The free Amazon music samplers are one of the great hidden treasures of the internet. There, buried deep on their digital downloads page is a link to literally hundreds of full length discs, absolutely free. Put out by smaller record labels as a way of promoting their artists, they have a mix of big names and unknowns, and some of the best music I’ve found in recent years has come via this avenue. Because it’s free, you can take a chance on new genres and artists, and because it is stored in the Amazon cloud, you can listen to it anywhere without taking up valuable diskspace.
To my surprise Illect Recording’s “Mind the Rap, Vol III” turned out to be one of the strongest samplers I’ve ever found via this route. In reviewing it, I’m faced with a dilemma around how to express the quality of the music –is it good in spite of it being Christian rap? Or is it good because it’s Christian rap?
First, from the “in spite of” category. The major disclaimer here is that this isn’t really “Christian” music as we typically think of it. Neither the label nor the artists seem to be promoting themselves primarily to a Christian audience. Instead, the only tipoff comes in the lyrical content, much of which is neither evangelical, nor even “inspirational.” Very little on this collection is preachy, and some of it even wanders into the dangerous territory of doubt, discouragement and seemingly unanswered prayers. What you get, instead of so-called “Christian Music”, is music made by people who seem genuinely interested in wrestling with their faith, rather than in just using Christian identity as a marketing tool.
Conversely, from the “because of” category, this is uncompromising, authentic hip-hop, but it is almost entirely free of all those elements that can make an adult cringe when listening to his or her old record collection (the casual profanity, the racial slurs, the crude sexuality, the open misogyny). There’s also a marked absence of some of the worse excesses of modern hip-hop (the shallow materialism and the empty, self-destructive party-chasing of the radio hits; and the self-worshipping egoism that casts a cloud over the work of mainstream figures like the undeniably talented Kanye West and Jay-Z). The overall change in perspective is perhaps best summed up in a line from Columbus’s own Copywrite (on the ensemble track “Drowning Man”, also featuring Cas Metah, Wonder Brown and Elias, production by J. Rawls), “Get on my grown man and took the raunchy out of my rhymes.” In other words, he’s committing to rapping like an adult, not like a teenager.
There’s a wealth of good material here, but the standout track is “Concealed Sorrow” (Theory Hazit and Toni Shift), a stark and sympathetic narrative from the perspective of a bullied gay teenager. Voiced in the first person, it’s a brave and unexpected choice of material for a straight black Christian rapper to take on, especially since he makes it clear he feels God is on the side of his narrator, not his narrator’s tormentors.
Is there a downside? Yes. Some of the songs here may feel a bit overly “familiar.” The opener has a definite Kanye-circa-2004 feel, both in the beats and the rhymes, while another track strongly recalls the Cash Money recordings of the late 90’s. These songs both are probably better read as tributes than ripoffs, but there’s a worse offender later in the collection: A beat on an otherwise strong track is credited to British producer Imperial, but seemed “new” only in as much as it had a new lyricist rapping over it. That’s a relatively minor quibble, however, in the larger picture, and did little to detract from my overall enjoyment.
In summary, this is a free collection, but it might just change the way you feel about an entire subgenre of music. I know it did for me. Check it out at the links above.