Bar Exam: Joe Johnson – Grace And Fire (Album)
A One Listen Album Review
I recently hit play on Joe Johnson’s newest project “Grace and Fire.” Check out my review below.
Music has a way to tug at the heart strings in some ways that no other art can. The message and the overall aesthetic of it can be powerful if all of the elements come together and work as one. As these bars are examined keep in mind that it’s difficult to consistently find the correct formula, especially early on as a student of the craft. These reviews are always written in love, and with the betterment of the culture in mind.
Track 1 – Here Now: Right away this beat is well crafted. The music came in waves and layers, and had a terrific vibe. We’re introduced to Joe Johnson on this track, and his flow is alright. At some points you miss the end of the lines because he either swallows the words or is going for a certain inflection right before he changes tones so it’s not fluid. I get what he’s trying to do, but I feel this performance is lacking in execution. The hook on this song is pause-heavy and doesn’t fit with the beds the music lays. As for writing, the schemes are predictable and the rhymes fall at the end of every line. (ie. noise/poise/voice… doin’/movin’/improvin’/shootin’/coolin’/cruisin) Sometimes clever writers can get away with forsaking the rhyme for thicker content. I feel like Joe went the opposite way and rhymes held precedence over content here. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, this is only the first track.
The beginning of track two plays like an interlude. Joe prays here for a minute. Sometimes these types of interludes work, but I wasn’t feeling this one. There’s a point in this prayer where he explains to God what a verse of the bible says, and it just felt awkward to me. If God is the muse that’s cool, but it felt like there was another muse that Joe was trying to make a point to, and it’s treading the waters of Matthew 6 for me. The point with this critique is not to get theological, it’s just to point out that the intention of the rhyme is unclear, which makes the experience more difficult for the listener. I’d rather just hear a flow sooner. As far as the beat goes, we’ve got a drum kit and a piano loop, and it’s a really nice feel. “Let waters overflow from a puddle to a lake/we need rain to fall like Isaiah 45 verse 8/til the levy break earthquake fault or the earth shake”
Track three begins with some organs and an upbeat feel. This is a very nice instrumental. The hook is terrific as well. I can’t help but think that Joe just needs some more time with the pen and paper. My advice here would be “less is more.” His verses end up circling an airplane around a topic or idea before they land. Like most airplane passengers, I’d rather he just land the plane as quick as possible. It’s all in making the ideas more concise. Check out these lines from this song. “I just left Chi-town where I seen my dad put his sister in the ground/Staring at fan’s faces and all I see is tears falling down to the ground/Man my dad real strong/I feel tears on my face when I wrote this song/Then I look at Charlottesville like man what is really going on/My granny say she tired wanna fly on home.” There are a few ways you could go with bringing out concepts like this. One way is to unpack each of these concepts later in the song – talk about Charlottesville more, talk more about granny and why she wants to fly home. The other option is to take the overall concept that is touched on in these six bars and whittle them down to two or three bars. I’d suggest the latter option, mainly because I know where he goes with the rest of the song. In these lines though, he touched on the idea that life is tough and he sees it everywhere. He just took a long route to bring us to that conclusion.
More Intentional Bars
“Push Through” has a deep southern beat to it. The hook is insane. Joe is flowing a bit better here, talking about wanting to go to heaven and focusing on the mission of Christ before he passes on. I love it when rappers aren’t scared to do a third verse. This is the first track that I feel Joe has enough to say where adding another verse isn’t a forced move. This was a good move and makes this the best all-around track so far.
Track five is called “More Grace” and this beat is absolutely flames. Big bass lines, twangy electric guitars, and chiming keys. There are some unclear concepts brought about in this first verse. “Holy Spirit please take me to that holy place/Your presence got me on my knees I can’t see your face/Chains are falling off now my soul can levitate/I don’t need another blessing Lord I need more grace/I need endurance so I can run this race/Gotta pray more cuz I wanna see Your face/I wanna be where You are where there’s no time and space/Jesus wrap me in Your arms I wanna feel Your warm embrace.” I have questions about the idea of seeing the Holy Spirit’s face? Even if we move on past that, there’s a lot of questions about what it’d be like to actually see God’s face. The second verse is a bit more on point and shares the story of a girl who has stage four cancer and isn’t scared of death. This story obviously impacted Joe’s life and he is inspired, asking for more endurance to run the race of life like her.
The next song is entitled “Lord Forgive Me” featuring Swift, and once again this beat knocks. The layers are intricate and soothing, and the hook is dope as well. I’d love to know who these singers on some of these hooks are. Joe’s bars are earnest at best. He’s unashamed of what Christ can do to people’s lives and isn’t scared to bring the gospel truth on every track. There’s just something about how he articulates his lines that makes the writing stick out to me, and it’s just not my cup of tea. Joe talks a lot about the mistakes he’s made in life, is honest about dealing with depression in the past, and knows that he needs help from God. Swift’s verse here is so flames. The candor in Joe’s verse, paired with the tight beat, solid hook and Swift’s above the bar performance leave this track overall At The Bar.
These next two tracks are where I slumped the hardest. Rep Your Name had a funky beat that once again was off the chain, but nothing grabbed me in the content that was laced on it. I will say however there was one line that stuck with me — “I’m running from the Heat like my name Lebron James.” Mad props for that one. On “KYHU” (Keep Your Head Up) there was a terrific soul sample with a chipmunk vocal on the hook. Very nice music beds on this track. The flow is old school here and it works for the most part, but Joe took a lot of time to just give shout outs to friends and pastors who brought him to where he is in life, and again I wasn’t vibing with the content.
A Bright Spot
YAMT aka “You And Me Tonight” is a banger though. This is the best track on the album. It’s got a 90’s R&B jam type of feel to it, with some crazy bass lines. Tone Jonez did some terrific work here. Joe Johnson brings his best work on a song for his wife. This is definitely a track I would revisit and a very bright spot on the album.
Moving along, Deeper is the simplest beat on this project yet. It’s got a spooky keys vibe that is begging for someone to light it up. The hook runs a little shaggy for me on this track, but I think Joe was trying to fill the space up that this beat gives. There’s so much space to fill here an emcee can’t approach something like this with a normal flow. I would have loved to hear something more intricate from the artist on this one.
“We Win” is obviously a track about how we as believers are on the side that wins once all is said and done. It’s an At The Bar track with pianos and synth layers laced throughout some nice bass feels. Joe uses a similar rhyme structure on every track on this album, but here he closes out in good shape. Showing that he’s got a lot of promise on a future in hip-hop.
I said he closes out with track eleven because this last track plays like an interlude. There’s a dope music bed underneath an old lady speaking. It’s a warm hearted finish to the album.
While I was writing this exam we were able to reach out and find the producers for these tracks. I truly thought the production here was top notch. Here’s the list of producers for the album:
Here Now, Rain Down, Right Now, KYHU, YAMT & Rep Your Name: Tone Jonez
Push Through, More Grace, Lord Forgive Me, We Win: DreamLife Beats
Deeper: DG Beats
Joe Johnson was so under the radar for me I had no clue what to expect from him on this project. One thing that was glaringly evident about “Grace And Fire” is that Joe’s got a spectacular musical taste. One thing I would encourage him that needs work though is his pen game. Whether it’s just studying other rappers, or getting more bars under his belt, he’s gotta step up the writing in order to match the masterful production he’s attracted to. There were definitely some nice tracks here – YAMT, Lord Forgive Me, Push Through to name a few, but overall I find this album to be Below The Bar.
Overall Rating: Below The Bar