Review – Json ‘City Lights’
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St. Louis native Json has become a very familiar name in Christian Hip Hop. He has been turning heads and getting verses re-winded since he was first heard on the 116 Clique compilation in 2005. As an independent artist, he went on to drop two noteworthy albums: ‘The Seasoning’ and ‘Life on Life.’ The latter created such a buzz, that Lamp Mode Recordings picked up the unsigned artist and released a remastered version of the album last year. On his third album, ‘City Lights’, Json seeks not only to paint a stark picture of the inner-city, but urges the church to be the much needed illumination to dark streets. The album opens up with haunting news clips of recent crimes that have taken place in St. Louis. It’s against this backdrop that the title track comes in. He opens up by masterfully weaving his label’s name into the first few bars of his verse “I’m called to be a lamp lit, if Christ is who I stand for/ my city’s dark and man sick I’m suppose to be on Lampmode/ yea lamp mode and not the label that I’m signed to but let em shine thru/ and spread to dudes like Swine flu (oooh)/”. Json very much seeks to infect believers with a passion for the crime riddled streets he is from. A sizable portion of the album recounts Json’s own grimy past; as a former hoodlum, he seeks to connect with listeners and calls them to hear the call of God’s grace. The best example of this is “Goon” featuring Thi’sl and upcoming vocalist Pastor AD3. The song is addressed to dudes on the block who boast in illegal activity. The two St. Louis emcees use their testimonies to testify of God’s transforming power over an exquisite beat by IsRael Musiq. These are the ingredients for a stellar track with a far-reaching message.
What makes ‘City Lights’ so different from other albums in it’s genre, is that it’s constructed to be purposely evangelistic. Many Christians claim to make music intended to reach the lost, but the lyrical content is steeped in so much systematic theology, it becomes unintelligible to a non-Christan. The average unfound person would not understand (let alone listen to) most Gospel rap because its message is communicated in essentially a foreign language. Json, however, goes to great lengths to make sure he is talking to his intended unbelieving audience and not just talking over their collective heads. His lyrics are layered in such a way that non-believers will immediately understand what he is talking about while Christians will have a deeper level of understanding. This is one of the most pleasing aspects of ‘City Lights’ and makes it one of the handful of albums I would suggest giving to an unfound friend.
A noticeable difference between this album and Json’s previous releases, is the change in his style, which has shifted its emphasis from attention grabbing one-liners to a more seamless flow and gripping story telling. Although this initially seems to be an unfortunate trade-off, Json is a much improved artist because of it. The most striking aspect of his development is that he has clearly transcended into an elite storyteller (which is a very underrated skill in Hip Hop these days). His stories are so vivid you can close your eyes and see the drug infested streets filled with bullet shells and adolescent victims of crossfire. This is one of the three tales woven into the narrative of “Unexpected Happenings,” which contains a gripping story about revenge gone awry when a gang member inadvertently shoots a child. When describing the assailant’s remorseful reflection Json says, “he claimed to be a rider but he fired with his eyes closed.” This is but one examples of the superb storytelling element on the album. Another is the J.R. assisted “Parent Me” where Json addresses parents speaking on behalf of their often neglected children. You can tell that his own fatherless upbringing helps him to empathize with this subject matter on a personal level. One quickly forgets that a grown man is rapping, and not a hurt and confused child.
The emcee is at his best on “Peep Hole” over yet another banger by IsRael Musiq. Here he does an incredible job of contextualizing the Gospel for his urban listeners. Json begins by painting a painfully candid portrait of the hood and its shocking mentality. Although he is aware that you cannot fully understand the circumstances of these individuals in a verse, he seeks to give listeners a sneak peek into their mind states (hence the title “Peep Hole”). He explains thugs’ reactions to Jesus in the following words, “The hood is where its grimy they don’t think he can relate/ Feel forsaken by ya father seeing streets with all the the hate/ Seen so much death in the slums its the usual/ Pain gets suppressed they just numb to the funerals/.” Json seeks to overturn the common assumption that God can’t relate to the struggles of the urban poor, by recounting the life of Jesus. He begins the second verse by describing Herod’s assassination attempt on Jesus as an infant, his family being constantly on the run when he was a child, and his coming of age in the middle-eastern version of the hood. This is just another example of the many lengths Json goes to in order to convey the Gospel in understandable terms and for this he should be applauded.
Although “City Lights” is not without its missteps (an unneeded feature here, a forgettable song there) these are hard to harp on considering the depth of this project. With this album, Json not only shows his capacity for being a consistently innovative artist, he sends out an S.O.S. on behalf of communities drowning in sin and calling for the Lifesaver. In light of Matthew 5:16, we as believers must remember letting our light shine before men and women is not only a call – it’s a command. With that in mind, let us as Christ’s hands and feet go into this darkness with our high beam lives on and find those who are lost.
Gotta keep them City Lights on
Release Date: 7/20/10
Label: Lamp Mode Recordings
2. City Lights feat. Trubble
3. Hustle City feat. Boxx
4. Snapshot (interlude)
5. Peep Hole
6. Goon feat. Thi’sl & AD3
7. Parent Me feat. J.R.
8. What I Am feat. R-Swift
9. Hope U See
10. Love Like This feat. Thi’sl & Jai
11. Unexpected Happenings
12. I Am A City Light (interlude)
13. Crank It Up feat. Pro
14. Pray for my City feat. Rio, Future, Saved, Mike Real & Flame
15. Bout to Go
16. Heaven’s Runway feat. Fitzgerald