Arms Out Ent. / Illect Recordings (November 20th, 2012)
Review by Aidan Severs
Buy this album: SphereofhiphopStore.com
The main debate of 2012 in the Christian Hip Hop scene? Of course, it’s whether or not we should even call it Christian Hip Hop. Or at least whether certain artists are Christian Hip Hop artists or not. 9 times out of 10 it’s the artists themselves who are trying to distance themselves from the label whilst the fans just don’t care – they just either like the music or don’t. Well, if there’s one artist who can easily shake of that label, if it were ever attached to him, it’s Japhia Life.
Westside Pharmacy is the latest release from Japhia Life and whilst there are recognizable elements of past and current trends, there is something different about the sound of this project. I’ve listened to it so many times that I can no longer put my finger on the je ne sais quoi that this record has – it has now just become familiarly welcome to my ears. In simple terms, each track has its own style with a uniting stripped-back aesthetic across the LP which works to push Japhia’s lyrics to the fore.
This could never be said to be a preachy album, yet it is drenched in spirituality: is the line “I’m already trading my comfort zone for a war zone and ducking a pitchfork” (from opener Japhia’s Lyric) not just the best street-poetic way to describe the spiritual battle we enter when we become believers? The eerily hollow Pitchfork embellishes on this subject before quickly moving onto Last Night where the battle with sin and the constant return to the cross is detailed honestly and melodically (“I thought I knew what Grace really means, riding with protection in my jeans, how real is my life if I’m still in love with the daughter of Billy Jean?“) before Japhia lets the music play out and the listener is treated to rich organs and echoing guitars. Lifey’s Revenge ramps up the guitars and with lyrics like “I saw the light when I was 17, man that’s the flyest thing I ever saw” you can begin to understand how Life’s from-the-streets persona is so naturally in check with his faith.
I’m A Mess is probably the album’s biggest and most accessible track, and it’s one of the most overt in its message too – a highlight. Cold Blood comes straight off the bat with its grimy and almost-empty funk grooves and climatic choruses as another memorable track. Pimp is a wry poke at pastors who seem to be in the job only for their own gain: “I seen him creeping with a limp, I don’t know if he a preacher or a pimp… when in the church and it felt like slow-mo, all I’m hearing is promo…“. The great tracks do just keep coming on this album and as things come to a close The Realest will get any head nodding over its sparse combination of classic Hip Hop drums and liquid synths.
Dime seems to be a bit at odds with the whole album. Any non-secular rapper could have the opinions Japhia and Rob Hodge seem to display here, and perhaps the issue (women who have a high opinion of themselves and only money on their minds) could have been addressed in a more gracious and helpful matter. Some of The Exercise seems strange too – imagining your future wife and envisioning some arguments is realistic perhaps, but then fairly aggressively making that the subject of the chorus of a song “dedicated to my future wife” is a little odd. Maybe there’s something I’m missing?
It is so clear that Japhia Life has lovingly crafted this album, and it is obvious that he knows what a Hip Hop album should sound like without resorting at all to any kind of imitation – Lifey does his thing in his way – definitely one of the realest.