"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! / All is vanity." - Ecclesiastes 1:2
It all comes down.
So declares the tag line to Lecrae, the ringleader of Reach Records, fifth studio album Gravity. Instead of a declaration of an imminent event that everyone in the area code should kill to make it to, the catch phrase hints at a deeper narrative and a more intertwined fabric than the four syllables usually represent.
For those uniformed, Gravity is bigger than a typical Lecrae release because it serves as the mainstream's official introduction to the veteran emcee. With the release of his Church Clothes mixtape garnering respectable mainstream attention (as of this writing, easily over 300,000 downloads), the stage was set for this album to make a debut as raucous as the Miami Heat's trio of Wade, James and Bosh a couple years back. In interviews prior to this release, Lecrae had noted that the inspiration behind Gravity was the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and understanding that is crucial to the portrait that the album paints. Despite pre-release singles seeming to kill more of the album's buzz than enhance it, the release births a concept-stained collection of masterfully produced cuts that range from energetic to reflective, all on deeper levels than Lecrae has ever taken us before.
"Many winners will lose / Many heroes will fall / And if that's me then I'm still free from it all"
Lecrae is one of the best in the game at creating unadulterated hype so pure you can shoot it straight into your vein, so it should come as no surprise that "The Drop (Intro)" knocks down the fortressed door of expectations with a firestorm of sonic force. Thick live strings give way to booming bass drums and a live guitar wire that explodes into a solo by tracks end (and bringing back that piano line from Church Clothes "Co-Sign intro right at the end? Trademark genius by The Heat Academy). If there's a place for the vague 'mainstream sound' sticker to be tagged, the title track would be it (no diss). Featuring a chorus and production by J.R., the suave vocals and shifting harmony add genuine polish to a song filled with deep audio echoes and looping drum patterns for your fingers to tap along with Lecrae's evolved flow. This album, besides finding Creezy on a whole other lyrical level than he's been previously seen, is a debut of a tighter, just barely altered pace of spitting with emphasis on syllabled connections akin to how he spit on his BET cypher spot. Punchline fiends may call the bars inferior to the Rebel days, but it'd be your loss to believe it.
"All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it / The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear fill with hearing" - Ecclesiastes 1:8
"Walk with Me" serves as the introduction of a newly formed production team: The Watchmen, comprised of J.R., Wit, and Alex Medina. Individually, members of the team are responsible for some of your favorite Lecrae songs. Collectively, they've outdone all of the above on this album. This track boasts an organ, a dusty sample and a soulful clip by Novel to keep your ears entertained and the album on a great pace. Perhaps the most opaque song of Lecrae's career, "Free From it All" is both a backhanded shove to his 'fans' and a mirror into the listener's soul on the discipline of freedom from people's expectations, standards and regulations. Mathai, of "The Voice" fame, spins an elevating chorus dispersed between Lecrae's angst: "The show goes on even after the curtains close / I smile and pose and put my signature on they clothes / They lift me up so high that I'm surely about to fall / The higher that I go the more unforgiving they are /No Grace and no exceptions / All they want is perfection.". Then comes the apocalyptic "Fall Down" that leaves me gasping for air after every play as I reach to play it back. Trip Lee, with raspier vocals than he usually spits, and Swoope step into the studio and leave the studio glass fogged up. But the real story here is The Watchmen- produced background: A crashing wave of rolling drums, intricate samples and audio menace that stuns.
"Grew up under Tupac / Bible verse and two glocks"
I'm not mad at "Fakin'," with it's ziploc synth (Produced by Heat Academy) and grunge flows by 'Crae and ex-hustler Thi'sl (Who, just like on 'APB' from "CC" steals the show from his host). What I am mad about is the awkward position in an album that it doesn't bear much resemblance to, thematically. And the childish "Guess that make you a fakerrrrr" chorus. If this gets thrown on to the deluxe edition as a bonus track, I've got no problems but, as it is, it takes away from the whole. Things get back on track quickly with the big-budget audio sequel of 'Black Rose' that is "Violence." Thanks to another frenetic gumbo beat by Tyshane and The Inner Circle (The former was responsible for 'Black Rose') Lecrae gets to scratch his reggae-tinged flow fetish again, with the same curious but content results. Can we talk about "Mayday," aka the top track off of Gravity? Produced by DJ Khalil (Whose best known for his quartet of tracks on Eminem's "Recovery" LP) with a wispy (but not thin) beat that is both as somber and chilling as a crisp fall breeze in the middle of a starless night. Big K.R.I.T. gently unfolds his doubts, beefs and insecurities with the walk preceding the afterlife in his opening verse, American Idol's Ashthon Jones' chorus is borderline supernatural in its elevation and Lecrae puts what he's been doing for years after the music stops permanently onto wax in a dramatic five minutes that will make you shiver if you relate to either side of the confessional booth (And if you don't, go listen to "Free From it All" again). Equally revealing is "Confe$$ions." It carries a burdened aroma of ecclesiastical despondency with an uncredited Bruno Mars-esque chorus (no diss at all) and Lecrae relating lifestyles of the rich and the famous that have found it to quickly lose it's painted polish. Quality. And major credit to the songwriters here...these choruses are real well-written so they don't distract from the vocal chops of the singing crew.
