Trip Lee‘s (twitter) latest work, released in 2014 through Reach Records. Rise has been well received achieving the #2 rank on the Billboard Christian chart, and #16 in the Billboard top 200. Rise is released as a prelude to Lee’s new book by the same name, for which John Piper writes a forward.
The album deals with issues of life in rap culture. It is centered around Lee’s own struggles with his calling to be a pastor balanced with his fame as a rapper, the curse of pornography, and the oft-neglected dignity of women. He also responds to critics in this album, not only to critics of himself but to his friends as well. One does not get the impression that Lee simply threw an album together to make a quick buck. All in all, his passion for his art and for his Lord come through. For Trip Lee, this is his ministry, and his listeners his mission field. For Trip Lee, rap is holy ground.
Lee is marked by boldness which comes through from time to time in both his music and his message. In an interview with Religion News Service, Lee talks about his faith by saying
“I try to lean heavily on Scripture. I believe it because that’s what I see in Scripture… If it’s in the Bible, let’s go with it and work through the challenges. If it’s not in the Bible, let’s move on.”
Lee seems to be a perfect exhibit of the tension within reformed Christianity in the 21st century. He’s irrepressibly hip hop in style, unashamedly christian in creed, and unabashedly calvinist in doctrine. He, along with his friends in the Christian Hip Hop genre present a challenge to the church and beg us to consider questions of style, race, and fellowship.
The album itself has its ups and downs. It is a little longer than it should be and a little shallower than I expected, but it is certainly not to be dismissed out of hand. Rise takes you on a journey through Lee’s world, a world unfamiliar to many of his own fans, as he tells for all to hear the thoughts on the life that surrounds him and the longings of his heart.
Track by Track:
Rise: A slow lumbering opening track which acts as an acceptable prelude to the album. The opening hook is highly produced as is the backing music. It sets the tone for the first third of the album which is not nearly as good as the final two thirds. Lyrics are your standard Christian rap fare: ‘This is me, this is my album, I love God, think about your life, I made the album to make you think about life after death’. I feel like I’ve heard this song before.
Lights On: The slow tempo continues. Lee seems to like to balance slow tempo backing tracks with uptempo, often double and triple time, lead vocals. It works for him, but I’m not sure it plays well in every song. However, this song is a good example of when it DOES work well. Lights On is a little dragged out; the long musical interludes and female vocals don’t do it any favors. The lyrics are solid alluding to day to day struggles to stay focused on God, God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men, and his burden for the lost people around him daily.
Shweet: The backing tracks are downright annoying, and the support vocals are worse. Lee has also done a better job rapping. The song sounds dis-jointed. It’s hard to follow and the hook is downright annoying. The lyrics are all over the place dealing with everything from the difference between his life with Christ to his old life, the rap culture that values money and possessions over God, and his upbringing in Dallas. Not his best work.
Manolo: This is the worst Trip Lee song of all time. The highly produced and distorted backing vocals gave me a headache. The confusing, purposely distorted vocal presentation is only made worse by what I can only assume is a post production decision to mix in a way that left the listener with even less clarity. This appears to be an attempt at a hip-hop style song designed more for dancing than listen. Lecrae is featured on this track, and it’s not his best work either. I’m not even going to try with the lyrics because I haven’t a solitary clue what Trip and Lecrae are trying to communicate here. Typically as I write reviews, I listen to the track while I’m writing. In this case, the track was so distracting I had to pause playback simply to finish this paragraph.
You Don’t Know: The album takes a turn for the better here. Opening with a sung prelude of praise to God, quoting Psalm 23 and leading into coherent backing music, with classic Trip Lee energy and enthusiasm into the verse. A sung chorus which is downright catchy and a complement to Lee’s vocal style. The lyrics are Christ centered and God exalting. Lee’s high view of God and low view of self shines through beautifully in this track. ‘Thumbs up on Pandora’ worthy, and a welcome relief from a disappointing opening to the album.
All Rise Interlude: I’m not generally a fan of interludes, but when done right (as in Shane and Shane’s Pages) it can add some good structure to the album. Here it serves as a reset to the album and you notice a shift in focus as Trip moves forward, into the next track specifically. This is really Trip talking about how far he’s come as a rapper due to God’s grace set against an appropriate piano background. It’s nice for what it is.
All Rise Up: The down tempo continues here but it works on this track. Mostly because the background isn’t over produced and Trip doesn’t seem hurried as he tells his story here. The chorus is excellent. It really lets the lyrics shine through and that’s good because the lyrics are worth paying attention to. With much of the criticism Trip and his 116/Unashamed comrades get for becoming popular, Trip responds to it all giving glory to God and making it clear that Jesus is the reason he makes rap albums. It’s a wonderful self portrait and you get the sense Lee is pouring out his heart into what he’s doing with his music; a big part of which is proclaiming Christ as the only one worthy of praise, trusting Christ as his only hope. A great song.
