Over the past few years I've been getting in touch with my roots. And that is hip-hop and rap. I'm really one of the only ones on the site who reviews rap. And for awhile I was very critical of rap, which is why I'm a critic. One of the problems that I have with rap is that the beats are too simple and a lot of dead space in the songs is filled with "uh-huh's" "yeah's" and "word-up." And not to give any credit to secular rap, but many of the artists in secular rap know not to do that. Yes, secular rap is morally depraved, but many Christians do listen to secular rap because of the sound or music. However recently Christian hip-hop has been improving greatly. With albums like The Art of Translation by Grits, Christian has hip-hop started gaining recognition in the secular market. Backbreakanomics by Mars Ill should also fall into that category. Strictly speaking, this CD is incredible.
As I mentioned up above, or if you're reading this upside down, down below, one of the areas in Christian hip-hop is lack of creativity. Backbreakanomics opens with a radio spot but is followed by "Breathe Slow" with horns kicking in followed by a percussion backdrop. Then the beats come in, but not just fake synth beats, but live drum beats. So you've got lyrics, even though the vocals aren't too great, mixed with horns, beats and drums. This is what Christian hip-hop should be.
The next song, "Planes and Trains" follows the same format. Turntables, drums and some old 50's jazz guitars kick in along with the vocals before the beat picks up as the guitars get louder. "Afterlife" opens with a piano, drums, percussion and synths and continues on layering synths, keys and the beats. "Black Box Artists" changes things up musically by tossing in horns. There's a line in this song that says, "This is harder than it looks, this is better than it sounds." And they're right. "Inside Out," which opens with drums, piano, tambourine and what sounds like a flute possibly sampled from a classical song. The song then breaks into strings for truly amazing results. Not many hip-hop artists think of strings in songs overlayed with turntables often enough.
"Enterchange," is a real funky track with some nice jazz guitar licks, beats, horns and offers an overall classic blues sound. The liner notes for this song state that the listening public deserves to hear more. This is more. The song is so intricately layered. The next track is called "Let Me," which sounds like a blues/jazz free-style poetry song. I love the fact that they are so diverse in what they put on this record. "Alpha Male" seems very personal to Dust and Manchild. One of the things that's great in hip-hop, or even just music in general, is it provides an escape for the artist -- a great outlet, and I think a lot of people can sympathize with this song. Mars Ill paints the portrait of a dysfunctional home life run by what is basically described a dead beat father. What's great about this song is it doesn't stop with what's happened in life, but recognizing that God is the ultimate Father and that you don't have to let your past govern your future.
"Freeze Framework" is another song that sets a new standard for hip-hop being deeply layered with two different types of guitar riffs and drums. Have you ever listened to the Beatles? Have you ever listened to the Beatles's more psychedelic music and hip-hop at the same time? Neither have I. That's what makes "Stepson" such a standout track. It's new and original and "Sunstep" is no exception. It possesses a sort of carnival ambience. It's curiously a mix between Beck's Midnight Vultures album and Hershey Park with a flavor of Mars Ill. "The Calm Before" trips up the golden path this record was walking as it stumbles into the old simplistic style of rap with basic, uninteresting beats. However, lyrically, "The Calm Before" is possible the best on backbreakanomics, which makes up for the difference in music on this song as compared to the others.
When I first picked up this record, I thought it'd just be another lousy rap effort. I didn't care for Raw Material, Mars Ill's first full-length CD from 2001. backbreakanomics blows it off the planet. This is a prime example of what Christian hip-hop should be. It's not just simplistic, average drum beats with basoc rhymes topped off with a poor melody. They have thought of putting other music into rap that noone has thought of before. They don't build off of samples of other songs. If you're an aspiring Christian hip-hop artist then please do yourself a favor and listen to this. If Christian music of all sorts followed the example of Mars Ill with backbreakanomics, there'd be no reason for the Grammy's not to air the Christian music rewards.
The release of backbreakanomics is an event for the Christian hip hop genre. The bar's been raised, folks. The only thing that scares me is wondering how will their next CD sound? It's hard to clone genius.- Review date: 9/25/03, written by Kevin Chamberlin
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