"For in much wisdom is much vexation / and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" - Ecclesisastes 1:18
Even the upcoming block of tracks that fall short here are ones that I really wanted to get with. In the love-jam starved niche that Lecrae is emerging from, any ballad is welcome but "Buttons" finds Lecrae trying his best Drake 'sing-then-rap' outfit, which stumbles awkwardly. 116 Clique track "Power Trip," with Derek Minor (FKA PRo), Sho Baraka and Andy Mineo, does not fall into the category of weak, however. The DJ Official track is laced with electricity. The lack of a real chorus is for the track's benefit and all emcees involved kill it with their respective styles in full form: Pro, with his best chip on the shoulder flow, Lecrae with his competitive bars, Sho with his back-to-back-to-back punchlines mixed with indie swagger and Andy with his vox and tempo switches. I love the rotting corpse creepiness found in Heat Academy's "Lord Have Mercy," but usually can't get past the well-documented off-brand rhymes ("50 yard hail mary / I was way too throwed" and "Jesus turned me round so fast that you would swear I was dizzy" are two examples of Lecrae picking the too-low punchline fruit). Choosing "I Know" as a single did it a horrible disservice, because it's more bearable in context, but I still haven't gotten the point of it.
"A non-believer I never have and never could be / Lord give me time to peep the signs I should see"
As the album starts to put itself to bed, we're lullabied by "Tell The World" with a trademark Mali Music feature. 'World' booms with pure emotion instead of rocking 808's thanks in combination to Mali's pure spring water of a chorus and a beat given momentum with clapping drums and an excited, but not hyper, piano line. This cut is as good an example as any of Lecrae's control over this album: Despite a bevy of guest stars, there is no mistaking this as a 116 Clique compilation or a mix tape that shares the spotlight with a host. It is undeniably Lecrae's project. The album hesitates in closing its eyelids on "Lucky Ones," a moody cut filled with The Watchmen's audio suited for a fog-covered dawn and a Rudy Currence chorus (he played the keys as well) that is so perfectly a partner of Lecrae's bars that it can hardly be called a hook. The feeling of mild depression at the understanding of the album motto's totality, similar to what Solomon reaches at the end of his declarations of vanity, is present in the somber bars but the realization of Grace that burns it all away is fully realized as the album fades to black amidst heavy handed piano notes.
"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth / before the evil days come and the years draw near / of which you will say "I have no pleasure in them" - Ecclesiastes 12:1
Reviewing a Reach Records album is always tough. The cynics (myself included) may see a 4+ star write-up for the label and chalk it up to a Reach fan boy declaring every album a classic thirty seconds into the intro and sarcastically say 'well of course it's going to get at least four stars, it's a Reach album' and not understand the strength of the muscles that Gravity has to stand on. On the other hand, those fans who slap 5-star ratings on every album where 'Jesus' is mentioned at least a dozen times may see the rating that Gravity is about to receive, giggle and rejoice, without fully understanding what a strong project and artistic jump Lecrae took. The depth and breadth that the Ecclesiastes concept branches through the album, without being contrived or overcompensating, is the dopest element of the album- after the ferocious production. Gravity gets a 4.25 Stars, with time being the judge of whether it should be rounded up or down. For this forum's sake, I'll round up the rating since it's the first Reach album, since 2010's Rehab to live up to the hype encompassing it. Here's hoping the mainstream gets a wide spray of the shrapnel from Gravity's explosion of a landing.
Categorical Ratings Breakdown:
Beat Selection/Production: 4.5/5
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