One of my favorite quotes of all time is from the show King of the Hill. Hank, the show’s matriarch, comes across a Christian rock band whose music is frankly pretty awful. He looks these guys straight in the eye and tells them “you’re not making Christianity better, you’re making rock and roll worse.” In my years of reviewing music this has always been my feeling on Christian rap, with the exception of a soft spot I’ve still got for a few DC Talk record from back in my youth. Far too often these artists try too hard to walk the line between being a minister and a pop star and end up failing miserably at both. If you’re giving all your glory to God you shouldn’t be writing songs that sound like strip club anthems with the occasional shout out to the Lord. The fact that you don’t swear shouldn’t be the only reason people think you’re Christian. And you sound like a fool talking about all your money when you’re spreading the word about a dude who had contempt for the rich, who walked everywhere (even over water), and didn’t charge for his live show.
Knine seems to be the exception to the rule when it comes to Christian rap. His “Robots Have Feelings Too” mixtape is the perfect blend of street smart storytelling, bleeding heart honesty, and spiritual depth that even the most atheist of hip hop heads will find themselves giving a second listen to. While not a gangster rapper Knine is far from a backpack totter. At one point in his life he fell victim to the call of the streets, and openly thanks God on the record’s first track “Thank the Lord” for rescuing him before his street life stole his freedom. “Thank the Lord” is a track of shocking depth, a “is that Kanye West” level beat that samples a gospel choir singing “Praise the Lord” in response to situations from his life.
The track openly discusses his days of a more violent lifestyle, and how he reconciles his freedom while some of his friends ended up in jail:
“Not that he let me get away with it
I promise I was down to go spray with it
But I chose to stay home the day they did it
(PRAISE THE LORD!)
So now I send letters to the pen
Have you any clue how those letters are to begin?
But it is not an option cause I could have been him so I
(PRAISE THE LORD!)”
Knine’s thoughtful lyricism never leaves the impression on listeners that he’s always been the man of God that he is today. He openly admits to slipping in his walk, from drugs to sex to gang relations. The open wound honesty of his admissions gives his words added depth, so even if he wasn’t an incredibly talented lyricist there would be plenty of food for thought here. Thankfully, or should I say “praise the lord,” Knine delivers incredibly consistent concepts, punch lines, and metaphors. Dr. Carter would be proud.
Take for instance “Money,” a seeming attack on prosperity ministry, the idea that pursuing money over all else is spiritually blessed because God wants the best for us:
“They say to love you is the root of all evil
But without you I cannot pay all of these bills
I put my trust in the father
But I also put a lot in the all mighty dollar
I feel so blessed when you are with me but I feel so stressed when you forget me
I wish we could be together permanently
Should I repent if I let dead presidents represent me
Like Jay-Z, tell me if I’m crazy
But the bible said that I would never see you if I’m lazy
You can aid me, I made you but you can’t make me
Matter of fact you’re the reason some people hate me!”
Few rappers talk directly to their wallets and the lord at the same time, but this examination of the fine line between greed and need left me, an agnostic, thinking about the way I view my bank account. It’s rare that a rap record makes me pause and think about parts of my life, least of all when it’s representing a higher power I’m not sure exists.
Like most mixtapes “Robots Have Feelings Too” take liberally from a variety of well known rap beats, from “I’m Bossy” on “1,2,3,4” to the infamous “Cannon” beat. Yes. That “Cannon” beat. Unlike most tape artists however Knine feels right at home taking each one out for a spin, especially when he joins up with Kanye’s “Say You Will” beat on “But He Said…” to tackle hopelessness in a dark world. Sprinkled throughout the tape however are a few original tracks which as far as I can tell Knine produced himself, including the aforementioned “Thank the Lord.” These self produced numbers give a look at the kind of joyful music K wants to represent him, even while his subject matter refuses to shy away from moments of darkness. The weakness of “Robots Have Feelings Too” is the same weakness of almost every mixtape I listen to. No one can hold consistent momentum over twenty seven tracks, let alone consistent quality. Accordingly a good six or seven of these tracks fall flat. Yet you’re still left with twenty banging, soulful, intellectually stimulating tracks, which is a ratio most records that slide across my desk can’t claim to hold. So while Knine might not have won me over as a member of the God Squad as he understands it he definitely made me think. And when was the last time a non-Dead Prez mixtape made you do that?