Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Last Missionary - Review

Given that Stephen the Levite had two of the dopest, most compelling and convicting contributions to Lampmode's recent The Church compilation -- the tracks Membership and Church Discipline -- it's appropriate that his long-awaited sophomore LP is heavily centered on that same subject. In fact, the title of the album, The Last Missionary, is a reference to the church, and the doctrine of the Church is expounded on throughout the majority of the album.

Over a luscious and lustrous beat, the album opens with The First Missionary, which is a reference to the Triune God's missional character as expressed in Genesis in the act of creation itself, but especially in God's presence in the Garden, dwelling with the first humans and delivering the 'protoevangelium'. This track seems to have had a foreshadowing in DJ Official's fantastic posse cut Not My Own, which features a verse by Stephen that covers similar ground.[1] Stephen delivers some stunning rhymes packed with rich theological content and structural beauty, carefully crafting his syllables with alliterative affects.

There are two scriptural analogies which primarily define the doctrine of the Church: the Church as the Body of Christ and the Church as bride, Christ as bridegroom (or Christ as the eschatological Adam and the Church as the eschatological Eve). While Stephen utilizes both in various ways throughout the album, on the track Voltron his verse brings the two together. Voltron is, obviously, a venerable cultural touchstone for hip-hop which symbolizes separate, distinct individuals coming together to act cooperatively toward one common mission or purpose, with the analogy to the Body of Christ being obvious. But as I said, Stephen really effectively brings the two analogies together in his verse: "[Adam] even cleaved to Eve, she's his own now / And he is hers, Jesus and the Church be the pronouns (Engaged) / Committed to mission till the big day / The bridegroom will arrive soon, until then wait (Harvest) / Workin' like the first in the garden / The last Eve, sowin' that seed, she is all of us".

On another posse cut, Wrote It This Way featuring Lampmode label-mates Timothy Brindle and Hazakim, the emcees explore the ways that the Body can (and must be) diverse, while not being divided. Brindle delivers a typically stellar verse which celebrates the multiethnic nature of his own family unit as a microcosm for the truth that God sent His Son for all people, of every tongue, tribe, and nation. Stephen's verse might be even better and he sets it off with a flourish: "Christ's blood has identified us / Doesn't uniform us, but it unifies us / We can be diverse but still not be divided / We would be deformed if everyone was like us". He goes on to excoriate the notion that 'unity' means arbitrary conformity to some cultural identity, rather than unity in Christ as the distinct, diverse people that He created us to be.    

The theme of Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride is explored further on tracks such as S.O.S. and Beauty and The Beast. The former track does so implicitly as Stephen writes a song that is about his literal love and appreciation for his actual wife, but in the context of the album the track gains added depth, given what the institution of marriage is meant to teach us about the Church. The latter track explores the theme in a more explicit manner, telling the story of Christ and the Church in an extended metaphor.

The titular, final track of the album reflects the opener, and an analogy is thereby drawn between God's missional character and that of the Church, the last missionary. Stephen releases a torrent of sensational rhymes over a slamming beat while bringing the themes of the album to fruition in spectacular fashion.  

Throughout the album the aesthetic and artistic qualities are absolutely top notch. On the rapping side of things, Stephen's lyricism is incredible as he packs intense doses of luminous content into his bars while marshaling intricate rhyme schemes and a breathless, masterful flow. Just listen to the way he absolutely dismantles a track like Reign & Rebellion -- phenomenal.

The beats are excellent for the most part, and range from old school, stripped down tracks like Enter:missionary and Fight Club to more complex, robust tracks which dominate the album. The delicious cherry on top of all this is the fact that the album is almost entirely devoid of any R&B or otherwise sing-y choruses, and often features insanely ill turntablism instead, such as on Rehoboam and Dividing Lies. If you're fond of the brand of raw, 'East Coast', grimy, boom-bap that has always been my muse, then this should suit your tastes ideally as well.

While I enjoyed Stephen the Levite's first album To Die is Gain, I felt it was a little rough around the edges and the production was somewhat lacking. Here he steps into the forefront of currently working hip-hop artists -- holy or secular -- with a well-polished, intelligent, challenging and edifying record that keeps your head nodding incessantly, both to the beat and in agreement. Not only that, but he has gone the extra mile and successfully crafted a true album, with a unified theme and message, and one that is vitally important for the world today: the Church is Christ's physical representation on Earth and the means for extending God's Grace to the world and establishing his kingdom, so it's incumbent upon us to repeat the act of Grace shown at the cross, and be salt and light to a world in need of redemption. Or, to quote Stephen one final time: "If you’re a Christian then you’re a member of / His physical witnesses sent to finish His mission up / Paul would call us His body with many limbs and functions / workin’ and servin’ till He returns in the endin’ but / Give it up! / until His Kingdom comes and the mission's done / we volitionally and sacrificially give Him us / (Get ‘em bruh) This is something we struggle with and it's tough / but much is required from us because we’ve been given much".

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[1] As a somewhat nitpick-y theological aside: Both Phanatik on Not My Own and Stephen on The First Missionary speak of God in mutable terms i.e. pre-creation 'conferencing' within the Godhead and 'coming to decisions' about how to create, or how to solve some problem etc. Given the limitations of language and of the rap format, I don't have a huge problem with the artistic license invoked here, but it is technically incorrect; because of God's immutability any talk of Him 'coming to decisions' is an anthropomorphism. This is not to deny the existence of divine counsel or community within the Godhead, only to affirm God's immutability.

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