Artist: John Reuben
In Brief: The Christian rapper – who has become increasingly uncomfortable with how both aspects of that label describe his work – makes a surprisingly strong comeback after an eight-year absence. Reubonic is as offbeat and weird as a lot of his best work, and it has no pretense of wanting to be mainstream, but it also makes some excellent points in intriguing ways.
I’ve followed John Reuben, and for the most part enjoyed his work, since pretty much the beginning. Maybe it was just that I was pleasantly surprised by his 2000 debut, Are You There Yet?, and how I found it to be witty and amusing despite his chosen genre of hip-hop being one that I knew very little about and generally didn’t get into because, no offense to hip-hop, I typically preferred my music to be a little more melodic. I’ve learned the hard way over the years that if I discuss John Reuben’s music in relation to other music in a genre I rarely actually listen to, I’m going to fall flat on my face. Suffice to say that just like rock or any other genre that’s enjoyed enough mainstream appeal, there’s a lot more depth within that genre than what you’re going to hear on the radio. So I don’t even know in most cases where John Reuben’s influences lie, or who the closest comparisons to his work would be in “mainstream music”. I just know he’s a guy who expresses himself in a rather idiosyncratic way that can sometimes come across as goofy or sing-songy, or otherwise seem wack (I’m all about that current slang, yo) to people who are serious scholars of rap music, but who I relate to precisely because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. This is nothing new, of course. There are plenty of comedy rappers out there, and there are plenty of rappers with a serious message who don’t take themselves too seriously. John Reuben is one of the latter. He also happens to be a Christian. And yet depending on what day you ask him, using the terms “Christian” or “rap” to describe his music might not paint an entirely accurate picture.
It’s been eight long years since the release of Reuben’s fifth album, 2009’s Sex, Drugs & Self-Control, which honestly didn’t do too much for me, despite it being a follow-up to 2007’s Word of Mouth, a record I thought was a career highlight. Either the hooks on that record weren’t doing it for me, or else it was just too self-consciously silly even for me, or… honestly, I can’t even remember. It was enough of a disappointment that I didn’t fully realize he went MIA after that one, until he turned up on Gotee Records’ twentieth anniversary album in 2014, featuring several of the label’s artists covering other artists on the roster. I had Googled him a few times just figure out what he had been up to and found nothing, and then suddenly in 2016 I stumbled across a new Reuben song, “Old as Religion”, on Spotify. I wasn’t sure what to make of it first, or even whether it was genuinely new or just a B-side from the vaults that had shown up incorrectly dated, but I figured if he ever got around to making another record, I’d give him another chance.
Finally, Reubonic dropped this year, apparently a fully independent release, and it finds Reuben in a bit of a different climate than where we last left him, even less afraid than he already was to say a few things that might ruffle a conservative Christian audience’s feathers (yep, there are a few mild swears on this one, you bluenoses!), and definitely in more of a contemplative mood regarding his expression of his faith and how it related to his career and his long-term viability as a musician. The “cynic” side of The Boy Vs. The Cynic might be a good starting point for the headspace Reuben seems to be in on this record. Yet there are a few tracks where he still lets loose and has fun – I just don’t think any of them as as blatantly meant to let loose and party and leave it at that as some of his simpler anthems from past records might have been. As much as I love a good hook to really drive home a fun song, a lot of Reuben’s work on this album doesn’t seem to worried about whether the hooks/choruses are immediately catchy or marketable. Some of them certainly are, but they’re almost never the main focus of the song. This is a record that, for all of its intriguing samples and unorthodox bits of instrumentation, really forces you to focus on its lyrics first and foremost, and while Reuben’s method of spitting them is still as “white kid from the suburbs” as ever, I have to say that his writing here is more consistently solid than it’s ever been, even on his best albums of yesteryear.
The problem with these lyrics being so good is that there are so many of them that I can’t always remember the best of the zingers from a given song offhand, and I can’t find written lyrics to most of these songs anywhere (and having bought the album digitally, there’s no booklet to help me out either). So I fear I’m not going to do Reubonic the justice it deserves simply by writing stream-of-consciousness about the stuff I remember. This one’s taken me a while to write precisely because I have to sit down, really listen to a song, and give you the highlights while it’s still fresh in my mind without memories of any of the adjacent tracks bleeding into it. Sometimes reviewing the albums I really love, and having to back up why this is the case, is a much harder task than simply praising the stuff I like more for the music than the lyrics that just gives me good vibes, or saying “meh” about the average stuff, or even making fun of the truly awful stuff. But it’s a labor of love, and Reuben clearly worked hard on his comeback, so I’d be selling him short if I didn’t work at least a little harder than my usual on this review.
