Friday, June 29, 2012

Jerrell Johnson: The Dream SODA Mixtape (Review)

Introduction

Chad Walsh, a contemporary Christian poet once insightfully asserted, "[the artist] is a kind of earthly assistant to God, carrying on the delegated work of creation, making the fullness of creation fuller." In other words, exploring the sphere of human imagination is tantamount to exploring a part of God's creation itself. As one writer said, "it is as much part of God's creation as the sun, moon, and starts. They are given, like all gifts, for His glory and our good." However, considering the doctrine of original sin it is also proper for Christians to be skeptical about products of the human mind as demonstrated in the evil portrayed in the popular arts since "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21). But, God is a Great Redeemer who not only redeems the body and soul but also the human imagination. Jerrell Johnson, a Christian hip hop recording artist from Tampa, FL is an example of God's glorious redemption, an artist with a "baptized imagination."

I invite you to explore the imagination of Jerrell Johnson who recently released a mixtape entitled, "Dream SODA" available at www.jerrelljohnson.bandcamp.com. After listening I was thoroughly impressed by his creativity and display of artistic excellence in terms of album construction. In the age of I-tunes and a culture impacted by the digital revolution it seems that artists no longer know how to put together "projects." In contrast to the previous generation of artists, the music industry seems to have an emphasis upon the production of "hit singles." Perhaps, this phenomenon is the result of listeners now having the ability to purchase individual songs opposed to an artists' entire body of work. However, it is my conviction that there is difference between a rapper and a rap artist. To make a good album takes more than the ability to make a hit single or even rap itself; it requires more skill than just being able to use intricate rhyme-schemes, word-play, catchy hooks, flow, delivery, etc. A good album constructionist must also have proper discernment in beat selection, flow of track-transitions, variety of instrumental structures and so forth. In this post, I will not provide a review of Dream SODA in its entirety but I will briefly explain how Jerrell excels in the areas of good album construction mentioned above: 1) Discernment in Beat Selection; 2) Flow of Track-Transitions, and 3) Variety of Structures.

Proper Discernment in Beat Selection

First, Jerrell has proper discernment in beat selection that matches the connotation of the message. Historically, aestheticians have observed the concept of the artist and fittingness. Have you ever wondered why a jagged line communicates restlessness more than a horizontal line and a horizontal line communicates tranquility more than a jagged line? Or why a dentist never plays the theme of Jaws while working on their patients? Or why the instrumental of "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" is never played at funerals? God designed the universe in such a way that certain combination of sounds communciate certain moods. A good artist has knowledge of music and how it works so to speak in regards to its emotive qualities. This particular type of discernment requires skill, some excel in it more than others and that is precisely why movie directors hire film composers because they have a needed understanding of the nature of music. For example, director of "Batman: The Dark Knight" sought the highly esteemed film composer Hans Zimmer to find the sound that would best communicate the character of the Joker.

Unfortunately, some Christian rappers are "sound-blind" and tend to write concepts to instrumentals that simply do not fit the song, however, for Jerrell this is not the case. He demonstrates this skill of discernment in songs like D-75 (Episode 1), about an evil genius who programs the typical mainstream rap artist condoning sexual immorality, materialism, pride and greed. He chooses a futuristic musical backdrop with an unorthodox drum-pattern that is conducive for the song's setting. He practices what many have called, "cinematic rap" in which he incorporates sound FX to help tell stories that listeners can visualize. He understands sound, what effects and musical backdrops that are able to effectively convey stories much like film-composers. Listening to this album is similar to the experience of listening to a motion-picture film. The mixtape not only demonstrates proper discernment in beat selection but it has smooth track transitions which we will now consider.

