Review: Gemstones – Blind Elephant
Most of y’all are likely familiar with the Eastern fable in which several blind men are asked to describe an elephant.
Each reaches out to touch whichever part of the animal is in front of him, and each draws a radically different conclusion from what he discovers. The one who wraps his hand around the tail claims an elephant is long and flexible like a rope. The one who grasps the foot insists the elephant is pillar-shaped, and so on.
The story’s simple but far-reaching message is that it’s impossible to capture the complexity of a topic, object or person from a single, limited perspective — and you’re likely to make a fool of yourself if you try.
The title of Gemstones’s Xist Records debut, Blind Elephant, suggests a further twist on that basic idea: our perspectives are never more partial or limited than when we turn them back on ourselves. No matter how much self-knowledge we accumulate, there’s always a little (or big) something that evades our grasp. And we know this on a gut level. Why else would we stress so much about how we represent ourselves to the world?
Anxiety over personal identity is the reason it’s taken so long for us to get our hands on a retail album from the Windy City rapper, singer and songwriter born Demarco Castle. In the late 2000s, the artist (then going by Gemini) was signed to Lupe Fiasco’s 1st & 15th label and had a freshman full-length, Troubles of the World, on track for release. He was crushing it with lead single “We On.” His future in the game was bright. Yet he chose to walk away from all that, because he felt he wasn’t being true to himself.
Those years were full of changes for Gem — he cut his hair, left his label, lost weight and (for legal reasons) adopted his current stage name — but the most significant development, of course, was his decision to stop rapping about sex, drugs and gunplay and adopt a “gospel” style that better reflected his life and his faith. It’s a testament to the buzz he’d already built, as well as the high quality of interim releases like free LPs On the Road to Glory: My Story and Elephant in the Room, that fans have been willing to accompany him on his lengthy journey of self-discovery, despite his lack of a retail product.
Given the wait, as well as Gem’s unique story, it’s no surprise that expectations for Blind Elephant are, well, elephantine. The rules of compelling narrative demand that it be a triumph of artistic integrity over commercial pandering — a personal statement from an emcee who’s finally come into his own. Does it deliver?
It certainly gets off to a strong start. The first four tracks paint a multifaceted portrait of the artist. After reminding us he’s got bars for days with RavO-assisted intro “Quick Go In,” he showcases his talents as a singer over ominous war drums on “Believe.” Single “Lyrical Miracle,” whose choppy piano chords call to mind Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade,” emphasizes his grimy side, while the soulful “Press Harder” depicts him at his most casual and conversational, sharing engaging reflections on his faith and career.
Track five, the politically-charged “New World,” is also strong in execution, but its concept is perplexing. One moment, Gem is referencing political realities like drone warfare, police brutality and income inequality; the next he’s claiming, “Reptilians are real, though, I’ve never seen them shift,” and checking the sky for chemtrails. I found myself wondering whether he was pulling my leg — but if there’s a joke here, I don’t get it. Even if it’s sincere, this is a bugged-out cut to which few besides hardcore conspiracy buffs will be able to relate.
This isn’t the only instance of Gem’s idiosyncratic worldview making a potentially powerful record unnecessarily alienating. On video single “Selfish,” he makes the unfortunate decision to scold sufferers of suicidal depression rather than showing compassion, spitting, “Your esteem ain’t where it need to be. You’ve gotta learn to let these demons free.” A few bars later, he invites the anguished to join him on the “path of glee” walked by the saved. This climax is clearly intended to uplift, but it ignores the fact that faith in itself is no more likely to cure the chemical imbalances that drive unhappy people to take their own lives, than it is to make an amputee’s lost limbs reappear out of thin air. Miracles may happen, but so does suffering — often to those who least deserve it.
I don’t blame the artist for overreaching in an attempt to tackle tough subject matter. I do, however, take issue with his seeming lack of connection to the material. Listen to “Selfish” after KB’s recent “Calling You,” whose harrowing verses follow the rapper as he races against time to save a suicidal friend’s life, and Gem’s litany of grisly details (blood dripping from slit wrists, a child molester’s creepy smile…) starts to sound oddly detached, if not slightly ghoulish.
Which brings me to my second main gripe: Gem’s tendency to follow his own (sarcastic) advice on a certain Lupe collab and “Dumb It Down.” “It” being his flow. Particularly on songs like “Selfish” and album closer “Rapture,” which deal with weighty subject matter, he’s in the habit of picking a simple vocal cadence and repeating it ad infinitum, leaving huge swathes of dead air between one line and the next. (If I weren’t familiar with the rest of his work, I’d assume he had trouble with breath control and/or was addicted to punching in.) When he wants to convey intensity, rather than varying his flow, he simply raises his voice.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Gem with that last complaint, it’s because I hate to hear a talented artist hold back, even if he’s doing it in the interest of clarity rather than, say, out of laziness. There’s also the matter of consistency. If Da Vinci had nailed the face and background of the Mona Lisa but left a box with stick arms where the body should have been, the mix of genius and mediocrity would make lovers of Renaissance art want to tear their hair out. That’s kind of how I feel when I hear bad bars on a generally high-quality album like Blind Elephant.
Because, don’t get me wrong: when Gemstones is on, he’s on. In addition to the early cuts I mentioned above, the album boasts standouts like “Mama,” a touching and easily relatable jam on which hazy keys and a rolling breakbeat complement deft rhymes dedicated to the woman who gave Gem life, and “Almost Home,” a critique of the rap game set to an effervescent synth-soul groove. Though the production is often more workmanlike than inspired, there are moments when music, flow and delivery gel and the set comes within kissing distance of greatness.
Contrary to the hype, Blind Elephant is simply a good album. Not a magnum opus, but an impressive, if uneven effort from an artist still in the process of defining himself. It suggests, to this fallible observer, that Gemstones may have a few blind spots of his own: he doesn’t always seem to recognize the limits of his worldview, or fully appreciate the value and appeal of his skills on the mic. If he’s willing to acknowledge the former and let the latter shine, album number two just might be the masterpiece his fans have been craving.
1. Quick Go In (ft. Ravo)
3. Lyrical Miracle
4. Press Harder
5. New World
8. Selfish (ft. Precious)
9. Almost Home
10. Don’t Let Me Fall (ft. Annie Castle)
12. Rapture (ft. Demya)
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