Bar Exam: Jackie Hill Perry – Crescendo (Album)
A One Listen Album Review
Jackie Hill Perry along with the rest of the folks over at Humble Beast offer some of the best lyricism and poetry that hip-hop can offer. Jackie is a writer as well as a public speaker and in February was given the opportunity to give a speech about sexuality at Harvard University. She’s able to use her words in various ways to communicate what God has done in her life to all kinds of people. The coolest thing about art is that 2 different people could consume the same thing, and come out of the experience with completely different takes on how it grabbed them. The following is my take on Jackie Hill Perry’s “Crescendo.”
We kick off the album with “Lamentations.” Jackie begins almost prayerfully with the statement “I hope you hear it,” before the music plays. It’s got an east-coast boom bap “two turntables and a microphone” vibe to it. The beat progresses with her flow, adding different textures the more she digs in. She’s spittin’ at a high level on this first verse, touching on ideas of doubt and guilt. Life is difficult, and even when you know your sins have been cleansed, you still feel prone to wander and stray. Check out these bars from the second verse:
“My rag’s filthy as the darkest markers/To Nietzsche the heartless eat with a carcass/Teach me to harken the truth/Lead me I’m off and aloof/3D the larger view of You is the marginal truth/The argument- target the mark with a bullet/Aim it right at the faith if I face it, fake it I pull it/Amazing grace or the tulip/Does He love me does He love me not?”
Yikes… She’s dealing with a lot within these lines including existence, self-worth and identity and deals with it in a refreshing way. These bars are so dense I doubt I can unpack the meaning behind each of them, (I also doubt this transcription is 100 percent correct.) She brings these verses with a barrage of statements that shoot across her tongue like an automatic weapon, without a hook, handing the end of the song off to Tifah from Page CXVI and the Autumn Film. Tifah sings a verse of “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” with a few different notes than the normal hymn, giving it a little off-kilter tune to leave you with. It’s almost unsettling and eerie, but it’s terrific at the same time.
Word Pictures Galore
Wow that was only the first track. Moving on, “Hush” begins with some organs and keys before the beat drops. The instrumental has a melodic aspect to it, but the boom bap fits right in behind what Jackie is able to lay over the top. Once again it’s an awe-inspiring lyrical display.
“They say closed mouths don’t get fed/Well I’m starving to speak, I borrow some meat/Don’t butcher these words and call it a tweet/You are what you eat/You can’t win this so walk on your feet/Words flying out the mouth, it’s a cage match with language/And we all fluent, it’s dangerous”
Yo, she’s coming at us for having big mouths and ultimately we can tune out the voice of God if we just sit around and listen to ourselves. Talk is cheap, be quiet. I also admire how she weaves her thoughts from one line to the next, delivering her message all while bringing about so much imagery.
“No Ways Tired” begins with a bass lick that (I think it’s Jackie) gets doubled with a vocal line. It’s a sweet beginning to the tune. Once verse comes in though the style is shifted, and the flow is different than we heard on the first two tracks. She’s locked in step with the beat here, which makes each line articulated to near perfection and when the vocal doubling is added the emotional place it takes you is chilling. This song is once again about the difficulties of life, and how decisions lead to consequences that can remove us from loved ones. She’s also touching on how safe we often feel, yet how we don’t often feel the need for a Savior. This concept is wrapped up in the hook. Swoope closes out the song with a piano solo that fades out too soon. This song is built differently than most, and I like this structure here. It got big and emotional in the middle but it lead you into it easily and took you somewhere in an introspective way to finish.
Nearly Perfect Writing
The first time I heard “Fall Away” I couldn’t wait to talk about some of these lines. Jackie is insane with the word play and the lyrics. Check this out:
“I don’t know if you fell, if you was ever standing/But from my vantage it’s like a picture that’s candid/Caught off guard by the bandit who’s stealing Christians I ran with/This race ain’t for the swift yet it’s tailored for the abandoned/This pain has made me ramble/It’s like you gamble with life/roll seven then dismantle the dice/Bet on heaven while you dance with the price”
It sounds to me like Jackie is calling to people she knows who have strayed from Christian faith. She doesn’t understand but she loves these people anyway. These rhymes are airtight though. Just say them out loud to yourself. The consonants and the number of words in each phrase all match up nearly perfectly. This would flow without a beat, and plus she has a little Taylor Swift reference in there. So far every track is well above the bar.
“Melodies” is an interlude of hymns mashed together. Jordan Welch lends her vocals for a cappella versions of “Nothing But The Blood” and “When I Think” that are breathtaking.
After a small breather and deviation from hip-hop we’re back on track with “Thy Neighbor.” We’re given snippets from H.B. Charles Jr. talking about how it’s difficult to love the church. Jackie goes in on the concept of brokenness in community and the hypocritical state of the Church as a whole. We internalize the humanity of it all and don’t know how to deal with the idea of something that is so sacred being tainted by humans and how we interact.
“The God I love loves you so I know I’m supposed to follow/Hallow his name I wallow/Modeling blame, ooh I know/It’s a shame oh I believe it/Who’s to blame? Is it me or is it Jesus?”
This is an outstanding commentary on the state of affairs in the Church. There are so many people who say they love Jesus, they love God, but abandon community because of how messed up other people can be. This is an important song that calls us to look inside of ourselves and ask who’s to blame for people leaving the church.