1. Bury This Verse
The deep bell tones that open the record almost fool me into thinking I should be meditating. I guess it’s appropriate for Reuben’s frame of mind as he contemplates his existence as an artist and a communicator, wondering if after all these years, the thoughts going through his head are still worth sharing. The opening line isn’t exactly a feel-good sentiment: “They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place, so this’ll be the last record that I ever make.” I figure it’s a demon that needed to be exorcised in order to get past the writer’s block after a few years out of practice. Reuben doesn’t mince words as he wonders what it takes to make meaningful music after such a long absence: “It’s hard to write the hot shit with a frozen pen.” Coming from a Christian music background, this is the first time we’ve heard him swear on an album, and I’m past the point where this sort of thing bothers me – he’s well out of the mainstream that’s going to be getting CCM radio play and offending the soccer moms driving their 2.3 kids around in a minivan or whatever. He even hangs a lampshade on the expected reaction he’ll get from this: “Before it’s out your lips, you think it’s censorship.” He’s already thought of whatever criticisms you’re going to lob at him, so save it, gatekeepers! While I think he’s chosen his words out of honesty and even a bit of self-deprecation, rather than an attempt at shock value, this is definitely a jarringly cynical way to start a record. But it’s also a stunning one. The eerily slow chorus, which drags out the words “Bu – ry – this – verse” into isolated syllables with huge gaps between them, and the abrupt way that the song ends, are also good reminders that how the songs flow into one another and what sort of mood they set matter more to Reuben than whether they all have immediate hooks or conventional structures. I’m kind of relieved that the song didn’t follow its own advice, saying to bury it in a time capsule to not be heard for a thousand years,
2. Candy Coated Razor Blades
This was one of the songs dropped in advance of the album that generated some backlash. Yes, it’s about the s-word again. Yes, it’s tiring that an audience who cares more about word choice than what’s actually being said keeps bringing this up. But if you really need to know, it shows up twice here and then the strongest curse you’ll get past this point is “hell”. Are we good? (Sigh.) I’m really impressed with Reuben’s fast delivery on this one. The backing track here is super-addictive too – it’s basically no more than a series of low, bubbling electronic notes, but I love how it plays off of the cadence of his lyrics. While this song is very much an “inside baseball” sort of commentary on the music industry and where the boundary is between a respectable amount of hustling to sell the product you’ve carefully crafted and just plain selling out, I think it works because John’s frustration with the status quo is palpable here, and it fits in with a lot of his past commentaries on pretty much anyone who didn’t want him to think outside the box. There’s simply too much here to mine all of the best quotes from it, but the line “Gatekeepers lost their keys” pretty well sums up his opinion of the people running the an industry that he’s never quite been a perfect fit for. The idea that the bottom line trumps everything else – even within a supposedly faith-based sector of the business – really seems to get to him when he declares, “Don’t take it’s personal, it’s just business. Makes taking a shit sound like a strategic initiative.” It’s a bit crass, but I have to admit, I laughed. While there are some good zingers here, I don’t see this as a diss track overall – more of a “where do I fit into the grand scheme of things” sort of rumination, with a bit of a foreboding edge to it as he suddenly pops out with these two weirdly sing-songy lines at the end of the chorus: “Smile in my face/Candy coated razor blades”. From his viewpoint, something harmful to people is being packaged and successfully sold en masse because it has a sweet exterior. That makes what would have otherwise been a ridiculously awkward chorus hook send a chill down my spine instead.
