Bar Exam: Lecrae – Restoration (First Listen Album Review)
My fandom of Lecrae began when I heard Church Clothes 1. I know, I was late to the game. While I had heard his song “Represent” back in college, it never hit me at an emotional level. Around that time I really felt like Lecrae set the bar for CHH and what it could be. However, the last time I reviewed Lecrae I wasn’t really feeling it. So, needless to say, I’m excited for my faith in Lecrae to potentially experience a “restoration” of sorts today. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it)
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.
Restore Me – “I lost everything I had in just a couple years…” Lecrae comes in from the heart straight away at the top. The music bed is growing underneath him. Some choral vocal samples swell and bend underneath this emotional first verse. The beat grows until it flips at the end. Lecrae isn’t sitting in this dark place for too long. He found hope by asking for help.
Set Me Free – The interpolation of Mary Mary’s Shackles is fantastic. That song was a banger back in the day and lays a perfect bed for this curtain-raiser of a song. I really like this track. Thematically it’s talking about the steadfastness of God’s love and how He’s released us from anything that can hold us down, whether it’s people’s thoughts of us and the boxes people put us in, to the spiritual realm where God has truly delivered us out of the dominion of darkness.
Wheels Up – A bass-heavy guitar riff over a scooping beat rolls into a hook.
And for one second all my problems/ fade to grey like no one saw them /
I get a God’s eye view on everything/ Looking out my window pane/ Wheels up put the seats back
A good hook really can set the tone for a song. Right out the gate here I’m bought in. Lecrae comes at it with a fast-paced tempo but a chilled out tone. He’s a pro. He’s effortlessly shredding this beat like he’s alpine skiing and the beat is moguls. It’s impressive to me how Lecrae has adapted with current sounds so that he’s still able to be himself but proving that it’s alright to be stretched as an artist. I dig the shift to these melodies in his raps. But before he slows it down to a melody, he changes his flow in an interesting way to me:
5:46 in the morning, mind still turning/God had to bring me back/
I ain’t even really want to rap no more/Wheels up with the seats back let’s go/
Wow, people having dreams about me they was right, I was losing sight/
Then I clicked my heels and then He lift the wheels and we above the clouds, there’s no rain tonight/
Here is where I feel he had a point to get across that was more important than having a perfect rhyme. He pulls it off, but this section wasn’t as smooth as everything preceding it in the song.
Over The Top – Big bass at the top. Quintessential trap beat. Crae is really digging into his vocals here, a change from that last track. He’s got the ingredients to a trap banger with the big bass and the adlibs for every line.
I got awards a lot of plaques (Plaques)/But they don’t keep my soul intact (Naw)/
You lose your mind to gain the racks (Yeah)/Fame a drug, the same as crack (Yeah)
Early on I’m not feeling like everything is landing the way it should, but at the end of the second verse he switches gears and goes double time for about eight bars and that was great.
Self Discovery – This beat is terrific. The soulful piano lines, the zipping bass lines with layers upon layers of ambiance and horn samples all working together… man, it gives me goosebumps. There’s so much going on but there’s space at the same time. Lecrae is so comfortable sitting on top of this one. He’s telling a story of stress in his life and trying to figure out who he is.
Deep End – The haunting choral samples show up here again, but this time instead of creating tension, these voices exemplify sadness. Lecrae is pointing to hope in the turmoil with this backdrop of angst and sadness created in the music. It all fades out to the introspective hook “give me a reason..” He’s intentional with the direction here and it’s clear. All of these things work together to create the emotion of the song. Also, I really was geeking at his writing in the first verse where he walks through the alphabet.
They be like, “F you and what you believe in”/I do not trip, I keep it G/
What in the H you sayin’ to I?/Ain’t no JK when I’m talkin’ to God/
Don’t need a reason to open my eyes/If I’m still breathin’, I’m runnin’ for Ahmaud
Drown – John Legend is on the hook to start off the song. He hands off to Lecrae who continues to thread a melody through this tight-knit beat. The production is clean, and Lecrae even has some doubling on his voice here. The hook with Legend is just okay…but when he gets to that Bridge section then repeats the Chorus – that was a great move. There’s a loss of depth in the lyrics on this one compared to everything I’ve heard so far, but I really enjoy hearing how these two artists handed the song back and forth to each other. I feel they made the most of this collaboration.