 Album Flow: The Art of Track Transition

Secondly, Dream SODA has smooth track-transitions. As Json of Lamp Mode recordings once noted, not all those who can make good verses can make good good songs and not all those who can make good songs can make a good albums. One ingredient for producing artistically excellent albums is having smooth track-transitions. A good artist not only knows how track three will sound but he knows how track three will sound in light of track one to the end of the album. Have you ever finished listening to an album and said to yourself, "Wow, every instrumental sounds the same." Or "Man, the beats are everywhere; we go from indie rock, southern crunk, east-coast underground boom-bap to alternative hip hop; it lacks cohesiveness." (Note: In stating this I am by no means asserting that every artist that incorporates different styles in terms of production in their projects are aesthetically displeasing; few artists do it well. See Lecrae: Church Clothes). I believe artists should understand that the order of production style(s) are often determined by the"sound" of the project (See Beautiful Eulogy - Satellite Kite). Dream SODA is a sonically cohesive mixtape that balances the range of human emotion demonstrated by his choice of track-order.  

Another way he creates a smooth album flow in track-tranisitioning is his thoughtful use of interludes which may be compared to strings the weave together the loose tracks into a unified whole. I think Jerrell has mastered the art of interludes in consideration of his entire body of work. Some artists' tend to use interludes for interludes sake without much thought to its "replay factor," their interludes are either too long, too short, dull or simply irrelevent. You may observe that artists usually make interludes "seperate tracks" so after listening to the album once they may choose to skip the interlude to go directly to the next song. But, you will notice on Dream SODA that Jerrell does not make seperate tracks for interludes but instead incorporates them within the song itself. One may argue against this approach because if one decided to replay the song consumers would not want to listen to the "interlude-outros" again. However, Jerrell makes creative interludes that are so interesting and dependent upon the understanding of the song and overall message of the mixtape that the listener would not mind listening to it again. A good album not only has fitting beat-selections, smooth track-transitions, but it also contains a variety of structure.


The Variety of Structure


Thirdly, Jerrell incoporates a variety of structures which essentially increases the replay and enjoyment factor. As an Christian artist, I study the art of rap and try to listen to as much albums as I can for critical analysis. The projects that I found to be mediocre were typically those that lacked variety. What I have observed is that a lot of albums tend to have the same instrumental, flow, scheme or song structure. However, every instrumental structure does not have to be patterned after three sixteen bars verses, three eight bar hooks and an outro. Every flow does not have to be the same or every rhyme scheme does not have to be strictly intricate or strictly simple. I think the constant repitition of particular structures song-after-song makes an album flat and dull. Seasoned rap artists, know how to incorporate different types of flows throughout their projects (See Lecrae and KB). Listen closely and you will soon notice that they tend to switch their flows after every four to six bars or choose an apparently distinct flow after three to four tracks in an album.  

If there is any aspiring artist that wants to study the art of album-construction, you do yourself well to study the work of Jerrell Johnson. He has a mind for the forest and not merely the trees. What I appreciate about Dream SODA, unlike some albums I hear every song-structure is not the same. For example, in D-75 (Episode 2) Eons-D is interrupted in the middle of his verse (1:37) with a coninutation of the story-line of Episode 1 through the use of sound effects and acting. Or in the introduction of the album that does not start with a song or a preparatory instrumental but a skit in which he is looking for the Dream SODA tape and a brief speech by Trip Lee introducing the theme of the mixtape.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, Jerrell Johnson's mixtape, "Dream SODA" superbly exemplifies characteristics of well-constructed projects such as fitting beat-selections, smooth track-transition and a variety of structures. As Gene Edward Veith said, "If God gives us an aesthetic experience - a glimpse of a sublime landscape, the satisfaction of a good novel, the pleasing forms of a painting or sculpture, - we must not cover our eyes, spurning God's gift of beauty. We are obligated to linger over it, enjoy it fully, and to glorify God." Veith understands well, "If God gives us an aesthetic experience" he said. In contrast to secular humanistic understandings of art, Christians affirm that all artistic talent and ability are gifts of God (Ex. 31:1-5). Scripture teaches that God cares about beauty and our enjoyment of it. In creation, we may observe that God is not only concerned with function or utility but aesthetic delight. Gen 2:9 - "And out fo the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food" (emphasis added).

