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The Greatest Hits
Artist: Grits
Label: Gotee Records
Length: 30 tracks/Disc 1-61 minutes 30 seconds, Disc 2-60 minutes 6 seconds

Bone Apetit:Servin' Up Tha' Hits
Artist: T-Bone
Flicker Records
Length:18 tracks/73 minutes 6 seconds

It's both fair and unfair to critique these best-of compilations by two of Christocentric hip-hop's senior acts in the space of one review. Grits' The Greatest Hits collects 30 tracks from a 13-year career with the same label. The majority of T-Bone's punningly-named Bone Apetit is culled from three albums for the same company over a few years, after having already established himself with as many longplayers under a prior association.

Nevertheless, the two fortuitously-timed releases illustrate markedly different ways to communicate Christ through rap worth comparative investigation.

From their first appearance in 1994, Grits (Grammatical Revolutions In The Spirit) have played at duality and paradox. With a dusty, sometimes low-key, often complex sound, they have more in common with underground rap than R&B radio fodder. Regardless, they have become one of the most recognized and salable acts in Christian hip hop. And their music's occasional placement in movies and sporting events evidences their ability to concoct anthemic hooks and moments of universal emotional resonance.

It's neither merely ace rhyme skills or accessibly experimental tracks that have given Grits the juice to rub shoulders with and open shows for some successful general market peers. For hip- hop heads with ears to hear, they make good on making the Lord their prime lyrical factor while managing the balancing act of humble autobiography and their artform's historical penchant for showing up the competition.

Guest turns from former Gotee labelmate Jennifer Knapp, label boss TobyMac, ex-L.A. Symphony member Pigeon John and R&B gospel crooner Antonio Neal display the duo's adaptability without sacrificing themselves to cCm slickness. Some fans (such as the one writing this) may wish to hear their collaborations with Common and Carmen on this collection, but maybe those will surface on a second volume of hits. Ditto for more than one number from their unjustly underrepresented debut album. Thankfully, one of their contributions to Gotee's concert showcase album wraps up the proceedings with a live manifestation of subdued jazziness that has remained a nigh constant element in the Grits sound from its onset.

If Grits' longevity hasn't been rewarded with broader exposure and success, that they're the subject of so generous an anthology as this is a prize for those who have followed them all this while.

T-Bone (The Biblical one), conversely, not only wants to bludgeon his competitors in rhyme with his talent, which he possesses in fair abundance. Since his first three "Hoodlum"-themed albums on Metro One, his production values have gotten glossier, and his general market profile has elevated some. From the cuts culled from his last three longplayers on Flicker to compile _Apetit,_ it sounds like he wants to impress fans and rivals with his movie roles, MTV appearances and friendships with certain cCm and soul gospel acts and scripturally dubious telepreachers. It may not be his direct intention, but it sounds like T-Bone wants us to be respecters of persons--his person primarily.

One pitfall for practitioners of Christocentric hip-hop is to inflate their egos as much as their general market counterparts. Even when T-Bone makes that misstep, his genially passionate tone and the tongue-twistingly fast and labyrinthine rhymes he still occasionally throws down (a quality he displayed more frequently on his Metro One catalog) make up for it.

However, other aspects of his artistry tend to diminish those bragging rights. His aforementioned penchant for unfortunate televangelism is only one aspect of that diminution. Portraying himself as a modern day Ché Guevara on the cover of a recent album speaks to a certain naiveté; the Dominican-American rhymer has Hispanic heritage and the desire to be a rebel in his chosen field in common with Guevara, but hopefully not the Cuban revolutionary's sexism, Marxism and murderous streak.

T-Bone does actually have a murderous streak. Fifteeen years on, he's still wanting to slay demons. Compound that kind of aggression with his apparent advocacy of spiritual drunkeness and his tendency toward derivatively copping moves of various vintages from early '90s Dr. Dre, Bone Thugs N Harmony's deliriously twisted way with couplets, etc., and T-Bone sounds ilke a talented M.C. in serious need of a producer to challenge him to rejuvenate his gifts.

That said, he may already be doing just that. A new number in Spanish finds him singing and rapping to a robust tropical track. Another bonus bit about Pentecostal horse racing returns him to the comedic fun he had on skits from his earlier albums.

And from personal experience, I can tell you that the guy gives great hugs. If for that reason alone, here's hoping _Apetit_ signals a career reassessment that yields a creative renaissance bringing his skills to a whole other level of ingenuity. And perhaps a touch more humility.

Jamie Rake  August 28, 2007


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