Thursday, July 14, 2005

Music Review: John Reuben, "The Boy vs. the Cynic"

John Reuben is for Christian rap what Eminem is, in many ways, for mainstream rap. Perhaps not the only star in the sky, but one of the brightest. Reuben's first album, "Are We There Yet?," burst on the scene in 2000, and since then, his star has continued to rise. The albums "Hindsight" and "Professional Rapper" (my personal favorite) have continued to add to his legacy, and--outside of genre veteran TobyMac--Reuben is currently one of the biggest stars in the Christian rap market.

I actually got to see Reuben in concert a few months ago. It was an incredibly entertaining show, full of energy and excitement. He previewed the first two tracks from his upcoming release, and I began eagerly anticipating the album.

I picked up the record about 2 weeks ago. Hmm.

"The Boy vs. the Cynic" has some very strong points. The first two tracks are pretty good. "Out of Control" is about the sense of letting go in trust, and allowing God to take hold: "...I'd rather stand in the ocean/and let the waves of devotion roll over me/irony i had to suffocate before i could breathe..." [As we see later, he didn't quite suffocate that irony.] In the chorus, he proclaims that "it feels good to be out of control." The second track, "Nuisance," is a song about doing more than talking about the world's problems. It features a collaboration with Matthew Thiessen from Relient K, and has a catchy pop hook.

"Then the unthinkable happened." The tone of the album shifts dramatically, beginning with "Chapter 1." He laments the excesses and foolishness of this present age, and then says, "...and that's the way of the beast/There's nothing I can do about it/I can shout it in a room that's crowded/But I doubt it'd make a difference/So ignorance will be my disguise/Cuz 21st century America likes its witchcraft civilized."


Cynicism. Check.

[I'd like to pause for a moment here. I find that political things in Christian music bother me more than attacks on the Church's hypocrisy. I don't know what this means. Some would probably say I'm more loyal to a political ideology than to the Church. Well, maybe not say it--they're too nice--but they'd think it. I want to categorically deny the truth of this, but I'm not sure how strongly I can do that, sometimes.]

Tracks 4 and 5 lay plain the message in their names--"Follow Your Leader" and "Sales Pitch." Allow me to sum up: All we like dumb sheep have been hoodwinked by selfish people in power. Each side blindly follows the propaganda of their preferred ideological flavor. And the Church has turned faith into a commodity bought and sold.

This has all been sung before. This has all been said before. In "Leader," Reuben includes a nice little jab at the "right side" of the pews a la Don Miller: "Conservative uptight right wing Republican/Last time i checked i was none of them/But that's the brush you want to paint me with, taint me with/Some aim to please but you aim to miss..." [Emphasis mine] Gee, John, Heaven forbid anyone ever accuse you of being *gasp!* a conservative. What an outrage. [/sarcasm]

The album then schizophrenically jumps into two more upbeat songs with "Sunshine" and "So Glad." However, the joy and hope presented in these tracks sounds hollow, following the bitter protestations of the previous three.

Then the kicker. Track 8. It begins, "Puff, the magic Jesus/Floats around the universe/The United States is his favorite place/On the whole entire earth/So sing your songs and wave your flag/Thank the Lord for all you have/But what about them?/Did you forget about them?"

The cynicism comes into bloom in this track. I mean, come on: "Things are comfortable, the pioneers have settled in/A perfect blend of progress and pale skin..." I get it, John, white people bad. I hear it all the time. I am told ALL THE TIME. But I refuse to live a life of self-hate.

[Please do not misunderstand me. What the American government did to the Native population was unthinkable and shameful. What they did to the Af-Am population was and is unthinkable and shameful. These wrongs have been recognized and repented of, at least by all sensible, sensitive Americans. But I am not responsible for this. I didn't do this, so I refuse to feel guilty. There is enough darkness in my own heart to take the blame for; no need to add anyone else's blame to my own.]

The rest of the track has a lot of good points. The whole album has a lot of good points. He brings up real issues that the Church needs to focus on. But the whole mess is (to use his word) tainted by the tang of bitterness, and becomes undigestable.

I don't even want to finish this review. I didn't want to finish the album, after hearing this song the first time. In the interest of fairness, we press on.

"There's Only Forgiveness" talks about the cycle of bitterness, resentment, and revenge, and how forgiveness is the only way out. Absolutely true.

"All I Have" is like "Sunshine" and "So Glad" in that it proclaims that we take the good with the bad in life, and have to find peace with that.

"Cooperate" is another slam track, but one that didn't bother me. [Not attacking my brand of foolishness, I guess.] It takes on the protest kids who are more interested in being against something than being for anything.

"I left my youth for the truth/And gained a world of dishonesty..." sings Reuben on the title track, the last one on the album. Here the tension comes into focus. He wants to be optimistic. He misses being naive. But he's confronted by the darkness of the world around him, darkness even in God's house. And he regrets that it has turned him sour.

So do I, Mr. Zappin. So do I.

I should have enjoyed this album more than I did. There's a whole lot of truth here, lots of red meat. But it's buried beneath this sour glaze of cynicism and resentment against the political establishment, the Christian establishment, and whatever else.

If it hadn't been for "puff, the magic jesus," I could have dealt with the other stuff and been on board with this record. But Reuben, in his desire to provoke Christians to response, took it a step too far.

The Boy versus the Cynic? The Cynic wins. And we lose.

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