3. Age of Our Fathers
One thing I’ve noticed across a number of the darker songs on Reuben’s albums is that he likes to use distorted vocal samples as a background loop. Obviously he’s not the only artist to do this, but he gets a lot of mileage out of the eerie texture of it, which serves him well when he’s talking about something particularly ominous. Here, if I’m not mistaken, he’s sampled both choral vocals and a bit of organ, which make a weirdly appropriate backdrop for a song about the faith he’s inherited from his parents, and how the things he’s come to believe as an adult might pose challenges to long-held beliefs he’s had from childhood. “Dad’s a futurist, mom’s nostalgic”, he comments early in the song, as if to say that conflict between tradition and reason/experience was already present in his parents’ view of the world before he even came along. Now he’s kind a kid of his own and he’s trying to figure out how to raise her, in an age where it’s perhaps more obvious than ever how some of the people who wear the same “Christian” label that he does can be wolves in sheep’s clothing. He resolves that he’s going to stick up for “The freaks, the geeks and the least of these”, while also commenting that “The devil is a legalist”. The message here seems to be that he wants to pass along his faith, but he doesn’t want his kid to take everything a person of faith tries to teach her for granted as the unquestionable truth. Since this is more of a contemplative song, it might not have one of the more memorable hooks on the record, but I really like what Reuben has to say here, assuming I’m interpreting it correctly.
After three weightier tracks, I think we could use a little levity. Reuben gives it to us in the form of a song about his wife – he’s done this at least once before on Professional Rapper‘s “5 Years to Write”, but I find this one a lot more memorable. The hook finds him sneaking in a teeny bit of falsetto, and I’m not going to pretend Reuben’s a soul crooner or anything, but it gives the song just enough of a sunny pop vibe that it works. (A major label probably would have slammed a guest vocalist in there to do a little cross-promotion. I rather like the DIY nature of Reuben handling the vocals all by his lonesome, though.) I know the Auto-tune in the verses will weird some people out – especially since he’s rapping, why would you need to tune that at all? But it puts just a slick enough sheen on it to give it the right balance of catchiness and idiosyncracy, so once I got used to it, I didn’t mind it too much. I think the real strength of the song is that it’s not just about what a man finds sexy about a woman and how he feels about her. It expresses genuine admiration for her being a confident, ambitious person who prompts him to consider her feelings and ask, “Has she fallen for me?” Too many love songs in pop music seem to simply be about wanting something and therefore feeling like you’re entitled to it. Reuben understands that he’s been given a gift and he needs to give right back. “You’re not looking for a foolish charmer, or a night in shining armor.” Just the sheer power of wanting her is not enough to get or keep a wife or girlfriend like this person, because she has “Too much self-respect to just be the object of my affection.” It doesn’t bludgeon you in the face with feminism, but I think it’s empowering in its own way. If there’s one drawback, I think the hook goes on for a bit too long at the end, without Reuben really doing much new for the last minute or so of the song as he vamps on the words “Everybody wanna be the one that she loves”.
5. We Live Best
The deep, thumping bass that stutters at the beginning of this song is a pretty strong hint that we’re headed back into dark territory. Reuben really comes out swinging with another round of rapid-fire verses as he talks about the adrenaline rush of taking risks when we realize life’s too short to play it completely safe. Again, that’s just my best stab at summing up all of the thoughts Reuben is spitting left and right here – he’s got a lot on his mind, and he’s not afraid to stare into the abyss and see if it flinches. He dismantles money and fame as the end goals of life pretty early on, comparing wealth to “A passenger seat in a car you can’t afford” and noting that “I’ve never met an idol that didn’t disappoint.” What we accomplish is only as important as we did it, is what seems to be the take-away here. I’m not as sold on the hook this time around – Reuben brings in a heavier beat and some blaring synths to add to the hype, but for me this works better as a sobering, contemplate-what-you’re-doing-with-your-life sort of meditation than the rave anthem that the chorus seems to want to turn it into.
6. Future Nostalgia
I just now realized that the line I mentioned about Reuben’s parents in “Age of Our Fathers” works as a call-forward to this song. Pay close attention and you’ll notice a fair amount of interconnectedness in Reuben’s lyrics – that’s the sort of thing I love discovering upon listening more deeply to a record. This one has an unusual backdrop that begins with a muted electric guitar melody, then dropping in a crunched up, bass-heavy beat that sounds like it could be churning around in a cement mixer. The verses are once again very dense, and Reuben spits them rapidly, sidestepping the need to break for a chorus hook until very late in the song, when the refrain finally comes in, serving as more of a coda than a traditional hook. I’m having a harder time ascertaining what this one’s about, but the line “Go on take a picture, capture tomorrow in a retro filter” really stands out to me – perhaps it’s a bit of commentary on how we consume and spit out ideas and trends so fast in the age of social media that we’re already taking nostalgic looks back at things that honestly aren’t even that old. There’s probably a deeper concept to it than what I’m getting out of it – I still have some more digging to do on this one.