God the Ultimate Artist, created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and made man in His image (Gen 1:16). Human beings reflect His image when we desire to create works of art. The Lord has redeemed a sinner, Jerrell Johnson, baptized his imagination for His glory and has graciously given us his music, and most recently the "Dream SODA" mixtape to enjoy and be edified. So, do not cover your ears and spurn God's gift of beauty; be encouraged to download his project and share it with your friends. For updates on upcoming events, interviews, reviews and music you may follow Jerrell on Twitter: @JerrellJohnson or suscribe to him on facebook at www.facebook.com/whoisjerrell

Download Now: The Dream SODA Mixtape

Now available for free download at www.jerrelljohnson.bandcamp.com


   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Pear Tree Episode (Lyrics)

The Pear Tree Episode - Through Hymn
http://throughhymn.bandcamp.com/track/the-pear-tree-episode

Verse #1

Yo, I know I'm not the only one/

all temptation is common to man, so let me be/

honest and open up, have you ever felt spiritually dry?/

That God is so far away that He can't hear you at all?/

have you ever doubted and asked, am I really saved?

or felt too guilty to pray because of your filthy ways?

(I have) or cried why do I keep on falling? I can't overcome

So, why do even bother? Sometimes, I feel like committing suicide/

Or getting in my car on the road to just drive/ (just drive)

They ask how I'm doing, and I say that, "I'm good"/

But, I'm not, just too afraid to say what I should/

I don't always walk with a pep in my step/ (nah)

sometimes I'm depressed overwhelmed with stress/ (it's true)

I confess that sometimes that I'd fear death/

Like ion ev'n know where I'd go next/


Chorus (2x)

Our inquity is great but your steadfast in your love /

abundant in Your grace, we're covered in your blood/

Justified through Faith, treasured as your Son /

You are faithful to the end, You will never give us up/


verse #2

I'm about to graduate and I worry with tears/

will ever find a job or a stable career?/

will I be forty years old, staying at home?/

and God, how in the world do I pay for these loans?/ 

will I work at fast-food for the rest food for the rest of my days?/

will I ever get paid more than minimum wage?/

will I ever live up to my families name?/ (I'm sorry)

and Lord, I confess my pride; it's so awful/ (I do)

Thought cause I went to college, had my major in Bible/

and quoted scholars like Wayne Grudem and John Piper/

that people would admire or envy me for my knowledge/

I confess I have turned the TULIP into a idol/

sometimes I read books more than I do the Bible/

and I hate it, LORD rid me of this hypocrisy/

do I worship God or do I worship theology?/


Chorus (3x)

Our inquity is great but your steadfast in your love /

abundant in Your grace, we're covered in your blood/

Justified through Faith, treasured as your Son /

You are faithful to the end, You will never give us up/


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Greatest Drama - Dorothy Sayers (Quote)





"The Gospel is the greatest drama ever staged...a terrifying drama of which
God is the victim and the hero." - Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos?

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Sanctification and Gospel Indicatives

Saints, have you ever asked yourself, "Am I really saved?" or "how can God possibly love me when I keep falling time and time again?" Michael Horton in "The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way" gives the comforting words, "Where most people think that the goal of religion is to get people to become something they are not, the Scriptures call believers to become more and more what they are already in Christ" (652).

Now, what an encouraging statement! Even though we grasp the doctrine of justification by faith alone intellectually isn't it sometimes true that we think we are justified to the extent we are sanctified? When we start doing bad it seems like this cloud of condemnation hovers over our head and we feel that God can't possibly love us and His wrath is surely upon us. Then when we start doing good, this cloud suddenly disappears; then comes that dark moment; we fall, and this dreadful cloud leaps to haunt us once again, and it's this continuous and treacherous cycle. But, if you think God loves you more because you do right and loves you less because you mess up, renew your mind with the Word of God.

