Our world is a complex one. It gets more complex every day, as scientists probe deeper into the very fabric of our existence. We hear about their findings and marvel at the intricate beauty of the universe, not always sure what to make of it. For instance, not everybody is looking forward to the completion of the Human Genome Project. After we’ve identified all the genes in the human DNA and determined the order of its chemical base pairs, what are we going to do with this information? Are we able to handle it responsibly or are Hollywood’s science fiction thrillers about to become reality?
Throughout history, man has found ways to guide him through the wilderness of life. The most important and reliable has always been experience. But every now and then man met challenges he couldn’t solve with experience alone. That’s when he came up with new means to figure out this world. First there was spiritualism (later evolving into religion) and much, much later science. Both are often viewed as antipodes, but in reality they are two completely different tools to look at the world. Still you will often hear one side denouncing the other, really to no avail.
Why do I feel the need to stress these things, of all places in a music review? There is this line that caught my attention not far into this album, which goes “no lie was bigger since evolution made it fact.” I’m clinging to that statement not because I would think it’s wrong, but because I’m desperate to get a better understanding of where the Lifeliners are coming from. As you may know, Christian doesn’t equal Christian, just like Muslim doesn’t equal Muslim. There are myriads of interpretations of these traditional religions, and if we are confronted with an openly Christian hip-hop group, we should know what exactly they are trying to tell us. And that’s the problem with this record. It talks as much about Christ as it does about hip-hop, but after it’s over, I know exactly where the Lifeliners stand on the issue of hip-hop, but ironically I’m pretty much left in the dark about their beliefs.
Why do I even care? Because Christians have developped so many ways to follow Christ. If a rap group claims to “give the crowd the impacting life-changing message of the Cross” and follows that up with engagements in public schools, juvenile detention centers and church youth groups, I want in on the details. If, like their website says, “God has given them the opportunity to use their experience and talent to reach those who need Him,” I want to see how they do it. But I don’t. I’m starting to think this album is for insiders only. And I know it’s not. And so I skip back and forth on this record, I’m touched by “Believe” (with a good guest verse by Manchild), I’m glad to hear rappers use a word like integrity (“Think Again”), I’m impressed by a statement like “the truth don’t change because the truth always remains” (“Truth Remains”), Deep Space 5 member The Listener makes me curious when he confesses, “I have a dark secret that most don’t know about…” (“Stained”), but it all remains far too abstract for me to relate to. Only at the very end, on “Thats Life”, do they start to touch on vital topics, do they show you around their way with some real life flashes.
You know, I might have it all wrong and God really touches people when they least expect it. But being faintly familiar with the Bible, I recall Jesus as someone whose aim and mission was to convince people and who, as history would have it, ended up convincing an awful lot of people. And it weren’t just his deeds that convinced them, but his words too. With fellow rabbis he argued, to ordinary people he spoke in parables, or simply comforted them. Like any influential leader, he was a great communicator (which by the way includes the ability to listen). Only when people stubbornly refused to believe or were without hope he produced a miracle. Therefore, for people who follow a man who could make himself so remarkably clear, a lot of Christian hip-hop acts, including the Lifeliners, remain irritatingly abstract. You seldomly get a grasp of the substance of these rappers’ faiths. Obviously most of us know what Christianity is about, but when you make a record that speaks to people outside of your congregation, it doesn’t suffice to shout out God and Christ over and over again.
To their credit, the Lifeliners are fairly good at what they do. They even allow themselves lighter moments like when Wordplay makes fun of the trials and tribulations of an indie rapper in “No Respect” or when a disrespectful Kermit tries to book them for the Muppet Show during two surprisingly funny skits. Other than that, their ardent allegiance to hip-hop and God comes across crystal-clear: “I lace the track fat like I lace my Adidas / my philosophy, it stem from the teachings of Jesus.” With a decidedly anti-jiggy stance they diss materialistic MC’s, proudly declaring the underground their home. See Wordplay in “This Is Hip-Hop”:
“It’s hip-hop, whether no one ever hears my sound
I been here for years and I’m cool with underground
where albums never return for profits, just for love
I keep on makin’ songs cause I can feel it in my blood”
Partner in rhyme Quarintine adds:
“In hopes of better life we stay perseverant
Engage you with the light that you find inside our lyrics
When the snare is trapped inside the boom bap
To bring the breath of life is why we do rap”
Their love for hip-hop occasionally turns into hate for the sell-out rapper. Check Quarintine in “Industry 2”
“The fallacies of life all shaped and molded
so on the dotted line you put your soul and sold it
to the industry, the ministry of memory loss
What’s the cost of an MC’s head verse the cross?
30 pieces of silver you mould into a mic
Tied the cord into a noose and you took your own life
The pharisees plotted and peeped out your conduct
now you’re Judas MC, the industry’s next product”
Unfortunately for the Lifeliners, ideology alone doesn’t help sell records, but music does. In that regard, it’s hard to recommend “The Common Denominator” to anyone except die-hard underground fanatics that don’t mind an unpolished sound. You have tracks that feel like they are right off some late ’80s demo tape (“This Is Hip Hop”, “One Chance”), you have tracks that hint at having boom, the production seemingly failing to bring it out (“Take it Easy”), right next to beats that halfway meet underground standards like “Don’t Stop” with its dark strings and spine-tingling chorus or the beatbox-supported “No Respect”. But mastering seems like a top priority right now for this self-produced and self-distributed project.
After all this bashing, it might seem odd to come up with an obscure reference to explain why I still find the Lifeliners likeable. But it’s a fact that this Detroit area duo reminds me of the legendary Southern duo 8Ball & MJG. Not long after I found out that Wordplay sounds like 8Ball, I noticed Quarintine’s striking resemblance to MJG. I could be that I was desperate to hear something familiar, but I really do think that they bring a similar presence to the mic, from the thick voices to the hard flows. Much like 8Ball & MJG, the Lifeliners convey passion for hip-hop and their subject matter, as much as these individual subject matters may differ. Too bad they lack the other duo’s verbal eloquence and vocal finesse.