I took a lot of stupid classes in college. One of them was called “Red Flags/Black Flags: The History of Marxist and Anarchist Thought.” Why I felt the need to spend a whole semester reading about the rivalry between two modes of thought which both ultimately lost out, I’m not sure. But we did read this one really interesting book. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I think he was French. Sorel. Something like that. Anyway, Sorel wrote that, in order to bring about change, oppressed groups construct “social myths” that inspire revolutionary action. Jaque “Or-Whatever-His-Name-Actually-Was” Sorel was writing about 19th Century French labor unions, but if he was around today, I think he would write about hip-hop.
Indeed, hip-hop has wholly embraced ‘myth’ as a form of societal protest. By ‘myth,’ I don’t mean a false story, but rather a legend which contains a kernel of profound truth, regardless of whether the story is literally accurate. The first, and still most common, myth embraced by hip-hop is that of the Gangster-hero; rappers like Jay-Z evoke the same archetype embraced by Italian Mafia tales to explore the moral ambiguities of the game. But rap has certainly expanded its mythical horizons beyond the Gangster-hero. Nas constantly paints himself as a hustling Christ-figure. Everyone on Def Jux is obsessed with the sci-fi Apocalypse as a parable for subversion of the status quo. Most famously, the Wu-Tang Clan, for more than a decade, has been wholly enamored with the Kung Fu legend, employing its conflict as an allegory for epic urban struggle. Rappers use cultural myths to make statements about the conditions of urban living and the human condition more generally.
“Jerusalaam Come,” the first solo album by former Gamma frontman, UK grime-MC, Juice Aleem, further expands hip-hops’ embrace of myth and legend. But where the Wu uses Kung Fu and H.O.V.A. uses Scarface, Juice employs the myths of the ancients. Aleem sets his flows in a world where wandering Israelites are involved in constant tribal conflict (“The Fallen (Gen. 15.13)”), where God intervenes in human affair to strike down pagans (“Straight Out of BC”), and where the Mayans prophesize the Earth’s demise (“KunteKinTeTarDiss”). Constantly interweaving his Before-the-Common-Era imagery with modern themes, Aleem creates a chilling commentary on our current state of affairs.
“Jerusalaam Come” is thus a fascinating take on grime’s obsession with dank and dense urban landscapes. On “The Fallen,” spitting high-minded Afrocentricism, he discusses how African kings are now living as “thug barbarians.” On “Sang Real,” he urges warriors to “grab their sword and shield” to bring about a new world over, warning us that “the Son of Man cause thunder.” While grimers like Dizzee Rascal uses personal narration to discuss the conditions of urban poverty, J.A. inverts this approach and espouses his sociological commentary through grandiose biblical allegory.
Heavily quoting “Jerusalaam Come,” however, does not quite do it justice. The record succeeds more by evoking a mood than by dropping any specific knowledge. In this sense, the production, both vocal and musical, is perhaps more essential to the album than our modern day warrior-MC’s specific lyrics. Aleem’s flow is dense and fierce. He spits with an almost unparalleled sense of imminence. The production, mostly held down by Blackitude, is packed with dirty synth over minimalist percussion, which evokes the feeling in the listener that the empty spaces in society will be filled by something awful.
This focus on mood allows our feature to stray from the above-described topics while not sacrificing the ominous coherence of the album. On “First Lesson,” he flows with ferocious bravado over a building, off-key horn. Although the track sticks to traditional battle-rap themes, the battle he fights seems more like that fought between Good and Evil than Jay-Z and Nas. On “You Shut the **** Up,” Juice, again engaged in heroic rap battle, slaughters his opponents more as if he were participating in a human sacrifice than a cipher. Even the largely instrumental final track, “Tings Heat Up,” harkens the listener back to an age of pre-Neolithic lust and conflict.
The only instances where Aleem missteps are on the three of four songs entirely dedicated to narrating Juice boning. It is not that any of these tracks are themselves weak. Indeed, it is hard to deny the catchiness of “U4Mi,” which employs a flute hook over a steady high-hat, or the overall effectiveness of “Church of Rock,” which features one of the album’s best beats, a jazz horn over crate-drumming percussion, and delightfully pervy lyrics (“Try to grab my bone, but you won’t break bread,” “I’ll tickle your kidneys,” etc.). Still, it is hard to reconcile these tracks with the album’s generally more grand and mythic feel. On a more personalized LP, these lustful rants would fit nicely, but, they feel too mundane on an album that focuses more on the battle than the soldier.
On the other hand, while “Jerusalaam Come” is bold in its reach, ultimately, each track is no more than the manic rantings of the true lone soldier, Juice himself, who is left screaming to the sky, praying that someone will listen. If you’re interested in hearing one of the year’s best, answer his prayers.