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Sounds like … Reuben's now-customary mix of rap, pop and rock, with occasional elements of disco, P-funk, and ambient technoAt a glance … like much of John Reuben's later output, this album is thought-out and well-fashioned, though its lack of focus keeps it from being truly outstandingTrack ListingOut of ControlNuisance Chapter 1Follow Your LeaderSales PitchSunshineSo Glad What About ThemThere's Only ForgivenessAll I HaveCooperateThe Boy vs. The Cynic
It's hard to believe rapper-turned-rocker John Reuben Zappin is already on his fourth album. Seems like just yesterday Gotee Records took a chance on the eager, wet-behind-the-ears 21-year-old from Columbus, Ohio. But that was 2000, and although he was implicitly marketed as the Christian alternative to popular white rapper Eminem—the Slim Shady had just hit the scene a year earlier—John Reuben has since done much more than just rap over other people's beats. He has turned to producing, scouting other talent for the label, and eventually making music that's more somber and meditative than the silly, self-absorbed anthems that characterized his earlier work.
Like with 2003's Professional Rapper, Reuben's latest is once again predictably aimed at two different crowds: those that can't get enough of his poppy silliness, and those that prefer the meatier pensiveness of his more rock-inflected tunes. Story has it that when Reuben's deadline to turn in a new album to their label had come and gone, he submitted two albums' worth of material, one filled with lighthearted rap musings and the other more in the solemn, serious vein of Professional Rapper. But instead of pulling a GRITS—the Dirty South duo also turned in two separateprojects last year—the label opted for a more cost-effective way of delivering the goods by culling the best tracks from each album and splicing them together in The Boy vs. The Cynic.
With this in mind, it's quite easy to pick out which tracks on Boy belong to which project. First single "Nuisance," with its impossibly catchy chorus and the boyish charm of labelmate Matt Thiessen (Relient K), is sunnier than anything Reuben has ever tried before. Perhaps it's due to Thiessen's participation, but the melody and soundtrack are almost too eerily reminiscent of Blink-182's "All the Small Things." Later, the acoustic pop of "All I Have" takes us right back to Reuben's debut album with ideas and sounds that seem like long-lost cousins of his pop ditty "God Is Love."
Of the fun tracks, "So Glad" is perhaps the most pleasing, a P-funk cut with splashes of disco, featuring vocal support from Tim Skipper of House of Heroes. Another left turn is "Sunshine," a power pop tune that would sound equally comfortable on a Weezer album. Yet despite the levity of all of these, Reuben seems intent on communicating truth, even if in small doses. "Sunshine," in particular, exults perseverance and grace in the midst of difficulties, while "All I Have" warns that life is not to be lived based on expectations, but on reality.
But there's more to Mr. Zappin than just summer bliss. Early in Boy, "Out of Control" sets the temperamental pace of the record, a rapcore manifesto where Reuben surrenders the reins of his life to God. The best track in the set is "Chapter 1," a hookless mood piece where Reuben explores the commodified ills of America. In a rap delivery that would make Mars ILL's Manchild proud, "Sales Pitch" eloquently speaks of how religion has been transformed into something marketable. And in a move that may earn him a bit of backlash from the underground, "Cooperate" criticizes "starving artists" who always complain about the status quo, yet do nothing proactive to make it better.
The only thing that keeps Boy from being a truly great record is Reuben's unwillingness to stick to one persona. He has admitted to treating his "serious side" as merely a side project, when in actuality it's his biting observations and rhyming—and the darker musical motifs that go along with them—that distinguishes him the most. The album is quite good, but perhaps a bit too ambitious and lacking focus. In practice, Reuben seems to be branching out in the same way as tobyMac or the Black Eyed Peas, trying as many hats as possible in hopes of being noticed. But Reuben clearly has potential to be more thought provoking than that. Once he learns to focus on his own voice and ideas, he'll put boyish and cynical ways aside to favor the professional rapper he's capable of becoming.