’s an interesting music industry phenomenon I like to call the Blue Album-Pinkerton shift: after a big breakthrough record, the artist usually comes back with an album that’s all jaded by their success and seeing the inner working of the game. However, Hope Is Dope! 2 by Jered Sanders (pictured, top left) breaks that pattern; after Hurry Up & Wait, his acclaimed debut on God Over Money, he returns with a record that essentially says, “Yeah, I’ve made it, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit, actually.” Contra the Ron Sider school of thought, it’s not bad at all for a Christian to build up an independent business (a greater step of faith than wage slavery) and provide generously for his family, and Sanders celebrates that here without any warning signs he’ll mute his faith for even more financial gain.
A side note here: Can the rest of the industry take a hint from Jered and put your interlude samples at the end of the previous track? That makes such a huge difference in going back to play individual songs. I don’t want to listen to a minute of movie dialogue or blindly click/tap to the end of it before I got to the actual music. Such a simple and elegant solution on his part; it lets the music start instantly on each track while still tying together the full-album listen.
Thre — Traffic
Saved not soft, I’m from where they pay cops off
And it wasn’t a TV show when they made my boss
Thre’s (pictured, bottom right) debut album on the NFTRY imprint comes after several years of memorable guest appearances, and in early 2020, he carried much of the collective album put out by his peers. With understated, unflashy production, Traffic is a moody and autobiographical portrait of ministry and life in the bleak city of Chicago. Thre’s delivery is technically impressive and theologically rich, a lesser-known performer noticeably trying to prove his pedigree — and succeeding handily.
Flame — Extra Nos
So how should we then live below?
Focus on serving our neighbor, that is Coram Mundo
I wasn’t very familiar with work by Flame, the CHH veteran who successfully sued Katy Perry for her song “Dark Horse” sounding similar to one of his. This tight EP is his declaration of no longer agreeing with Calvinism and aligning himself with Lutherans. As a casual theology nerd with no dog in the fight, I enjoy a good debate and seeing people critique each other’s ideas, and this kicked off a few of those among the pastors and podcasters I follow. Plus, Flame puts that Katy Perry money to work, with production that’s slick but confidently no-frills.
Eshon Burgundy — Joppa
Goliath endowed with power, but how blessed was his opponent
David killed the lion and birthed the lion for our atonement
Yes, I’m aware of the disappointing news that Eshon Burgundy believes that he is a literal descendant of the tribe of Judah. And yes, listening again through his latest LP Joppa, he dropped many hints. He still confesses Christ and salvation by faith alone, so I haven’t written him off; I give most people a couple strikes on weird conspiracy theories, since I have plenty of beliefs that transgress mainstream dogma (skepticism of Darwin & global warming, etc.). And I still appreciate this album that’s the opposite of last year’s For the Love of Money. While FTLOM was overstuffed and meticulously produced, Joppa is succinct, oddball, and raw. Eshon runs with unpolished beats, unorthodox song structures, and unusual singing styles, and it’s compelling and soulful. Working through his anguish about living in America, he still continually affirms God’s goodness and the need to press on in upright living.