The Scriptures teach that we are already sanctified, we are already holy and blameless in Christ. So, progressive sanctification is being brought in line with our identity that is found in Christ. As 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, "And because you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, wisdom, righteousness and sanctification and redemption."  It important to note that this passage is not referring to our progressive sanctification but our "positional sanctification." It is not you but He who became to us sanctification. As Calvin in the Institutes of Christian Religion stressed by virtue of our union with Christ we receive all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). So, let us remember who we are in Christ and that we are not saved by our works, not even the works that are graciously produced by the Spirit (Rom 3:20; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 3:9). Be assured, it is Christ to whom we look and not ourselves.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) - Concerning Spirituality and Materialism

I recently finished a song called, "Naturalism" for my upcoming album and one of the books that I used in my studies was "The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World" by Alister McGrath. In discussing the rise of atheism in western culture he makes reference to Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), a German philosopher who once made the assertion in an essay entitled, "Concerning Spirituality and Materialism" that "you [man] are what you eat." Perhaps, we all have heard this phrase before, however, in Feuerbach's context it was not referring to a commentary on our dietary practices but rather a metaphysical statement on the nature of humans. In other words, that "you are what you eat," human beings are nothing more than a bundle of molecules since in the naturalistic worldview all reality is reducible to matter with no reference to a supernatural Being. It was only in the early twentieth century that this phrase developed a nutritional connotation.

Sadly, this naturalistic view, that all is matter permeates our culture; we see this expressed in the writings of the Nobel Prize winner, Francis Crick in his well-known work, "The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul." He makes the astonishing statetement, "that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules" (emphasis added). However, do not be deceived by such popular notions, on the contrary trust in the teachings of Scripture; that we are human beings created in the image of God.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shai Linne - "The Attributes of God" Album Review

Shai Linne of Lampmode recently released the highly anticipated album The Attributes of God (Nov 2011). It begins with “The Perfection of Beauty,” a powerfully orchestrated instrumental produced by Big-Juice with the thought-provoking poetry of his wife Blair Linne. I appreciate how the introduction ends with the words from Ex. 34:8 - “Moses bowed down at once and worshipped.” This demonstrates that his approach to music is biblically-informed. It starts with an emphasis on worship which properly communicates the irrefutable reality that theology should ultimately lead to doxology. As Shai Linne said in the CD’s artist statement, “I think I can now comfortably call this [The Attributes of God] a ‘worship’ album because the whole point is to ascribe worth and glory to God in the spirit of Deuteronomy 32:3”

Sonically, the album is somewhat different from his previous projects (The Solus Christus Project /The Atonement). He seems to be cultivating the sound encapsulated in Storiez. Nevertheless, the album does not depart from the Shai Linne we are all familiar with. However, this change of sound should not be too surprising to committed listeners. In the article “6 Reasons Why Artists Changed” published on Rapzilla about four months before the release of TAOG he asserted, “Its rare that an artist is already fully developed at the time they release their first album…For many emcees, it is not until the third or fourth album that they find out who they really are as recording artists. By that time, their sound has usually changed.” TAOG is his fourth-album and it reasonable to assume that he is honing his sound.

Interestingly, the album incorporates much more singing including several talented artists such as J.R, Chris Cobbins, Melissa T, Monielle, Sovereign Grace Kids, and Andy Mineo. It seems there was more intentionality and consideration towards his target audience in light of particular song structures; the hooks are more radio-friendly and crowd participatory in nature. The album is not ‘flat’ but full of color and diversity. He uses impressive intricate-rhyme schemes, different flows from tongue-twisting double-times in songs such as “Glory to God Alone” and “Our God is in the Heavens feat. God’s Servant” to more slow paced flows as seen in “Lord of Patience.” He even has segments with no rhyming but only instrumentation giving listeners time to reflect the weightiness of God’s holiness (Track 5).

Furthermore, Shai-linne has a good ability to select instrumentals that compliment his voice well and fit with the gravity of messages. I think this album demonstrates that skill brilliantly. However, some reviewers have argued that a few of his beat selections do not particularly fit his tone well such as “Our God is the Heavens,” a mid-west instrumental with a southern/eastern influence. I find that most people who like the sound of The Solus Christus Project or The Atonement more make the same criticisms on the production for TOAG. Yet, the song “Our God is in the Heavens” received the majority of votes on FB to become a single. As a result, I come to the conclusion that it is simply a matter of preference. But, generally one can enjoy the direction of production overall.

In The Solus Christus Project there was an emphasis on style/delivery; in The Atonement there was an deliberate minimization of delivery and flair for “heavy reflection” and in TOAG there seems to be a deliberate highlight on musical arrangement to create a sense of awe at the grandiose of God. The production ranges from Big Juice, Wit, JustWord, D-Free, Joseph Prielozny, Tony-Stone and Alex Medina. The majority of the production is done by Big Juice (9 of 15). I think one of the benefits of this methodology of production is that it makes the album sonically cohesive. Sometimes artists instrumentals are everywhere and all over the place stylistically but after listening to the entire project there is a sense of unity. I can tell when artists just “select” beats from a website because it easier. I imagine some of his phone conversations went something like this: “Alex (Big Juice), this is the vibe I’m envisioning for this song,” “Can you put this or that there?” “Can you put a rest period here” or “Can you extend the outro’s length with a gradual build up?” Albums usually come out better when artists work “with” producers (however, not always the case). I can easily tell when artists simply select instrumental from websites. On this album you will not find superficial and thoughtless production.

There is a cinematic and theatrical influence in terms of the album’s construction. One may observe his influence from film musically in that some of the production are akin to movie-scores. Also in theater there is the idea called a “through-line” which may be defined as “that which threads a story or character together.” Shai-linne mentioned in a blog that he tries to incorporate through-lines in all of his projects in which there is an intentional continuity within individual verses, songs or albums. For example, in “As the Hour Draws Near feat. Evangel and Ant” on Storiez he has each verse and chorus structured the same way. He also demonstrates through-line in albums when he uses lyrics from previous works. He notes in the song “Work it Out” from Storiez the ladies are saying lines from The Solus Christus Project and on “Testify” each person says a line from a testimonial song: (Verse 1 Ambassador “Thug Joint” from Christology; Verse 2: “My Life Cypha” from High-Definition and verse 3 recites a line from Da Truth’s “My Story” from Moment of Truth”).

In TAOG Shai Linne continues the idea of through-line. There are at least three through-lines that one may observe after listening: First, the inclusion of children: Compare from Storiez “Penelope Judd” to Track 9, 10 on TAOG with the Sovereign Grace Kids. Secondly, a similar conversational structure/lines from a previous work.

The Attributes of God - "Mercy and Grace" feat. Timothy Brindle

Shai: Yo Tim, that was a banging verse, B/
Tim: Nah, remember I’m a sinner saved by mercy/
Shai: What’s mercy? Tim: It’s not getting what we deserve/
because Christ already suffered the judgment and curse/
Tim: But Shai, yo, you blazed it ace!/
Shai: Praise God! I’m just a sinner saved by grace
Tim: Well, define grace; Shai: Our redemption price immense/
Both: Grace stands for God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Now, notice the similar structure from the refrain’s above to the song “Saved by Grace” feat. Shai Linne from Timothy Brindle’s album The Great Awakening:

“Tim: Yo, shai we blazed it ace!
Shai: Yo relax kid we’re just sinners saved by grace/
Tim: Oh yea, what’s grace? Shai: Grace is unmerited favor;
Tim: our inheritance major; Shai: Cause we cherish the Savior/
Shai: Ah, yo! Timothy we raised the stakes!
Tim: But, you just said we’re some sinners saved by grace/
Shai: Oh, define grace, Tim: our redemption price immense/
Both: Grace stands for God‘s riches at Christ‘s expense.

