John Reuben – An Appreciation [All Time Album Ranking Op-Ed]
John Reuben is well known for being one of the most popular and influential Christian rappers of all time. He released his debut album Are We There Yet? after being signed to Gotee Records, a label founded by Todd Collins, Joey Elwood, and dcTalk’s tobyMac for the purpose of making alternative Christian music more accessible and acceptable in the mainstream.
Along with John Reuben, Gotee was home to many of his Christian hip-hop contemporaries including GRITS, L.A. Symphony, Mars iLL, Knowdaverbs, and later DJ Maj, Deepspace 5, Paul Wright, B. Reith, and now Aaron Cole.
But John Reuben stuck out from his contemporaries in a number of ways. His unique flow and intellectual approach to lyrics, along with his evolving production throughout the course of multiple albums, gave him a focused spotlight in the Christian music landscape. He often collaborated with Christian rock artists including Adrienne Camp from The Benjamin Gate, Matthew Theissen from Relient K, and Tim Skipper from House of Heroes. Additionally, on the album Word of Mouth, he collaborated with producer Joe Baldridge, who is known for his work with artists such as Beck, Taylor Swift, tobyMac, Third Day, and Jake Owen.
The teams Reuben has surrounded himself with over the course of his career had helped propel him to the forefront of Christian hip-hop. He’s recently released a song entitled “Secular Music” in which he sarcastically declares himself the “Greatest Christian Rapper Ever.” I tend unsarcastically to agree.
Without getting much deeper into Reuben’s accolades, of which there are many, I want to talk for a bit about Reuben’s albums themselves. Each album serves as a chapter not only of John Reuben’s life and career but also of the state of alternative Christian music at the time of its release.
His debut album, Are We There Yet? is a spectacular debut. “Do Not” and “God Is Love” quickly became youth group staples at the time of its release while the album’s deep cuts are equally enjoyable, even 20 years later. Meanwhile tracks like “Hello Ego” and “Divine Inspiration” offer just enough quirky introspection to offer previews of the coming albums.
Two years later he returned with Hindsight. This album is, by most accounts, seemed less cohesive than his first. However, returning to this album for this article, I can say confidently that every song on Hindsight is a highlight, including the ode to hip-hop turntablism “DJ Manuel,” which is a breath of fresh air and an appreciated dedication for someone who truly appreciates all aspects of hip-hop culture and music.
His third album, Professional Rapper, came the following year. The title seems somewhat egotistical at first glance. But when you pay attention to Reuben’s lyrics and his delivery, especially on this album, his tongue-in-cheek references, self-criticism, and self-awareness shine as he delivers elements of conscious hip-hop over fresh layers of rock-inspired beats. Reuben still has classic hip-hop beats on this outing, but here we seem him begin to spread his wings and give glimpses of what’s to come. “Freedom to Feel” slid nicely onto the mostly rock and punk centric X 2004 compilation album. Meanwhile, “I Haven’t Been Myself” holds up as one of Reuben’s most introspective and personal tracks to date.
Then there’s The Boy vs. The Cynic. 2005 was a coming-of-age year for Christian hip-hop and alternative music. This album, which conceptually was designed to be two separate projects, shows Reuben topically juxtaposed with himself. “Sunshine” and “All I Have” serve as beacons of positivity on this album while “Chapter 1,” “Cooperate,” and “Follow Your Leader” hold up today as convincing and thought-provoking pieces of social commentary, especially with relation to Christian subcultures. For several years I considered this album to be Reuben’s magnum opus. It encompassed everything I was feeling at the time about my faith. It was packaged in even more rock-infused beats while it was hard-hitting. Also, It was pure and honest. It was the exact opposite of anything I would expect from Gotee Records or contemporary Christian music at the time.
I felt like the time between The Boy vs. The Cynic and Word of Mouth was an eternity. What more could Reuben say? Or do? Then Word of Mouth. Featuring experimental and alternative-influenced production from the aforementioned Joe Baldridge, this album was a natural evolution for Reuben. This album was different. It was equally accessible, even more unique. Standout tracks include the title track and “Make Money Money” which incorporated twangy country riffs and alternative rock beats.
Then came 2009. Sex, Drugs and Self-Control marked Reuben’s final Gotee release. While the project itself isn’t bad, it doesn’t hold up to his previous outings and, to my mind, marks his career-low. Still, this album has its gems. “Burn It Down” and “Confident” remain in regular rotation in several of my Spotify playlists. If this album is one thing, it’s good. It’s better than most albums released at the time, and I’m sure it was one of my favorites of that year. But in comparison with the rest of his catalog to that point, something was off with this one. Perhaps that’s why he took so long after this to make a return.
But that return was worth the wait. Reubonic came out in 2017 and wow, this was a different John Reuben. Well, at least at first glance. There were a few instances of lyrical surprises on this album, including the use of the word “s***” on a few occasions, which really irritated some fans. But from the perspective of someone who’s grown with Reuben, this was an expectation. This was Reuben who was tired of being boxed in. Hip-hop in 2017 wasn’t the same as hip-hop from 2009.
This album was accompanied by the short film “Reubonic,” which is powerful in its own right. Seriously, go watch it. This album, once again, was a reflection of where I was in 2017. In transition. Still figuring it out. He delivers some of his most powerful tracks to date on this album. “Bury This Verse” and “We Live Best” are some of the darkest, most honest tracks we’ve heard from Reuben. Meanwhile, “One Drink Johnny” feels like a reprise of “Good Evening” from Word of Mouth. For me, this stands side by side with The Boy vs. The Cynic as Reuben’s magnum opus. There are literally not enough good things I can say. So we’ll move on to 2020.
I don’t know much about the background behind his latest effort, simply titled John Reuben. There’s no physical release. There’s one recurring feature in rapper Alon Auguste. Aside from that, this feels like a much more lighthearted return to form (thinking specifically about Hindsight era Reuben). And while the content and lyricism is still sharp, poignant, and introspective, as a whole the project feels lighter musically, but deeper than ever topically. Here he addresses, in his way, many issues of the day. Racism, religious hypocrisy, and modern politics are on the table. But despite how deep the content appears to pierce, the album overall feels slightly weaker or less hard-hitting than Reubonic.
At this point, I think it’s important to clarify some thoughts about Reuben overall. When I think of artists who are under-appreciated, Reuben tops my list. My entire adult life, I’ve grown with his music, and in some ways, in response to his music. And I know I’m not alone in this. Reuben is not Christian hip-hop. Reuben is hip-hop that serves as a direct response to mainstream Christianity, specifically for people who have evolved past their boxes. John Reuben is Toto in the Wizard of Oz that pulls back the veil of mainstream Christianity while retaining an appreciation for the veil’s purpose.
Here’s to you, John Reuben. I’m looking forward to what you do next. In the meantime, thanks for 20 years of quality, diverse, introspective, reflective, and thought-provoking content. And as always, thanks for keeping it innovative.