Ben Harris Reviews Propaganda’s Crooked

After a three year wait, we at Sputnik Magazine have been very excited to receive   the new album ‘Crooked’ by Jason Emmanuel Petty’s (a.k.a Propaganda)

Having received positive reviews for his last album ‘Crimson Cord’ and reaching number 13 in the Billboard US Independent Album chart, I was concerned that Propaganda would have softened his approach in order to find more commercial success with ‘Crooked’. Humble Beast, the independent label Propaganda plays a large part in, is undeniably ‘Christian’ and have recently announced they will now operate as a non-profit ministry (rather than a business) in order to partner more closely with local churches in their mission. Their focus is explicitly the communication of the Gospel to a post-Christian world. And so, a question that often bounces about the Sputnik Collective is, “Are these guys the real deal, Christians who are creating music to be listened to by non-Christian hip-hop fans, or is Humble Beast another way of Christians making more in-house Christian culture, by the church and for the church?”

Well, these two fears of mine were quieted by the end of the first track ‘Crooked Way’, a hard-hitting 6 minute lyrical tirade against the malformations within the contemporary Western culture he simultaneously inhabits and forms a part of. With no catchy hook, this track sets out a manifesto for the following 12 full length tracks:

“We stay perplexed at the truth that defies logic but, who says logic’s the best way to understand it// man, that’s the thinking of our colonisers, truth is proven only through ears and eyes and// if you can’t touch it, you can’t trust it, that’s why they can’t explain the love in my daughter’s eyes and// that’s that conscious rap, oh thats played out, you old school, you old dude, you aged out//its not cool them old rules they fazed out…”

As with Propaganda’s former albums we find spoken word sets sprinkled throughout. Track 2 ‘Complicated’ is quite typical of Petty’s lesser known tracks: a verbal feast of uplifting and self-analysing verbiage that exalts the contradictory nature of humanity, the great heights coupled with the lowest depths, exclaiming,

“You are heavens’s hand made calligraphy slumming it among papyrus fonts”.

In this, Propaganda, like with Crimson Cord and Excellent (2012), offers hope and glory in the midst of “messy, uncomfortable and complicated” lives.

Akin to Excellent’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Excellent Analogy ’ is another witty spoken word, ‘I Hate Cats’. This tale of a conservative Father’s displeasure at his daughter adopting a cat begins in the form of a stand up comedian luring his audience into his account with truisms and relatable comments. The soft jazz soundscape and generous studio laughter brings the listener to agree with the story-teller’s dilemma. As the narrative continues, the racial overtones become glaringly obvious as it becomes clear that the word ‘cat’ is being used with a twofold meaning. Our comfortable chuckle becomes nervous laughter as we realise how light-hearted preferential comments can soon become generalisations that spring forth prejudices about another people group we live beside.

“I don’t see species. My baby-sitter, when i was a kid, you see, she had a cat, and I am sure there are nice God-fearing people who have cats in their house, its just not in my home, see they stink… to be honest I thought I raised her better than that, see we are a dog family, we stick to our own kind, why couldn’t you love a dog? This is just the voice of a concerned father, see?”

In this album we are brought into different levels of comfort and discomfort as the artist analyses the urban world around his listeners. For example, ‘Gentrify’ is comprised of a latin jazz beat accompanied with Hispanic street shouting and a catchy hook that I found myself half guiltily joining in with. Those who are aware of Petty’s background, from a black family in a latino neighbourhood will be able to imagine the rapper’s second sense of dislocation as he sees the culture he has come to love commodified while the members themselves are pushed out from their neighbourhoods into further deprivation.

“Man those gastro pubs and clean streets ain’t good enough, they want yours// despite your crime rate y’all got prime real estate// continuing Columbus and they coming for your portion// planting their flag like that’s my land I licked it// brother it’s just business, your economy could use a boost// you know the truth your unemployment’s through the roof…”

For those who know Prop’s back catalogue, there are certain gems that relate as far back asj 2011’s collaboration with Odd Thomas ’Art Ambidextrous’. I love this throughout Propaganda’s work and I feel as though he is never ‘recreating himself’ but always developing, turning back in order to keep moving forward. And for those fans who have followed his work, we feel as if we are part of that journey too.

The final track is where we may expect to find hope in the self-proclaimed Christian’s journey through human brokenness, and being titled ‘Made-straight’ I expected the ‘one-size-fits-all’ Christian answer to come to solve all our problems. Yet…

“Life is not a comic book, there are no perfect victims or villains, just us, we are smog-laced oxygen tanks tossed to capsize murderers, resting on his power of deliverance and the integrity to accomplish it”.

The gritty track doesn’t bring a happily-ever-after but rather magnifies and focuses in on the magnitude of humanity’s crooked dilemma- in the face of being a Christian. Although there is a hint of newfound triumph in this track, ‘Made-straight’ doesn’t strike me as false or feigned as an early Lecrae track might. Propaganda’s crookedness does not paint a bleak picture of the world in order to thrust Churchianity’s remedy in the face of the listener in typical evangelistic style: there is no unnatural focus on a purely ‘spiritual’ brokenness, but this brokenness in complete and whole: social, political, moral, and spiritual. Propaganda is concerned with the breadth and depth of our crookedness, not just a ‘thin view of sin’ but a full-bodied representation of our “theologically thick sin” (as we explored a bit more here).

Although I have only focused on a few tracks, I fully recommend the whole album to anyone interested in conscious rap. But I guess the question is: will this album find its way on to non-Christian’s ipods? I think it will, and most of the material will make a lot of sense to those outside the church. The two contemporary albums ‘Crooked’ reminds me of most are Lecrae’s collaborative ‘Church Clothes 3’ (2016, on which Propaganda gets a significant feature) and Andy Mineo’s ‘Uncomfortable’ (2015), both from Reach Records. ‘Crooked’ is sure to challenge and trouble both believers and non-believers alike with its incisive remarks and hope-filled exhortations. I confess that I am a particular fan of both Humble Beast and Propaganda, but the label is yet to see the level of commercial success outside of the church that Lecrae has recently found with Reach Records. Perhaps Crooked could become their first mainstream success?

 

Benjamin Harris

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