Now in his mid-forties, influential Christian hip hop artist Da’ T.R.U.T.H. is acknowledging, through a rebranding effort, the dignity of maturity and the wisdom gained along the way. Henceforth using his Christian name instead of his stage name, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. gathered an all-star crew of veteran and current gospel stars—from Fred Hammond and Yolanda Adams to Dante Bowe and Maranda Curtis—to assist on his self-titled Emanuel.
This bildungsroman of a Christian hip hop album is life according to the artist otherwise known as Emanuel Lee Lambert Jr. Naturally, given such a premise, the album has autobiographical selections, but it also contains praise and worship material and borrows from a myriad of musical styles while staying within the firmament of hip hop.
Of the autobiographical tracks, there is “Nights in Atlanta,” where a young Emanuel, bullied and misunderstood, learns that Jesus is a friend who understands and will never leave him. The lead single, “Set the Bar,” narrates how, as a youth, Emanuel “wasn’t built for the desk” and worked hard to become a rap artist who didn’t sound like warmed-over Jay-Z. To a chorus of assenting voices, “Count on You” chronicles fatherhood and the continued need to rely on Jesus as a friend until the end. The constancy of Jesus is also the subject of “King,” Its nervous beat and rapid-fire rhymes contrast with a creamy melodic coating from Fred Hammond’s smooth tenor.
The album swings through a myriad of sacred styles, including the CCM sensibility of “Crown” and the multicultural feel of “Kingdom.” Featuring Dante Bowe, “Kingdom” layers gospel elements onto a musical framework that sounds straight outta Mumford & Sons.
“Tell Somebody” moves to a Pentecostal 2/4 as Maranda Curtis improvises with an evangelist’s ardor. I wouldn’t be surprised if her vocal explosions are sampled down the road. “Alright,” with Myron Butler, has the album’s most radio-friendly gospel sound. Its sunny melody offers a message of optimism and a chant that cries out for singing along.
To an improvisational organ, Tamela Mann makes appearances thrice on Emanuel, first singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as a morning hymn, raising the “Yes, Lord” chant and adlibbing on the midday hymn, and returning to “Faithfulness” on the closing evening hymn. It would be wonderful to hear this performance all together in its entirety.
In addition to “Faithfulness,” other hymns are embedded in several tunes, including in “Healing Comes” (with Rich Tolbert) and “Whole” (with Yolanda Adams). Turning to traditional church hymns while also keeping fresh and relevant, is, I suspect, what Emanuel wants the album to convey. In other words, one is never too old or too young to enjoy hymns and hip hop. Both are timeless.
Nowhere, however, are Emanuel’s main points more explicit than on “Grey Hair.” This track, with PJ Morton, essentially acknowledges how the principles of the serenity prayer make sense with time, especially those “things I cannot change.”
Emanuel contains expressive, genuine, and sometimes downright plaintive rhymes with appropriately dramatic melodic backdrops. The whole project has a cinematic feel that speaks to Emanuel’s prior musical training, including at the Berklee College of Music. It is one of the most engaging and dynamically diverse Christian hip hop albums I’ve heard in a while.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Alright,” “Grey Hair.”