This gets off to a really weird start, with the sound of either footsteps and/or the sound of keys jangling in someone’s pocket serving as the “beat” unti a piano melody joins in after a few bars. I don’t know; I would have led off with the piano melody, since it’s a strong enough element to the song that I feel like it would have been better to establish that instant emotional connection as soon as the track begins. This one’s strikingly personal, finding John reminiscing about his childhood, being a misunderstood kid who didn’t receive a conventional education all that well, and who may have struggled with ADD (he’s alluded to this on previous songs, if memory serves). Just trying to figure out who he is and what his passions are against the backdrop of everyone else trying to mold him into something he’ll never be. I can certainly relate to that in some ways. I have to say that, while the beat and the instrumental melody are pretty strong here, the chorus is a bit distracting, since it misspells the word “Identity” so slickly that you I didn’t even notice it at first: “I-D-N-T-I-T-Y.” Uh, you missed a letter there, John. Maybe he’s slurring the “D” and the “E” together? Or maybe it’s a commentary on how he wasn’t the model student, but he has one hell of a productive imagination? It’s certainly one of those emotionally impactful songs on the record, especially when the piano takes over for a surprisingly soothing bridge section. It’s one of the calmest and loveliest moments on an otherwise turbulent and troubled album. I have to wonder if there’s any relation between this and the track “Identify” from John’s debut album Are We There Yet? Man, I haven’t listened to most of that record in ages.
8. One Drink Johnny
This record really needed a party song… every Reuben album’s got to have at least one, so here we go! The kick drum and bass rhythm is incredibly addictive here, easily surpassing past attempts in this same vein such as “Trying Too Hard” or “Good Evening” off of Word of Mouth. Reuben’s speedy delivery really helps to keep the bodies in the room in motion, too. The song is a celebration of artistry and the sheer fun of making music people can enjoy, going so far as to insist that you shouldn’t settle for one without the other. “You can’t spell ‘party’ without ‘art’. ARRRIGHT?” he tells us in the corniest and yet most adorably fun way he can manage near the end of the song. We’ve heard these basic ideas from Reuben several times in the past. The line “Put your hands in the atmos” definitely showed up in a song on Word of Mouth, too – I just can’t recall which track at the moment. It’s also got some of the classic Reuben self-deprecation that marked even some of his earliest crowd-hyping songs – there’s a conspicuous lack of response when he shouts “When I say ‘echo’, the room yells back!”, leaving him to repeat it again as a disgruntled mumble, shake it off, and keep going. I love those little moments. They remind me that Reuben knows how to deflate his own ego and have a little chuckle at his own expense.
The bass at the end of “One Drink Johnny” pulls off a clever segue into the slower bass intro to this track. It’s a solid song about having to weigh the need to express yourself artistically against the need to market yourself and be viable in the mainstream. Once again it seems like he’s really grappling with the changes that have happened in the industry while he was away. At this point you’ve probably grasped that Reuben doesn’t think of himself as a mainstream heavy-hitter by any stretch of the imagination, and he sort of laments the coming and going of trends as if they’re yesterday’s garbage to be casually thrown out in order to make room for the next big thing. I’m not so sure I buy Reuben claiming to be an innovator who thinks a few steps ahead of the trends, but I can certainly accept him as an off-the-wall experimentor who doesn’t care if the sounds he happens to come up with are cutting edge or if someone thinks they’re hopelessly dated. Doing something unusual that he enjoys wins out over setting trends. I feel like there are more callbacks to his previous songs than I’ve fully picked up on here, with the most obvious one being “The dippity doer done did it again”, a reference to “Doin'” from 2002’s Hindsight, which might still rank as his all-time most memorably goofy anthem. The hook he sings here it’s pretty catchy, and the line “Out with the old like a clearance aisle” brings to mind another white rapper who got famous for a song about buying outdated stuff at discount prices and making it look cool. (C’mon, you know the one.) The pitch-shifted version of this chorus that comes in later gives it that creepy edge that we can expect just about every other track from Reuben these days. It also pulls off a slick transition to the next track, making this section of the album flow incredibly well overall.