Beautiful Life 2 (Mine): A sweet song, honestly. Lee writes this song for his obviously very young son who is featured on this track (and it’s pretty cute), and also his younger daughter. The backing music is a little much for what the song is, over produced really, but it’s not terrible. Lots of singing on this track, which is a nice change of pace. Lyrically, he exhorts his son to forsake his own name (he’s named after Trip, apparently) and to glorify God with his life while reminding his daughter she doesn’t need a boy to make her feel beautiful, that being made in God’s image is beauty enough. In the chorus Trip confesses that he is overwhelmed that God would give him such a great gift as his children. I’m very impressed not only with this song, but with the man Trip Lee.
Insomniac: This felt like a throwaway song, as if Trip wasn’t really finished with it yet or he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. While the backing music mostly stays out of the way, the vocals don’t do much. The song can’t seem to settle on a particular style as it switches quickly from one to another; singing to rapping to simply repetitious sounds. The lyrics are nothing special; mostly descriptive of the rap culture of partying all night and how it stands to demonstrate a disregard for one’s standing before God. Frankly, he could have done better with them.
Something New: Short, simple, to the point. A steady pace throughout his verse and a simple quick chorus. A rather pedestrian song, musically. Lyrically Trip highlights a little talked about problem in rap culture, even among christian rappers, which is covetousness. Using “sneaker heads” as an example of people who will go into debt to get the latest, greatest, most unique shoes simply to show them off, Trip effectively describes the entire scene. However, he fails to offer an answer to the problem which was mildly disappointing.
Lazarus: An interesting song, musically. A dominant drum machine electronic beat with a haunting electric guitar/harpsichord sound driving the lead. It complements the vocal style nicely as Trip seems to take on a more serious tone in his inflection and pace. Strangely, the overproduction that’s become a hallmark of this album seems to work here. Trip writes his version of the story of Lazarus and along with guest This’l relates the story of Lazarus to salvation; as Christ raised Lazarus literally from the dead, he can raise us spiritually from the dead. Trip proclaims “from now on you can call me Lazarus.” It comes off well and the point is driven home. Good song.
All My Love: This song is the crown jewel of the album. A truly great song and worth giving this album a try. Everything is subdued and Trip assumes his serious tone in his vocal presentation. He weaves a vivid story about a married man named Jay entangled in live(?) pornography. Natalie Lee sings the hook in the character of the girl the enticing Jay, and does a great job with it. She serves as the siren blaring in this man’s mind drawing him back, promising him all the intimacy he craves. The story drives the song. As it goes on, the man sinks deeper and deeper into his false relationship with the “pretty woman on the screen” putting his marriage in jeopardy and making him distant from his friends who try to help him. Eventually our “dude Jay is at a cross roads” and realizes he’s going to lose his family. His mind turns toward God and he can’t stomach the thought of facing Him, but remembers Christ died for his sins. He smashes his computer, repents to his wife “in tears”. Trip encourages us with his final line: “God hears”. It’s difficult to say enough good things about this song. Buy the album and see for yourself.
I’m Gone: Piano driven backing music and limited drums drive this song, which Trip mostly sings. Its even pace and uptempo is a welcome change of pace. A catchy chorus centers this song well. An easy to understand rejection of Satan consistent with Biblical truth, if not particularly exciting or insightful.
Sweet Victory: The closing track is somewhat subdued and pensive. Aside from a steady beat and a string arpeggio, there isn’t much to the song musically. Lyrically, Trip takes his time throughout the song which does help to build anticipation and sets up his drives into more uptempo sections later. This song is pretty well done from a musical standpoint. The hook sticks with you all day and I found myself humming it without thinking of it, and he uses it well to keep the song grounded. Vocally, it gives him a good stage to say what he wants to say. The bridge and the outro are really the money lyrics here, and they are quite good; declaring the majesty and glory of Christ who won victory over death and sin on the cross. It’ll lead you into worshiping God and leave you praising His name as this catchy tune sticks with you. A well done song demonstrating Trip’s mastery of his craft.
All in all this is a solid album from Trip Lee. While I don’t think it is the masterpiece he had hoped for, and I don’t think it is the best album I’ve heard in this genre, it does hold up and offer some solid songs you won’t want to skip when it comes up with your device on shuffle. Worth owning, worth a listen, but not necessarily a must have for Christian music, or rap, fans.