Reviewed by Trey Palmisano
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul states in a famous passage in Chapter 5 how affliction builds endurance, endurance creates proven character, and character ultimately brings about hope.
Hope is a quality of being that not a lot of people can claim as their own these days, and which certainly does not easily translate into the daily grind. Artists like Stephen have the uncertain task of making you believe in the person God has called you to be (i.e., that God is going to cut through your circumstances and reach out to you where you are).
Stephen is brother to Timothy Brindle, whose influence is sizeable on the Philadelphia gospel hip hop scene, which is arguably the center of it all on the East Coast, a place where Lamp Mode and Cross Movement records call home. This quaint arrangement has obviously exposed Stephen to some quality production and better expressions of gospel hip hop. If one thing’s true: it does appear that skills run in the family.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t excited about listening through this at first. There’s a lot of music on this tape, and I expected to be barraged with lyrical sermons that require a serious and arduous listener. As a theologian, I was also sure I wouldn’t agree with everything being said, and for that reason, I prefer to stay away from projects which focus entirely with systematic theological approaches. Yet, the deeper I delved, the more I appreciated Stephen as a lyricist first. As an emcee, he has a great delivery and a surprisingly wide range, even when experimental jams like “Repeat Rhymes” sound more like educational exercises assigned in a poetry class. He can keep it doctrinally sound or sound off with great puns, even with reference to a jean brand – “His blood is running through my genes/that’s my true religion.”
There is a strong sense of empathy on this mix tape. Stephen, the fellow sojourner, shoulder-to-shoulder in the thick of wickedness, rather than Stephen the pastor preaching down to you in despair of your own godless situation.
Believers looking for edification will find that praise runs throughout. Lifting up God’s omnipotence and reciting the multiplication of blessings on tracks like “I Worship You,” reminded me of Cross Movement material.
Mix tapes act as a means of introduction for an artist and are usually a platform for MCs to demonstrate their lyrical skills without dealing with regulatory muscle of record labels that try to steer the project to the bottom line. Many of the beats here are recycled from older songs. Still, the beat selection is hot. “Ya Kept Me.” “Brainwashed” demonstrate a good, solid flow, an assault on secular hip hop and the empty promises heralded through the so-called hard rappers. However, it’s an interesting lesson in contradiction when Christian lyricists oppugn secular hip hop on a mix tape that borrows the majority of its beats from secular hip hop. I guess there’s a magical way to borrow the music without listening to it…but I digress.
What I do like about Stephen’s mix tape is that no one can accuse him of being myopic in scope. There’s something for everyone whether you’re dealing with the pain of sin, experiencing God’s peace, or just struggling through the motions. Songs like “Secular Workplace,” for example, broach subject matter that many Christians can relate to. There hasn’t been a jam in recent memory that expresses the situation this lucidly and with this much compassion. Other songs like “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Persevere” resound with rich beats, a solid lyrical delivery, and a potent message.
But before I exculpate the album entirely, it wouldn’t hurt to move away from the grit a little bit and chew the fat with those you are trying to reach. Without a doubt, this is a believers’ album, and those outside the fold might shy away from some of the heavier joints. Those guilty of behaviors questioned on this album might find it hard to bob their heads in agreement to the beats when the message trends towards condemnations of their fallen state. Of course, God has his own route to every person’s heart, and with that, the album still combines gospel and pathos in an attractive, salt-of-the-earth fashion.
If you haven’t picked up a gospel album in some time, this might be a good re-introduction to what’s poppin’ in this genre.
For fans of: Cross Movement, Shai Linne, Evangel, Timothy Brindle, Da T.R.U.T.H.