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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Holy Culture

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Apr
Holy Culture
Sounds like … contemporary hip-hop that reflects a similar collaborative style as GRITS and L.A. SymphonyAt a Glance … Holy Culture has some shining moments of creativity and inspiration, weighed down by more routine tracks that repeat messages and fail to offer anything new

The Philadelphia-based Cross Movement has been regarded as one of the most important forces in Christian hip-hop since their formation in 1994. Their roster has included a number of key artists in the genre—currently, they are a foursome comprised of John "The Tonic" Wells, William "Ambassador" Branch, Brady "Phanatik" Goodwin, and Virgil "TRU-LIFE" Byrd (whose nickname is an acronym for one of his core beliefs, "To Rightfully Understand the Lord Is Forever Existing). Their first album, 1997's Heaven's Mentality, is regarded as a key release in the history of Christian hip-hop, and their most recent, 2000's Human Emergency, was creative enough to earn a place in our semi-annual "Ten Independent Artists You Should Know" feature.

It's taken The Cross Movement a surprisingly long time to be signed to a label other than their own Cross Movement Records, probably because hip-hop is only recently becoming widely popular in Christian music. In the wake of success by tobyMac, GRITS, KJ-52, and John Reuben, to name a few, The Cross Movement finally partnered with BEC Recordings to distribute their long-awaited fifth release, Holy Culture.

Inspired by John 17, The Cross Movement is very passionate about communicating the gospel through their art form, becoming relevant to the culture while working to infuse it with God's holiness through their words and actions. The album's overall message is clearly defined and driven home in songs like the title track, "In Not Of," "Rise Up," and "Start Somethin." In a track reminiscent of "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio, "L.L.R.P." (life, liberty, righteousness, and the pursuit thereof) describes the difficult walk to holiness and the confidence we can have with Christ leading the way. As if the theme wasn't made clear enough from the aforementioned tracks, The Cross Movement concludes their album with a six-minute panel discussion among the four members, explaining what it means to be a "holy culture."

Have you ever noticed how you get more than your money's worth with hip-hop albums? It's fascinating to me that this genre, which hinges on rhymes and raps requiring four times as many words as pop music, consistently produces albums of such exhaustive length—16 tracks and 75 minutes in this case. Perhaps it is because of the art form's reliance on words rather than the nuances associated with guitar solos and vocal performances, that hip-hop albums run so long. Album length is irrelevant as long as the artist can captivate with wit, rhythm, and production. A perfect example is KJ-52's Collaborations album from 2002, or, for that matter, The Cross Movement's own Human Emergency disc from 2000, both packed with eclecticism and silliness. Other acts, such as GRITS, wisely know when to wrap things up—sometimes less is more, and their relatively concise The Art of Translation doesn't waste time repeating itself or packing the disc with disposable tracks.

Holy Culture has its moments of inspiration and creativity. Both "Driven" and "When I Flow" are propelled by a Middle Eastern flavored groove. "Free" is ear-grabbing with its dark bell and descending piano cascade, while "It's Going Down" appropriately uses a rock base to underscore the message of society's fall to violence and drugs. A frenetic acoustic guitar loop with a chaotic string loop and a helter-skelter lyrical delivery drives "Live It," a reminder that this life is only temporary but still determines our eternal future. "Closer to You" uses soulful pop and beautiful harps to express a desire for a more intimate relationship with the Lord, and despite a dark electric-piano hook, the radio single "Cry No More" offers a hopeful look at eternal life in heaven.

Aside from those tracks, the album generally fails to captivate for its full duration. The holy culture theme is overplayed and too many of the tracks sound the same. Though certainly not a bad hip-hop album, it lacks the creative spark found on Human Emergency. It's not as eclectic and interesting as recent discs from GRITS and KJ-52, nor as polished and well produced as John Reuben and tobyMac. Some of the samples and drum loops are outstanding, while others sound amateur and basic. Despite three years to work on the album and a partnership with BEC, The Cross Movement remains an underground, independent act (but with wider distribution). The talent is still here on an album of generally better than average Christian hip-hop, but it's not fully utilized like this group's past recordings. Still, Holy Culture is worthy of an audience in the ever-growing Christian hip-hop genre, especially if you've already listened to the better albums available and still find yourself wanting more.