Saturday Night – A lot of these songs show you the chorus at the top. Here it’s Jozzy all out in the open setting the scene for the song. Almost lazily throwing out the melody, exemplifying this idea that she’s tired. It’s a song that comes and goes. Feels like an interlude, but also a literal wake up call in the middle of everything Lecrae is throwing at us.
Sunday Morning – Okay I see how that song passed the rock to this one. The instrumental here is more of just a loop. It’s bright and truly feels like heading to church on Sunday morning. Oh, and Kirk Franklin pops in to drop some wisdom.
May that Sunday morning resonate past trophies and trinkets and the ongoing pursuit of more/
To sober us with the humbling truth/My life and your life is just a vapor/
And if what you see is all you see/Then you do not see all there is to be seen
Zombie – This one sounds fun, but we actually find Lecrae here in a more vulnerable spot. He’s talking about how he used to follow the desires of his flesh until he met God. It’s sampling an old Fred Hammond song so it sounds big like a gospel anthem. It’s very polished but I don’t mind it. Not sure if it’s a song I’ll return to though.
Keep Going – Organ sample over a trap beat. I can hear the Quay Global influence immediately. I prefer Lecrae’s performance on this one to his performance on “Over The Top” (another trap song.) Also, I love how this beat switches up and enhances how he’s able to perform. It’s a spectacular track that shows artistry from the producer(s) and the emcee alike, and it doesn’t linger too long either. This one made me ready for more.
Still – Summer pop tune. The walking piano chords morph and adapt while Lecrae does his thing. This album is a good mix of all different facets of who Lecrae is and what he can do. He’s grown a lot up to this point as a human and as an artist, so I really feel like he’s showcasing his versatility as well as his personality.
Only Human – This was a feature I was looking forward to. BJ The Chicago kid kickstarts the song with a Chorus.
If You hear me and You’re with me/Heaven not too far, far as I can tell/You just gotta through a little Hell
Lecrae starts from a spot of brokenness, then moves to share his doubts, then as he tells how he’s moved out of that he’s pointing to hope and peace. The trajectory he’s on in the story is predictable, but it’s the delivery that draws you in. As he takes you further down the trail of the story it’s like he’s walking beside you, but as his train of thought picks up he moves into a full sprint. The rhymes keep flowing and what was once a methodical and slow pace is now pointed and quick. The beat drops and rises in all the right places. The second listen to BJ’s Chorus hits a little different. This song, as well as the rest of this album truly fits under the idea of “Restoration.” Yeah, he’s hit a lot of these topics already, but here it still sounds fresh. This is beautiful.
Oh my God, when they see my flaws/ they gon’ call me fraud/
I was lost, blinded by applause/ now I know my call/
I said it, I admit it, I’m countin’ the minutes/They comin’ to get it, go tell ’em I’m with it/
They killed the Messiah, they don’t have no limits
Nothing Left To Hide – As the project comes to a close it’s evident that Lecrae wants to go out with a bang. There’s passion in his voice as he punches me with high intensity from the get-go. The soundscape is spacious and gives him room to articulate his last words. He even goes for three verses here. It’s nice.
To conclude, there’s really something for everybody on Restoration. It’s crazy to me that I didn’t feel like Lecrae had to sacrifice artistry to arrive at this point. It all seems genuine. There are some hungry CC1 type bars, there are some modern melodic flows, there are socially conscious songs and even the pop bangers. With any other artist, I’d be annoyed that he couldn’t find that niche and just stay in it. But I found this to be an intentional choice in creative direction. Every song is driving towards restoration. This is a glimpse of not only who has been restored, but what has been restored. The cover art is a picture of a man who is free. After listening to these songs it sounds like he’s taken the long road to get to this point, and it was worth it.