- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2002 1 May
Savvy hip-hop artist? Brilliant satirist? Clown prince of rap? I suppose you could say John Reuben (a.k.a. John Reuben Zappin, "John Reu") is a little bit of all these things. The Columbus, Ohio, native got his start by taking the bus from the suburbs to the downtown hip-hop scene, performing at the brutal open mic and rap battle sessions to hone his craft. Eventually, John released a solo EP and was discovered by Gotee Records, which released his first album in 2000.
The album begins with a very silly kid's program parody, "I'll Try Harder," which takes aim at John's critics who accuse him of being too old school. At 23 years of age, John is technically too young to be considered old school. Instead, he's one of many new artists today embracing a pop-friendly, melodic hip-hop sound — call it "neo-classical rap." Fans of A Tribe Called Quest, KRS 1, the Pharcyde, and L.A. Symphony (from which Flynn makes an appearance on the song "Doin' ") will appreciate John's work on a base level, but there's so much more to appreciate here. Co-producing the project with Gotee's Todd Collins (GRTIS, Out of Eden, Gotee Brothers), John has come up with a truly eclectic and creative hip-hop album that blends old-school sounds with progressive production.
After the aforementioned "I'll Try Harder," John launches into "I John Reu," a satirical and funny pledge to keep his music innovative and eclectic. It's a jazzier, smarter, and far less annoying version of Eminem's "My Name Is." True to his word, John keeps the music fresh and the lyrics insightful. "Doin'," a playful song in the same vein as Outkast's "Whole World," challenges hip-hop artists to be creative and artistic rather than strictly adhering to formula and following the rules of the genre. In "Big E Cypher Session" and "Soundman," John combines crazy retro-'60s pop with aggressive rap-rock sounds in a fun tribute to music engineers. Similarly, he fuses a '70s funk groove with hip-hop on "Up and at Them," yet another song that calls attention to his desire to be creative and different. This running theme is summed up best in "Thank You" — "Trying to be different don't really mean that you're doing anything that hasn't been done. Still the style is identical to none … I know there's really nothing new under the sun, but yet I want to do it like it's never been done."
The music is fresh, the lyrics are witty, and John's commitment to being creative with hip-hop earns much adulation from me, but do we need so many reminders that John is trying to be creative? It almost seems as though the Christian message takes a back seat on this ride, but at least it is present. The title track in particular is a wonderfully poetic song about the frustration of living in the present and suffering the trials of today, versus the beauty of seeing the meaning behind it all once it has all unfolded according to God's plan. "Defensive Offender" takes on the subject of Christians being so quick to tear down other people when they do wrong. "Breathe" challenges us to live life and not simply exist, to choose meaning and peace over chaos and insecurity. John's mission and intentions are probably best expressed in the third verse of "Run the Night," a song that gives thanks to the Lord for being the ultimate source of creativity and the peace that passes understanding — "speak life through the night, driven to give them some sort of peace in the night while I'm with them, spitting wisdom, hoping to hit them, get them to listen and make the room start living." In the album's best track, "Soundman," John and company chant, "Hey sound man, turn me up man / let it surround them right here and now." Perhaps this is a metaphor for the way the Holy Spirit ministers through and around us to share the Gospel?