Bar Exam: Steven Malcolm – The Second City (Album)
We are happy to announce that New H2O’s BAR EXAM is now a feature on Rapzilla.com. Luc DiMarzio gives his take after one listen and examines if the project is Above or Below the Bar. This installment is about “The Second City” album by Steven Malcolm.
For those of you unfamiliar with my bar exams, I am sharing all of my notes from my true first listen to the project. I provide in-depth thoughts and commentary on anything from flows, rhymes, beats, creative direction, track placement, and concepts.
So I’m stoked to be able to review this project. Steven Malcolm has become one of the most consistent creators in CHH. On his past installments, he was able to fuse worshipful sounds, melodies, and rapid-fire bars together in an exceptional way. So let’s go —
1. Not to Us/Good Love
“Not to us but to Your Name we give glory Lord.” There’s a bit of a channel or an interlude with some more hyped up singing (I think it’s Steven) and then we get into the flow. I love how this track progresses, and Steven gives us what we want right here at the top. This is a worshipful moment that slowly crescendos to a big performance with the beat turned up a notch. We end this opener a little more low-key then we hear the main hook once more. Great start.
“Watch” is the second track here. This song has a modern sound to it, and Steven lights it up. Topically he’s giving an overview of his past and boasting in Christ, who brought him out of it. “Real recognize real, tell them all they better watch.” I really appreciate the decisions Steven makes when he approaches a beat. He switches his flow up easily and almost never brings the same feel to you more than once in a song.
Speaking of switching textures and styles, “Rodeo” is a hard left turn from the fire we heard on the last two tracks. This song has a Reggae/island vibe to it with percussive drums and acoustic guitar. Steven once again shows his versatility, and that he can sing a little bit. The hook is really nice, and Taylor Hill once again adds some above the bar vocals. Musically I really dig this track, and rate it just above the bar overall.
4. Fadeaway ft. Zauntee
“Fadeaway,” is very melodic. The beat is futuristic with strings and a busy hi-hat. I slumped on this track and found the lead vocals to be tucked back a little bit in the mix. I usually dig Zauntee, but I felt he was just alright here and nothing stuck out to me about his performance. The song ends with a (random) 8 bar electric guitar solo.
5. The Second City
Once again, we’re met with a strong worshipful moment. This slowly fades into an island/reggae vibe. Steven’s inflections in his voice and his tone fit perfectly within the construct of this atmosphere. No big deal, he nonchalantly rips off a few bars in the middle of a hot first verse.
“Free by the blood of the most-high/Even when me gone know me won’t die”
It’s crazy because the sonic theme of this particular track isn’t something I’d necessarily vibe with, but Steven owns the flavor in a way I’m not sure most people can, and it’s very appealing. I know that the idea of “Second City” is a reference to Jamaica, yet also alludes to the idea that this place is not our actual home. Topically, it’s not just all fun and games either. He’s speaking about his personal growth and fight to keep Christ at the center of his life. All around this is an incredibly strong track.
For “Fuego” there’s a lot of mandolin beds throughout. The bass line is intricate but it’s tucked back, keeping the samples and the Mandos the main focus of the instrumental. This is another strong and melodic singing performance here on the hook. The direction of this song fits everything that’s happening. The concepts that were present in the last track hand off to this track quite well, making the project not feel disjointed and like this song is out of nowhere. The only key here is that where there was an island feel to the last track, there’s obviously Spanish influence here. I’ve spoken before of how Steven is able to switch up flows masterfully. This song is no different, I especially dig his triplet feel on the second verse. Maaaan the outro here is almost a minute long… a bit too shaggy for me.
7. On Ten
We get into “On Ten” with an instrumental that sounds like it belongs on Steven’s self-titled project from 2017. It’s got a synth sample on loop just before the beat comes in. This is the sound that made me a fan. This hook is a bit more laid back for how hyped this music is, but it works.
I find the construction of this song to be interesting. The second verse begins with the words “First off…” which seems to be counterintuitive to the direction of the song if you take it literally. That second verse is legitimately the second set of ideas presented in the song. It’s still a great song to hype you up, I’m just not sure there was much intention put into the order of the verses.
8. Been There
The main thing that turns people off to the idea of Christianity is the idea that we’ve all got things figured out. “Been There” is Steven’s take on this mentality. He’s being real about his struggles, where he’s been. It goes to show that if you are vulnerable and honest with your struggle you find a way to meet people where they are. This is an artist who gets it. I also know that he’s got a worship ministry background, which seems to be heavily influential on the sound he brings. It’s all worshipful and edifying. This song is relevant, real, and way above the bar.
9. Even Louder ft. Leeland
Steven taps Leeland Mooring and numerous additional vocalists to bring down the house.
“Even if the drum stops beating/My soul will keep on singing/Even louder, even louder/Even when my eyes can’t see it/I will sing till I believe it/Even louder, even louder”
This is a big track. Lately, in CHH I’ve been witness to some largely worshipful moments and it’s tremendous. A moment like this on Steven’s project shows someone who is comfortable with who he is in Christ, and also shows to me that he won’t waste the platform that Jesus has given to him. This song is evidence to me that Steven’s not here to just play music, he’s here to minister to people who need to hear about Jesus.
10. The Beauty of Dreams
“Beauty of Dreams” begins with a cello and piano sample, with a more subdued mood just until the beat kicks in.
“But on the real, I been working like Letterman/Late nights, ain’t no sleep wit’ the pen again/Takin’ flights to new cities we killin’ it/Packin’ out venues wit’ words and a pencil, I know it’s crazy”
He’s tackling feelings of anxiety and depression. The juxtaposition of the rapid paced flows and the simple and mellow instrumental is marvelous. It shows intentionality because you feel the tension in what he’s saying against the melancholy bed of the cello.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of dreams”
The construction of this track is perfect. Steven is leading the listener on a path and how everything works together to get the point across is masterful here.
11. On The Move
Another guitar instrumental underneath this, with the Jamaican vibe. What I’m noticing in how this is constructed as a complete album, is that the energy will crescendo and then taper off throughout the listening experience. What I’m saying is that some artists will stack all the bangers at the front and then the less energetic/ready for radio tunes toward the back, presenting like a giant decrescendo. Other artists will put their crescendo in the middle, so the less energetic tracks lead you into and out of the big moments. Steven takes these thoughts and says “OR…. You could have multiple big moments throughout” Sometimes it could lead to multiple slumps, but on The Second City, it works.
12. Devil Is A Liar
The handoff between the last track and this one is great. There are similarities in the original samples that you hear, but the bass lines here are bigger. Again, Steven is putting his impressive abilities to change vocal inflections, pace of flow, and style within a single verse, He navigates this track perfectly. It’s like a variety show here, but everything works together. I feel like there are very very few emcees who can do what he’s doing in this track, and the end of verse two is crazy flames. The concept here could come off tired because I feel like I’ve heard “the devil is liar” used in so many CCM songs, but Steven owns it.
13. Heart of David
Nylon string guitars at the top of this one. Once the beat fades in, Steven shares from his heart about how deep in sin he’s been, and how he needs Christ to light up the darkness inside of him. This is absolutely chilling. He comes at it with his entire bag of tricks, even digs into the vocals a bit, and carries this tune for three minutes without a hook. Perfection. I seriously can’t say enough.
14. Overflow ft. Stars Go Dim
I was most excited to listen to this track at first glance. I went to college with Chris Cleveland and his brother Mike, and have been closely following the trajectory of Stars Go Dim, so it’s awesome to see Chris on this track. Some almost screaming synths fade in at the beginning here, and Steven sings over the top, initially without any consideration of the meter of the song, it all comes together and once he’s locked in, the drums start. Stars Go Dim’s vocals soar over this instrumental, and presents like a corporate worship song. It’d be a stretch to say I enjoy this. It seems like a TobyMac interlude piece. It builds…and then kind of just stays there. This is so counterintuitive to how Steven has led us through the other songs. Maybe “Overflow” would be better considered as the closing song? I don’t know.
15. Redemption Song
We close out “The Second City” with one more island vibe. If this one were near another similar sounding track it wouldn’t have been effective. So this is probably the best move considering track placement. I’m really drawn to the lyrics here. These could have come off kind of clunky, but they fit once Steven puts a melody to them:
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/’Cause none of them can stop the time/How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?/Some say it’s just a part of it/We’ve got to fulfill the Book”
To conclude, what Steven Malcolm was able to put together here is absolutely fantastic. I’m sure that his method of releasing this all in three big chunks helped him out by keeping him top of mind, but I will say that it changed my listening experience overall. I felt like some of those special tracks early on I had heard before, so they lacked shine this time around. I’m not sure I can hold that against him. If I were to wipe the slate clean and try and forget the past and focus on what I heard today, I’d say we’re dealing with a once in a lifetime talent, who’s personality and emotional clarity is as deep as his expertise is wide. He picked the right producers and navigates every beat in his own original way. Alright forget that these songs are re-hashed, it’s all above the bar regardless.
Overall Rating: Above The Bar