10. Old as Religion (Keep the People Excited)
This was the song I randomly found on Spotify that served as my reintroduction to Reuben. I have to say that it plays a little better within the flow of the album than as a standalone. “Step up to the pulpit, know how to market it”, he spits venomously on a song that seems to pull even fewer punches than “Candy Coated Razor Blades” did where the commercialization of religion in order to sell nice, sanitized, mixed messages to unwitting consumers is concerned. This one takes a while to get going, and the flow’s a little choppier, but he spits some pretty good bars here. There’s more chill-inducing choral sampling going on here, almost as if you’re being stalked by creepy shadows only visible behind pristine stained glass windows. This song is probably also meant to have a thematic connection to “Age of Our Fathers”. The takedown of “religious bullies” here also reminds me of “Follow Your Leader” from The Boy Vs. the Cynic, as he’s basically reminding us that any artist will use the platform given to them, but do we buy what they’re selling blindly because they seem to be a member of our tribe on the surface, or do we really critically evaluate what they have to say against the things the God we claim to follow has challenged us to remember when our selfish ambitions and lazy tendencies threaten to get in the way?
11. Curious, Pt. 1
This one’s admittedly a bit of a weird interruption to the album’s flow. If you’re not as enthused about Reuben’s heavy use of pitch-shifted vocals, then you’re going to find the first half of this intro track annoying as hell. I can’t even understand what they’re singing, honestly. It’s pretty out there. But when Reuben comes in with some actual intelligible lyrics, he gives us the gem “If Jesus is a pistol, I’m a son of a gun”, which is actually pretty funny, at least to someone like me who appreciates corny puns. He’s not just saying this for laughs – he’s setting up a song that reaffirms his faith after what sounds like a period or questioning or even walking away from it. He admits that despite all the doubts and the damage done by Christians who treated him as a misfit, the core of what he was brought up believing still resonates with him: “Talking to a God I don’t have faith in, but couldn’t find anything quite worth replacing him.” He’s celebrating curiosity and the need to ask the ornery, difficult questions as a building block of solid faith, and I’m 100% down for that.
12. Curious, Pt. 2
I’m not 100% sure why this song was split into two separate tracks – I mean sure, the intro is weird and maybe some will prefer to skip it. But it builds up to another album highlight in a way that would make it feel awkward to just dive straight in without the intro. There’s a bit of a light dance beat here – the 808 drums are very modern, but it also feels like a throwback to some of Reuben’s more old-school party songs. I really wish I had a lyric sheet here, because Reuben’s been sort of riffing on the word “hallelujah”, but in the chorus it comes out more like “Hey, l-l-l-lick”, and I’m like What does that mean? While I’ve appreciated Reuben not pulling in featured artists just for the sake I almost feel like he needs a guest rapper to play off of here. It feels like a triumphant crowd pleaser that offers some genuine relief toward the end of a record that expressed a lot of doubt and frustration, and as fun as this is, I feel like it needs a little camaraderie – someone to run the victory lap with, so to speak. This would have been an awesome “up note” to end the album on, but we’ve actually got one more track to go.
13. Oh Baby Don’t Waste Your Time
Closing the album with more of a laid-back, “Don;t waste your time on the haters” sort of an anthem seems like an odd choice, but maybe there’s something I’m not getting about it that had Reuben convinced it needed to go at the end rather than somewhere in the middle of the record. I do like the heavier beat and the more laid-back vibe – Reuben’s done a lot to differentiate the speed and texture of each of his songs on this record, and that’s a major reason why it hasn’t gotten tiring for me despite the content of it being so dense. He even sampled a harp in the background of this one! Come on, that’s just objectively awesome. The commentary about how life’s too short to waste time convincing people who stubbornly want you to think inside the box and never ask questions is in line with the persona Reuben’s put forward throughout pretty much his entire career, and I suppose it’s fitting that this song seems to fade out just when I feel like it could be building up to a bigger finish. “It flashes by in the blink of an eye” Indeed it does. If Reuben really means it when he says this’ll be the last record he ever writes, then he’s certainly wrapped it up by giving us more than our fair share of interesting ideas and life-affirming challenges to contemplate.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bury This Verse $1.50
Candy Coated Razor Blades $2
Age of Our Fathers $1.25
We Live Best $1
Future Nostalgia $1
One Drink Johnny $1.75
Old as Religion (Keep the People Excited) $1
Oh Baby Don’t Waste Your Time $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: