Bar Exam: Justus – Sola Gratia
A One Listen Review
Today’s review is of Justus’s album Sola Gratia that dropped on January 26th. HOG MOB has been around for a minute now, and while there are exceptions (Seven Duce, Signtist to name a couple)… I feel that the most consistent artist from this camp is Sevin. With Justus being Sevin’s younger brother, I’m excited to see how well this torch was passed. Anyway, if your main focus is ministry and the Holy Spirit is involved, God will work and speak through anything you do. There’s a lot of anticipation around this project for me, so I cannot wait press play and hear what Justus has to say.
This first track sounds like you would imagine a west coast intro would. Some lead synths, organs, and big strings that drop in late. After awhile though the beat doesn’t progress anymore and gets a bit boring. Topically Justus is speaking on hypocrisy among other things, as well as waiting for his turn to share his story. The performance here isn’t bad. This is Justus’ first solo album and his rhymes are solid. I dig his voice and the tone he uses. This intro is at the bar for me.
Here on track 2, “The Gospel,” we’re given a strange piano sample at the top that I’m not feeling. The manner in which the beat progresses though is nice, and the Chorus is at the bar. The feature from Brotha Ruff is decent, but Justus has some BARS on this track.
“Seperated til He filled that gap/Abdicated so He will come back/It’s agitating how much He’s hated and desecrated when He’s illustrated what He’ll do so that/We have a chance in this world/So black just take a stance in this world diplomat”
Staying With It
So far I’m not blown away, but Justus’ rhymes keep me wanting to stay with it. Track 3 is entitled “Honored” and is a straight up hyphy beat. This HOG hook is nice. “Got the hood shouting praises like they singing in a choir,” Justus has some great textures to his flows. He’s comfortable with switching up according to the beat, and can really hold his own as an emcee. This song is off the chain. IllumiNate does a great job here too.
The next song “Tha Chosen,” highlights the idea that there’s a difference between being called and being chosen. There’s some storytelling of redemption and rapping the great commission. Justus brings some excellent rhymes and this second verse is fire. All of this is happening over some solid synth beds.
We’re in the sweet spot of the album here. On “Prospheresy,” we start out with a quintessential west coast beat dropping underneath a snippet of Matt Chandler speaking the truth. It’s got a great feel to it. This song is impressive topically. Some people would have tried to fit in a hook on a song like this, but the choice was to go with a Matt Chandler sermon instead. This isn’t a song that would translate to the clubs or anything (not a bad thing). This is a song that edifies the Church, and honestly, Jesus is the most attractive thing you can bring to people. Justus’ words just melt over this beat, and Eternal Wordz fits in well with his verse. One critical thought on this song is the extra vocal effects on Justus’ lead vocals. I truly think he can hold his own and it would sound better with a more raw vocal here.
The definition of Sola Gratia is “By Grace Alone” and the title track is next. It’s perfectly fitting for Ephesians 2 to be woven throughout this track. I’m really digging this vibe here. Justus has a style and confidence that makes you want to listen to him regardless of the beat he’s on. The lyrical display on this project is above the bar, making it like a dope bible study over beats.
“Devoured by the sin that I’m prey to/No way to earn my way to a breakthrough/So when I’m overpowered I pray to Jesus/He’s the only one I relate to”
“Give Me Strength” is a song about trusting, letting go of control, and choosing Christ above all. Skill the Lightmare has a nice feature here, and the only thing not up to par is the hook. Justus’ second verse on this tune is terrific. I would have slumped on this track if it had not been for the bars on the verses.
“The Mob” has a straight up gangster instrumental of piano layers at a slower pace. I’ve never heard of the artist Loa before but he blazes it here. “If we don’t mob then we don’t move/paralysis…” Zaydok blows it up as well and everything on this song is above the bar.
Here’s where the album begins to slow down for me. Track 9, “Shocking Flames,” has some beds and a hook that sounds a bit dated. For what it is, it’s well done, it’s just not my taste. The topics throughout this album are inherently gospel, and Justus always has solid flows. Danielle Renee can absolutely wail. She brings it, and I love how she cuts loose later in the track. It closes out with a reading of Matthew 7:22.
Much like Sevin’s album, “Commissary,” there’s scripture read throughout this entire project. I like this model. Why say it with your own words if God’s already said it better? Also, if it enhances what you’re driving forward on your project, it can’t hurt. I truly feel like the scripture works hand in hand with everything that Justus is bringing here. “Down I Go” is a testimony flow over a simple beat that pulls back in spots. Every verse that Justus has spit so far is above the bar. I’m so impressed by the work he put in for this project.
These next three tracks were a nosedive of a slump for me. Even with Sevin appearing on Track 11, that wasn’t enough to get it up above the bar. I wasn’t feeling the beat with the piano loop. While Alicia Renee’s hook wasn’t bad, I didn’t feel like Justus’ flow fit with what the beat was doing and I even found some of his rhymes to be predictable. Track 12, “By Your Side,” has some decent direction to it, and the hook is an appealing one that lays into the instrumental well. I just feel like Justus’ flows are depreciating in value as the album progresses. It makes me wonder how long ago this certain song was tracked. Then when we get to “Fight,” Justus is back out of his performance slump, but the other elements in this song feel disjointed and don’t work well together.
One last time, on this outro Justus kills a beat to close it out. We’re back chillin above the bar. This tune has a similar feel to the intro, and he murks it.
“They saying the night is the darkest before the dawn/The light gets darker as you get farther from the sun/But ain’t no place darker than the marker that I was on/But the farthest from the father’s still the harbor of the sun/The judge became a martyr gave me a pardon for my wrong/This thing he started changed me heart/And gave me a song to sing regardless of the harness I had on/He bargained for the tarnished now this man is spot on.”
Pointing To Jesus
This project was on point in so many ways. The direction of it all, how it points to Jesus and his love and grace was refreshing. The musical vibes on it probably aren’t for everyone. Some of these beats are at the bar at best, but the content and the flows are incredible. The meat of this project was in the middle, from tracks 3-10, with the listener being worn out by the time we’re in that section from 11-14. Justus is a very talented artist, and there’s a lot that I’ll return to here. If you’re a fan of underground West Coast rap, this album is for you. With Justus being a new artist, this is a very solid first effort. I just wish the album only included the first 10 tracks so that my conclusion could be different. However, Sola Gratia was a bit long for me with some unnecessary fillers, so I’ve gotta say it’s At The Bar.
Overall Rating: At The Bar