Finally, we see the inclusion of sampled speakers. On TOAG he samples D.A Carson, John Piper and Sinclair Ferguson. From my observation the majority of CHH albums primarily sample John Piper and Paul Washer. But, he samples D.A Carson (rarely sampled but used by Curtis Allen aka Voice in ‘The Westminster Catechism’ song) and Singlair Ferguson (who to my knowledge has not been sampled on a CHH album). He states, “we are glad to have a chance to expose Sinclair Ferguson’s ministry to those who may not be familiar with him”

Shai-linne is perhaps most known for his Christ-centered lyricism. It was said if you were to prick John Bunyan he would bleed Bible. I think we can say the same for Shai Linne in TAOG; it is absolutely saturated with Scripture. If one were to thoroughly examine his lyrics one could easily write pages of Scripture references. The message of this album is much needed in our narcissistic and man-centered culture. In worship we tend to emphasize our subjective response (imperative): “I will praise You” I will lift you up” opposed to the proclamation of the objective person and work of Christ in redemption (indicative). As Shai Linne said, “…most of the music I hear is more about US and our response to God, but not God himself.” But, just as we judge our sermons and prayers by the Bible we should also judge our songs with the Bible. If we look at Scripture we will see that the indicative often precedes the imperative. But, TAOG notably models Scripture by balancing the objective and subjective response as exemplified in the Psalter.

Its hard critique any particular area of the album considering its execution. But, to name a couple I think Shai-linne is an excellent story-teller (See James the Just/Penelope-Judd; Storiez) and personally I would have liked to hear more narratives like “The Jealous One” on this project as done on his previous albums; considering Scripture is 70 percent narrative, vision or symbol and 30 propositional statements. I thought that could have been an interesting way to not only demonstrate what God has revealed about Himself but also how he has revealed Himself throughout the history of redemption. Also, I am not for sure if it was intentional but there seems to be a portion of the album that has very similar instrumentals, namely, Track 7, 9, 10 and 11. I would have liked to hear a different arrangement  or more variety of vibes in that particular section.

In conclusion, TAOG is a solid album and significant contribution to CHH. One thing you can expect from shai-linne is a project that is not thrown-together. In 30 facts about TOAG on Twitter he mentioned a couple of the resources he used to study for the album was “The Existence and Attributes of God” by Stephen Charnock and the book of Exodus. This amount of effort demonstrates that he takes God’s word and his craft seriously for the glory of God. In addition, all lyrics were reviewed by Pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CD’s Artist Statement). This sets a good example for upcoming Christian MCs in never failing to raise the standard of excellency in lyrical theology. The album will not only inform your mind but move your heart. You will be encouraged by the “ Faithful God,” convicted by the “Jealous One,” humbled by the “Holiness of God” and enamored in awe by the “Omnis.” The project is not only an excellent work of art but scholarship; accurately communicating the truth of Scripture through the medium of hip-hop in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

FAVORITE SONGS
1. Lord of Patience feat. Melissa T
2. Faithful God feat. Chris Cobbins & Sovereign Grace Kids
3. The Jealous One

I highly recommended this album. Be sure to visit http://www.lampmode.com/ and add Shai Linne's "The Attributes of God" to your collection of music.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On Word and Sacrament: Tracklisting Revealed

Through Hymn's free project "On Word and Sacrament" is set to release 08.30.11 
http://throughhymn.bandcamp.com



















01. Justification by Faith Alone
02. The German Reformation (1517-30)
03. Justification: The Roman Catholic View feat. Will Passion
04. Justification: The New Perspectives on Paul
05. Psalm 103:1-7 feat. Mirror Image
06. Recovering Psalmody in Modern Evangelicalism
07. Transubstantiation (Roman Catholic)
08. Consubstantiation (Lutheran)
09. Symbolic Memorialism (Zwinglian)
10. Suprasubstantiation (Reformed) feat. DJ SincereONE
11. Baptism as a Means of Grace
12. The Synod of Dort (1618-19)
13. Summary and Conclusion feat. Joseph Romeo