Monday, September 20, 2010

This Sho Baraka Album is Totally Worth It!

Sho Baraka
Lions & Liars

How good a rapper is Sho Baraka? Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that you can't even tell he's doing Christian rap. (Unless you listen to the words, then you can tell.) Sho Baraka is such a good rapper he won a record eight golds in the Olympics' new "rapping while pommelhorsing" event, and he made the judges pommelhorse for him. Sho Baraka is so good they named Barak Obama after him. Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that his tongue turned into a sword and struck down the nations. (At least I think that was him...) He’s so good that when LL Cool J said Hey, I want my flow back, Sho Baraka's tongue sliced out LL's abs. With precision that was DIAMONDLIKE. (When LL’s abs hit the floor, they totally bounced.) Sho Baraka is SO GOOD that, when he raps at Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall asks How do you get to Sho Baraka? But then Carnegie Hall realizes that, even if it practiced practiced all day every day, it'd still suck because it's a building and not SHO BARAKA. Sho Baraka is so good that he made Fiddy lie down with Diddy, in the Biblical sense. Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that Sonia Sotomayor upheld a ban on him in the state of New York. (You can still buy him on St. Mark’s Place, though.) In spite of all that, it was Sho Baraka's stunning testimony that got Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court. That, plus he threatened to slice out Jeff Sessions's abs with his diamondlike tongue. Sho Baraka is so good, he got Five Mics from the one and only SOURCE. (By which I mean GOD.) Sho Baraka is such a good rapper, you’d let him get away with a line like that.

In other words: the guy’s good. He’s got the swagger of LL before LL went all NCIS. (And anyway, JAG was originally a spinoff of SHO BARAKA.) He can make his words spill over the beats and then he’ll land the next phrase like there’s nothing to it. He’ll change up his flow during a song with the offhand virtuosity of a Williams sister on the court. Since Sho knows he’s good, no national tragedy is too big for him to appropriate, in the service of a pretty love song:

“You were patient with your boy in the worst case/
I was like 9/11, the worst date.”

Then he classes up the Civil Rights Movement by comparing it to his love life:

“You can be Coretta, I can be your King/
We can get together, we can have a dream.”

How refreshing to hear a rapper, Christian or otherwise, talking the way real-life husbands and wives talk to one another--skirting the boundaries of taste, winking intimately. Sho’s OK with being slick, another lesson learned from Mr. Smith, but he also knows how to dig deep with his words. (All that oil in the Gulf? Sho Baraka did that.) The “pretty love song” in question is “We Can Be More,” a fidelity ode that opens its third verse, “A lifelong fight, that’s what marriage is.” How many other rappers could make that sound like an endorsement?

Sho’s even better delivering the kind of armchair sociology that only rappers can serve up with swagger. The hard rocking “Revolutionary Died” and “Oh Well” are incisive like Arrested Development or the Coup, but Sho’s revolution involves fewer guns and more Bible study. He can get preachy, no doubt about it, but it’s hard to name a rapper who’s NOT preachy about something, if only his own microphone supremacy. In fact, the job descriptions for “rapper” and “preacher” have so much in common, it’s weird that Christian rap hasn’t come up with more great MCs. I had high hopes for Kanye circa “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down,” but he has since switched his style up and watched the money pile up, with mixed results. Like early Kanye, Sho forcefully critiques rap’s empty materialism--and he’s a way better rapper.

Production-wise, Kanye still has the edge on Christian rap. While his talent and cheek have plenty to do with that, so does his ability to bankroll a lot of unique samples. Meanwhile, Sho is one of only four artists on Reach Records, a tiny independent label that’s nevertheless one of the leaders in the genre. Whatever its budget, the Christian stuff has rarely sounded better than it does here. (Sho Baraka is the mother of invention.) Lions & Liars features all kinds of cool synth effects, loud guitars, and the great voice of Erica Cumbo singing over some martial snares. The producers bring a variety of great big beats and hooks that equal anything on mainstream rap radio. (Etiquette dictates I mention Between Two Worlds, the June release from Sho’s labelmate Trip Lee. It features many of the same producers and some decent songs, but it’s not as good.)

Lions & Liars’ most endearing song might be its second one, “Lions’ Anthem,” in which Sho rattles off a great company of everyday saints while making ridiculous puns on their vocations: “Ming works for the law firm out in Las Vegas/ But his favorite thing to do is that Cross examination;” the shoe salesman tries to save “soles,” that kind of thing. Like I said, you have to be a great rapper to get away with that stuff. Sho is, and he does. Mostly it’s the electrifying way he stalks the beat, all ominous boom-BAP and terse guitar. He barely cracks a smile while chewing off his jokes. Yet there’s relief in knowing that this guy, so good at his calling, is willing to celebrate the humdrum callings of other people’s lives, which turn out not to be so humdrum in Christ.

How good is this guy? Sho Baraka is such a good rapper, he might make you appreciate your day job.

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