I’m not of the faith myself, but there was a point in time (around the late 90’s/early 2000’s) when I took an interest in Christian hip hop, at least to the extent that I acquired a couple dozen or so albums. I wasn’t drawn to the sub-genre for religious reasons, but a lot of secular hip hop of that era was feeling stale to me so I saw Christian hip hop as something fresh and different. Artists such as Corey Red and Precise, Dirt, Hazakim, Descendantz, Secta7, Walking Dead and The Cross Movement delivered a raw and creative underground East Coast sound that outshone a lot of the music that was coming from the secular hip hop world at the time. Albums such as “Hip Hologetics” by Hazakim, “Divine Rootz” by Descendantz, “The Invasion” by Secta7 and “House of Representatives” by The Cross Movement were simply excellent. Particularly appealing was that a lot of the artists were following that Wu fam/Jedi Mind Tricks production style that was popular then, with added levels of aura and mystique which I was a real sucker for. Yeah sure they rapped about the LORD but not in the preachy, door-knocking “repent your sins and be saved” sense; it was generally more succinctly done, or executed in far more complex ways discussing the historical ideologies, metaphysics and such. Secta7 in particular were a group of MC’s that went to lyrical depths that would make Killah Priest proud, and they were a type of Wu-Tang Clan in the sense that they had a core group with many members, extended “fam” members and offshoot groups.
For a neutral listener, a lot of the artists were no more confronting or offending than your favourite MC who repped the Five Percent Nation; you could absorb the lyrics, digest them and possibly learn something, or simply detach yourself from the verbals and enjoy the dope production and skilled emcees. I always found it quite curious that most of us could happily listen to rappers kicking it about Allah, Ganksta N-I-P chopping up bodies, Cube calling white women cave bitches, every 2nd rapper telling us how he is the ladies’ gift etc. etc. – but someone rapping about Jesus was too much to bear? I suppose that sort of aversion to all things Christian for non-religious people is a reflection of society in general isn’t it? I know I’ve received a few bewildered reactions and even laughs from people upon my mentions of Christian hip hop.
I dropped off Christian hip hop after a few years as I felt the production shifted to places too polished and too far removed from what I first liked about the sub-genre, and thus I totally lost touch with the scene. Also, as a small, quite specific category of hip hop which is rarely mentioned in non-Christian hip hop realms, it was quite hard to keep up with and I didn’t have enough interest to continue digging around in the gospel hip hop zones. Therefore, Readywriter’s album “Paradyme Shift” is my first taste of Christian hip hop for close to 10 years. I suppose the album is somewhat of a litmus test to determine whether I should have kept paying attention to the gospel rap scene or if I was right to be satisfied with my past foray into it?
I have to wonder about the target audience of this album. Yes obviously it’s Christians, and maybe also it’s aimed at those considering the religion, but the delivery of some of Readywriter’s messages has me thinking he’s rapping for pre-teens. An example of this is “Do the Right Thing”, where Readywriter tells kids (and his family) to act right in every day life in accordance to Christian values. No doubt the laidback jazz vibe of the Ella Fitzgerald sample makes for a chilled listen, but the lyrics seem very elementary, annoyingly so. “Gift” is basically “I Can” by Nas, obviously with a Christian slant. This time kids are asked to choose a career where they can utilise their skills to benefit society as Christians: “You got a gift from the Father, make sure you give points back to the Father, pray, go harder”. The cute Pied Piper flutes and classical touches are pretty catchy, but I don’t see what an adult listener will get out of this, made worse by the fact there is a 2 minute dialog at the end of the song that has Readywriter asking a group of kids what they want to be when they grow up â€“ all that does is make the Pied Piper lead me away, following his flute and skipping quickly to the next track. Thankfully the whole album doesn’t come across in this way, as the remainder of the tracks focus more on Readywriter’s faith; in particular the power of the Lord and Readywriter himself feeling empowered because of the Lord’s love. I can only assume is that Readywriter is hoping all ages can get something out of his album with the inclusion of these parental type advice giving songs? It gives a whole new meaning to “Parental Advisory”.
