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The Yearbook

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Apr
The Yearbook
Sounds like … more of the "white boy hip-hop" KJ is known for, similar in style to John Reuben, Eminem, and tobyMac with a little bit of Timbaland, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.At a glance … while KJ-52's sonic range and youth-ministry focus are both as admirable as ever, one can't help but get the feeling that he's run out of creativity and song subjects when listening to The Yearbook.Track Listing Will You Ever Know?
Do Yo Thang
You'll Never Take Me Down
Do You Got That?
It Ain't Easy
Push Up
I Won't Ever Stop
You Can Still Come Back
Can I Be Honest?
Pump That
5 Minutes (In the Garden)
Daddy's Girl
Wake Up
Say What Ya Want
You're Gonna Make It
You Hang Up First
Always Here for You
Take Every Part of Me

Stop me if you've heard this one already. On his latest, KJ-52 spans the gamut of hip-hop and rap-rock while sharing the love of Christ for any youth willing to listen, peppering his often-hopeful rhymes with personal examples and self-deprecating humor about the nerdy white rapper from Florida. That's the gist behind The Yearbook, so named to identify KJ's sixth album as a snapshot of everything he's been dealing with this past year. Am I wrong to think it also sounds like, well, any of his previous albums?

KJ (aka Jonah Sorrentino) has seen his career rise over his previous five albums and two side projects (hmmm … five and two), each one reportedly selling more than the last, scoring his first Dove award in 2006 for Best Hip-Hop album. But more than accolades and expectations, KJ has always remained focused on using his platform to reach out to kids. According to podcasts on his site, he wanted to give back to his fans, packing the CD with as many songs as he could. Indeed, he initially recorded 75 songs (!!!) for this first self-produced effort, eventually settling on 19. Unlike previous albums, none of those tracks are fluffy interludes—most all of them run at least 3 minutes.

To his credit, KJ continues to show sonic range, from the usual beat-driven rhymes and funky dance grooves, to the slammin' rap-rockers and some smooth jazz/R&B cuts (collaborating with Liquid). It's basically Eminem or John Reuben crossed with tobyMac, though KJ's certainly capable Timbaland's of scope and Kanye West's creativity.

The guy's never boring, but is he stuck in a rut? Consider the dramatic "Will You Ever Know?", graphically examining our response to Christ's death with dark piano, strings, and a massive timpani-based beat. It's effective, grabs your attention, but it's not all that different from "Crucify" on KJ's Peace of Mind project. That one told the crucifixion from Jesus' perspective, much like what this album's "Five Minutes (In the Garden)" does with Christ's last few thoughts in Gethsemane—it's like a lost rocker from the !Hero rock opera, both featuring the guitars of Pete Stewart. On that note, "You'll Never Take Me Down" and "Wake Up" aren't any different than KJ's previous dabblings in rap-rock. You could similarly fill an entire review with comparisons between the old and new.

Yet KJ-52 has undeniably connected with his target audience, and you would think the e-mails he regularly receives would be a great source for song subjects to build an album around. Surprising then that he relies on them so little, summing most of them up in "Fanmail." In a way, going this route puts more focus on KJ ("Here's an e-mail a kid wrote to me about pornography … and here's another letter sent to me about cutting…") wrapping it all up with a simple blanket response that points them to God. Wouldn't it be more meaningful and insightful to tackle these topics one by one, like with "Daddy's Girl," helping girls cope with self-image and acceptance? And though "You Can Still Come Back" and "You're Gonna Make It" are intended as comfort to teen struggles, they fall short compared to their potential to be personable and specific.

In fact, if you didn't know of KJ's heart for ministry, you'd swear his favorite subject is responding to attacks. "Say What You Want," "It Ain't Easy," "I Won't Ever Stop," and "Do You Got That?" all have him rebutting critics, television, and even himself, apparently to serve as an example of perseverance for kids. But for every time the theme of cultural acceptance comes up, his message about his finding contentment in God begins to weaken. VH1 and MTV are clueless when it comes to Christian artists and your "Dear Slim" song, KJ—rise above and move on! It doesn't help that some of these are set to the most grating sounding loops he's ever recorded, trumped only by the incredibly irritating "You Hang Up First," a novelty rap about youthful heartbreak reminiscent of The Fresh Prince (i.e. Will Smith for you kids).

It's not all bad—"Can I Be Honest?" makes a beautiful confessional (even apologizing for mediocre music), "Always Here for You" a moving piano-driven ode to his son, and the sunny pop-flavored surrender of "Take Every Part of Me" (featuring Ayiesha Woods) does sound different than anything KJ has previously recorded. Overall, however, it's not a progression for Sorrentino. Of course, fans expecting nothing other than more of the same will find the album enjoyable, if not meaningful and perhaps even familiar. But knowing what he's capable of on past albums, it seems like KJ-52 could be aiming higher with his artistry and message than this unfocused and redundant effort. As defined here, any of his albums could have been titled The Yearbook. Instead, let's see him make the honor roll next time.

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