Disclaimer: All views presented in this review are those of the reviewer and not of DJ Wade-O
James Gardin (formerly known as P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.) isn’t new to the rap scene. His past efforts in releasing independent music have garnered the attention of a handful of hip hop publications over the past four years. He was chosen to be listed on Rapzilla’s 2014 list of top 10 freshman of CHH, performing on their stage during Flavorfest in 2014 as well. His focus has been about building up others through his music with topics of cultural unity, empowerment, and HIV/AIDS awareness worldwide. With a resume like this, as well as a poignant stage name change, his new album Living Daylights looks to be another stepping stone that creates growth in exposure for the things he has on his heart. So where does James Gardin’s heart lie?
This project is certainly for the person who is a dreamer. It’s for that person who has been told, “You’ll never make it. You’re going to be stuck in this town and none of your goals will ever happen.” Overall, Living Daylights at its core, is inspirational. It’s like when a Christian hears a song on the radio that they know is about about God, but to the average listener, it sounds like a positive song with a positive message. That’s the big upside to this project: even if its not as theologically packed as you’d like your music; it’s still positive without being filled with sugary cliches. James isn’t trying to be conscious like Talib Kweli or Common, but he is painting a picture of staying true to the truths of how God made you in the midst of life struggles.
When you play the tracks throughout this project, you hear that James isn’t the kind of Christian rapper, or rapper who’s Christian, that is overtly focused on proclaiming a five-point description of the Gospel in every song. He tells many stories to, or from the viewpoint of, an everyday “average joe” who is daily working to keep their head up. These depictions are not devoid of Christ – That is not what I’m saying – but you can sense how James’ inspiration for creating music comes from a place of uplifting others in every way possible, as opposed to preaching to them for the result of conversion.
Songs like “No One”, “Shine” (featuring Stanley Johnson), and “Gold” are all built off the concept of rebuking the world’s attempt at dimming your God given light. They were written to give encouragement for those who have begun to forget that God created them uniquely for a purpose, and they are beautiful and wonderful because of that. For those thinking bigger than their city or even their state, “Good Bad” and “City Limits” are for you, as they are about encouraging the person who has a dream of bigger things then their environment.
With so much talk of overcoming systematic life obstacles through the art-form of rap, it can begin to seem as if this project is mostly relevant to those in urban neighborhoods. But the way that James uses his voice to uplift isn’t confined to one socio-economic division. Anyone can relate to having to overcome obstacles of friends, family or even themselves, to keep their God-given dreams alive.
Personally, there is something to love about this sound because it’s familiar for me. Growing up in the 90’s, this sound reminds me of the time during/after the golden age of rap. It is more than just 808’s and synths, these tracks have soul in them. James was influenced by Kanye West’s first album College Dropout, that so much of this project has the feeling of authentic “backpack rap.” Combined with how long James has been honing his craft, that “backpack” flow works great for this project. The samples that are throughout Living Daylights make for some great tracks. “No One” and “Good Bad” in particular are great beats that feel like authentic rap from the good ol’ days.
James has a flow that refuses to be influenced by the cadences of current hip hop, which I like. With his message being about staying true to who God made you, James has stayed true to his influences as well. Being inspired from the 2004 Kanye West, he found his own style, that combines expressing his faith with being honest about what he ponders in life. On “Freedom,” which features Sareem Poems and Red Pill, James shows where he has grounded his faith.
You can really hear James’ heart for uplifting others through these songs. Living Daylights has so many inspirational tracks, that you can listen straight through, vibing on the music alone, and still get the positive message in many of the songs.
James Gardin’s Living Daylights is a project that feels like an authentic throwback to the time when rap was about something, and his “about something” is ‘uplifting others.’ Living Daylights is an artistic approach to a genre that has shifted away from the days when soulful expression was the crux. It’s more inspirational than theological, but still very enjoyable. If you are looking for some music that can make your head nod, stays true to what God says about his people, and isn’t so spiritually deep that you need a wet suit, then you can pick up Living Daylights.
James Gardin’s Living Daylights now available on iTunes.