Adding a bit more fuel to the rapping for the kids’ fire is the fact that Readywriter raps with an exaggerated emphasis on many of his words, which makes him sound like he’s in a perpetual state of awe and astonishment. It might seem like a strange reference point but his microphone technique reminds me of the way LL raps on “I Need Love”. It’s great to hear an MC with clear diction, but Readywriter’s delivery leaves him resembling a teacher lecturing children in class. Whilst we’re on the topic of kids and Nas, “Diamond” is Ready’s take on “Daughters” by the QB legend. I’d never deny an artist the chance to express their love on such a track, and the couple verses composed by Readywriter for his teenage girl are quite lovely and they provide a nice little rundown of his history with her. However, unless you are a devout Christian you will probably deny the track the opportunity to run for its entirety, as the last minute of the song is an excerpt of a church minister giving a sermon about being a good father in God’s eyes, and this includes Bible references to the subject. This kind of thing has to be pretty alienating to non-Christian listeners, although it is really the only occasion during the album where it feels like you’ve been forced to attend a church gathering to keep your Christian girlfriend company (yes that was me once upon a time).
The only information I can find regarding the production is that the album is “mixed by Cincinnati’s D-Maub and featuring a bevy of producers, such as Swoope, Swade Beatz, and Wes Pendelton”. Despite the “bevy of producers” the sound is pretty cohesive across the 12 tracks. A few of tracks are influenced by the likes of Apollo Brown in their basic yet catchy formula i.e. strong and punchy mid-tempo beats at the forefront, with various looped samples jumping in and out behind the beats. “Keep On” is an example of this and it also features some nice DJ work (which occurs on a couple other tracks also):
“Little Letter” and “My Word” follow much the same pattern. Actually “Little Letter” provides a taste of the ethereal vibe which is prominent across the majority of the album, achieved by the use of choral type vocal samples and other-worldly synths and effects, all of which appropriately match the lyrical content and provide a spiritual feel.
Not everything here sounds like it would be played on the approach to the Pearly Gates though. “YSo” has the kind of chopped up piano and Dolly Parton sounding vocal sample that every 2nd rate Wu fam producer has used. “Love Like This” definitely has that Godly ambience behind it with stabs of Jean Michael Jarre flavoured effects going on, but the vocal sample from Common adds to giving the bouncy track a likeness to what was heard on Common’s own “Resurrection” LP. Swimming in pools of soul samples is the very mellow and dreamy “Look Beautiful”, but it’s probably a bit too sickly sweet sounding for me. The track that stands out as most unique here is the closing track “MAG 7”, which has nice change-ups throughout the song and we’re given doses of grunge and rapid DJ cutting, which drop in and out leaving us with the sparseness of the barebones beat. However, a problem with this song is its 2 minute length, which leaves it feeling over as soon as it starts, and this is a recurrent issue with many other songs on the album as they are similarly short.
The one song here that can be applied beyond Christianity is “P-O-M” (Power Of Music). Essentially the song is telling hip hop fans to not underestimate the fact that they can be led astray by the negative content and “immorality” that their rap idols are spitting about. It also details Readywriter’s early challenges in allowing the lure of hip hop to override his focus on Christianity. Yes again it’s coming from that parent to child angle in some ways, but there’s no doubt that younger, easily impressionable hip hop fans can be influenced to act certain ways due to naively following their microphone “gods”, although this obviously applies to numerous things beside hip hop.
Has this album re-ignited my interest in Christian hip hop? No it hasn’t. It’s unfair to judge the whole sub-genre on one album or artist though, as it’s also unfair to put pressure on one artist to be the flag-bearer for Christian hip hop in 2013. Readywriter does wave his own flag for Christ though and it’s clear through his lyrics that his faith is the light that guides him though life, and I say with all sincerity that Readywriter presents as a good person. However, being a good person is not a pre-requisite for being a good MC and as I mentioned, the sometime simplistic approach to his message seems a bit strange. Readywriter certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a member of those old Christian groups I used to listen to with their next level lyricism, but then I realise that not every MC goes to the nth degree of complexity (Christian or not) and some would rather present a straightforward message. Judged more broadly against all secular hip hop contemporaries, it’s a coherent album that stays true musically to the concepts provided by the MC, with nothing that can be called wack, but it lacks impact and therefore isn’t too memorable. Aside from being quite short in length (36 minutes), the platform of sound takes elements from other artists, but those other artists execute those elements better. If you’re not a God fearing soul I see little reason to check this album out. If you are, it makes for a decent listen but I’m not sure you’ll gain much enlightenment from it?