My latest Sheep & Goats column at the legendary Burnside Writers' Collective raves on Christian rapper Thi'sl, Henri Pousseur, Rev. Richard Smallwood, the Drive-By Truckers, Brad Paisley, and Ke$ha's Ke$chatology. They would all make for a very strange mixtape. Since I dig it so much, here's the Thi'sl review in full:
Besides all the Jesus talk, there are two basic differences between Thi’sl’s stupendous slap of ghetto noise and comparable epics from Jeezy or Gucci: 1) no cussing, and 2)-count-’em-two Momma songs. Good call — Momma songs sound even better amid a bunch of music that Momma would HATE. There’s a lot of ugliness here, especially in the first half, more ugliness than the bigger-name Christian rappers on Reach Records allow themselves — beats built from gunshots and guttural “HUNH!”s, layers of synth screams offset by chimes and theremins and all sorts of melodramatic hokum. Even Thi’sl’s chorus hooks revel in his worldly trappings: “Let them guns go POW!” “Money! Money! Money! Mo’… / Trynna stack that paper from the ceiling to the flo’!” This is radical stuff for holy hip-hop, but it’s also loose and refreshing, not at all concerned with toeing somebody else’s imaginary line of acceptability.
Over all this noise, X-hustler Thi’sl rasps out gritty details, bloody bodies in the streets and babies searching through rubble for their Moms. His mission is letting brothers and sisters know he’s legit — a tactic that gets old pretty quickly when Rick Ross uses it — and then showing them that Jesus is the way out. And here’s the great thing: that contrast actually helps him aesthetically. It mixes up the light and shadow in his songs, lets them breathe. When the martyrs in his crime stories proclaim, “I signed up to DIE,” their freedom speaks louder than their bravado.
This is Christian music that comes out of the trenches, like Holy Soldier: “We born in the ghetto, we raised in the ghetto / They call us rock stars ‘cause we wave heavy metal.” Thi’sl speaks to the unchurched first, and if the choir wants to listen — well, he won’t wave his heavy metal at them, at least. He might even make them rethink the value of those nihilistic Jeezy and Gucci epics. Like, maybe those secular guys aren’t merely reveling in their hustler tales. Maybe they’re showing us how the hopelessness of the hustle is wrapped up with the revelry, depicting why it’s so easy to get sucked into the game. At its best, gangsta rap is nihilism that lays bare a nihilistic real-world system. It sounds exhilarating, and it can make you feel like some sort of amoral superhero. And Thi’sl’s music is ultimately different for one reason: he found a Way Out.