The next song, “Hymn” begins with a chipmunk soul/gospel sample rolling into a jigga-like instrumental for Ambassador to explode on. Amba hands the mic over to Shai Linne who comes with punches and homophones around the word “him” – “hem” and “hymn” all weaved into a thought about the greatness of God and how he supersedes all knowledge and conversation, but still is one to whom we can cling.
Da’ T.R.U.T.H. drops by next for a few bars that puzzled me a bit. I understood what he was saying but he chose to end a few lines with an unnecessary “tch.” This is a head scratcher because I felt like the lines already rhymed without that addition. There’s gotta be a point to it, but I’m at a loss for one at the moment. Maybe someone else could bring me up to speed on this?
Braille is third in line and his wordplay is magnificent. “I don’t need a platform to rap for ‘im/As if it matters more if more see it/My God is all-seeing, I’m seeing life in a different light/There’s nothing new under the sun/But everyone under the sun is made new” After Braille’s fire, the chipmunk sample is back once more.
Jackie bats clean up here and hits a grand slam. Once again her lyrics are full of imagery and substance. She laces the rhymes with cultural and biblical references to paint vibrant pictures of the internal battle of what freedom actually means to the believer. I will say that the music beds do indeed get a little emotionally manipulative here, changing up to a harder beat for this one verse when it stayed pretty constant everywhere else. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it gave the track a bump in energy for sure. Jackie is so solid though it may not have needed it. A song that will probably get a lot of clicks because of this lineup for me only got more thoughtful with each bar added. This is a track that shows how Jackie can hold her own with some of CHH’s most lyrical titans.
A Posture Of Worship
“Mustard Seed” includes another one sentence message at the top, much like the first track of the project. “It’s only up from here.” This thought lays over the top of a sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime” – “My crew is never ever whack because we stand strong.” Jackie drops some candid lines about hiding in plain sight. There’s so much pain beneath the surface, and sometimes the mountain is us. Rather than being open to vulnerability in a crowd we’d rather play like everything is perfect.
Another interlude follows, giving us a breather and once more inviting us into a posture of worship. Jordan Welch once more lends vocals and soothes us with a reminder that we have victory in Jesus.
Next up is the song “Woman,” where Jackie dismantles the culture’s statements about what it means to be a woman. This song is about finding identity in Christ, and knowing who God has called you to be as a woman. She also talks a bit about releasing control to God in the midst of seeking a sense of self-worth. This is another powerful and challenging song.
“It doesn’t start with a Barbie with long hair at the party/It’s tragic being in pageants/Being fake about yourself like you happy with being plastic/Did they tell you your body was just a hobby?/That being mommy was obviously a problem?/Why would you follow His eye on the sparrow?/Why would you fill your quiver?/God forbid that these arrows make your road more narrow/Make your life a little harder/Eden my daughter/You taught us calling was part of falling in love with the Father”
“Restless” switches up the style a bit. Jackie brings a different flow here choosing to stay on a certain pitch throughout, and with some vocal layers it sounds dope. She’s locked in with the laid back feel of the track, not trying to do too much with this flow. The concept here details the craziness of life and how we feel like there’s so much to do yet so little time. It’s a great juxtaposition here because she could have busted up the track in double time but she chose to chill out, which helps drive the message home. The instrumental on the outro here is bonkers. Impeccably produced throughout.
We’re greeted at the beginning of the next song, “Maranatha” by some scatting vocals over a piano solo. I can hear the hum of a guitar amplifier standing by, and anticipation is building. The guitar colors a bit, and some bass lines move around beautifully. At about a minute into the song the music picks up, and a gang of vocalists start in. That becomes a sample that loops behind Jackie’s flow. She poses question after question, displaying a yearning for Jesus to return. “How long” is a question we all ask, like kids in the back seat during a road trip. “Maranatha” can be defined as simply “Lord, Come.” So she lays out all of her questions earnestly seeking answers as the details within her thoughts exude the wisdom of someone chasing after God.
“Find the race and run for it/Run Forrest while you/lookin’ behind/Like your perfecter of faith/Ain’t run forward”
The title track, “Crescendo” has huge bass and incredible layers of percussive sounds as well as numerous vocal samples and layers that punch you in the face. “I lift my hands in total praise.” This line, while it’s not the same melody (that I’m used to) has to be paying homage to the Richard Smallwood classic. Jackie absolutely kills this track seemingly without a breath. At the end of the tune she’s twisting it up and brings it home with some triplet feels. Amazing.
The album closes out with the old Chorus “I Love You Lord.” These vocals are remarkable as well, and we legitimately end on a high note. I feel like applauding and clapping here in front of my computer in my quiet house at 6am.
There’s so much to appreciate with this project. The intentional choice to give the listener a break with these choruses throughout is commendable. The fact that most of this project is heavily lyrical and straight up boom bap is bold. Hip-hop needs bars, and we’re getting our fill here. Everything on this album is above the bar. The creative direction, the music, the writing and the performance from the emcee will not only leave you awestruck, but will challenge you to better yourself in light of who God is. One more note to add, while it’s lyrically dense and feels like a full meal afterwards, these 14 tracks together only ring up 41 minutes of your time, which is impressive. This project without a doubt will be in the conversation for album of the year.
Overall Rating: Above The Bar