Disclaimer: All views presented in this review are those of the reviewer and not of DJ Wade-O.
Sho Baraka is an artist who has always been ahead of his time – even within the CHH sub-genre. Sho has never fit into any box you have put him in. He is what true hip hop represents. He has aimed to impact culture outside of CHH, he has taken risks, and has received some backlash because of it. The veteran emcee has always had something profound to say and has said it with confidence and humor.
He started out with Reach Records, delivering two albums under the label. He then departed from the label and independently released, what I deem to be a classic, Talented Xth. We then heard chatter that he would return but with musician and singer Jamie Portier, to deliver a group project, Louis Portier. That project never came to fruition, but a perfect signing did. Sho Baraka joined Humble Beast Records and announced the coming of his fourth-studio album, The Narrative.
If you want a project to live up to its full potential and be excellent, you let it marinate for three years, infuse live instrumentation, history, whit, educational content, faith, and lyricism. You let the Holy Spirit breathe life into areas in which you have heavily wrestled with and researched over, to let your faith shine over muddy areas of hypocrisy and doubt. You team up with other excellent creatives like Jamie Portier, Courtney Orlando, Swoope, Lecrae, Jackie Hill-Perry, Natalie Lauren, Adán Bean, Nate thebeatbreaker, Vanessa Hill and some talented musicians, to produce timeless content and music.
“Foreward, 1619” starts off the album in a book form facet, introducing Sho to the listening audience as the narrator in the story and creating a different narrative than what has been told before. “Foreward, 1619″ helps paint the picture that a cover doesn’t tell the whole story. It is more complex than what is being shown, as there is more to be said and more to add to the story. Each date highlighted in every track title holds meaning for Sho and American history, with “Foreward, 1619” being the origin of slavery stepping on America soil. It is the beginning of a dilemma that has plagued American history for centuries and continues to reap the consequences of its sins.
“Foreward” is a great introduction to what will be unpacked on The Narrative. Sho dives into who he is, what he believes, what narratives have been told, and how much those narratives play into how he dissects his thoughts. The track is later coupled by the impeccable poetry of Adán Bean. He continues to amaze with his word play and tone, starting off his lines with compelling words that stir imagery. The brother had me at, “chiropractic crack open the spine of this book.” I don’t believe I’ll view opening up a book the same anymore. Adan flawlessly articulated the weight of slavery and its implications in his wordplay. He continues to be a great addition to meaningful records.
The transitions on The Narrative are smooth and precise. “Foreward, 1619” transitions into the “Soulful, 1971”, a replica of the James Brown sound with a message on black consciousness and being a man. The track is saturated with horns, drums, and chants so beautifully. We then transition into “Kanye, 2009” featuring Jackie Hill-Perry, who effortlessly balances the track with her rant about motherhood, her career and social media. This track is honest and real, with Sho ranting on Black history, hip hop, faith, the Church, and more.
“Churches ain’t saving they just decorating sinners.”
The Narrative moves along with the uptempo and fun song, “Love.” This is a fusion of soul and gospel for a mature audience. In a society that glorifies being in a relationship with more than one person, Sho celebrates love and marriage by showcasing his admiration for one woman. “Love” also highlights some of Black cultures favorite sitcom characters and gives a sense of nostalgia along with it.
If there was any collaboration on The Narrative that many fans were excited to see, it has to be “Here” featuring Lecrae. It has been a long time since we have heard these two veteran emcees collaborate on a record, and it was all worth it. This “trap” song has a catchy hook and strong message, with Lecrae shining lyrically. Swoope on the production, I’m here for that. Focusing on real and relevant issues, I’m here for that. Old school Sho and Lecrae collab, I’m here for that. The song ends with an audio of a black woman speaking on black womanhood, and it was beautiful. In a day and time where women are deemed less than their male counterparts, are being sexually assaulted and the offender getting away, and are dealing with the issues of colorism – highlighting the need for black men to be present for black women and empower them, was a worthy addition.
In what can be consider “We Can Be More” part 2, Sho teams up with Courtney Orlando for another love anthem. “30 & Up, 1986” is for a mature audience, sprinkling smooth R&B vocals with a fun uptempo feel.
The record’s tone then shifts with “Profhet, 1968”, as Sho speaks on himself, religion, and activism. The song highlights the difficult medium between profiting in the music industry and being a prophet by speaking on topics that need to be discussed. Sho eloquently raps from his own experiences saying, “I’m undervalued but I can be a prophet,” diving into every aspect of profiting and being a prophet. It is a beautiful blend of soul and honesty.
Continuing with a serious tone, “Maybe Both, 1865” gets political and adds an aggressive tone to the record. Focusing on the systems that have failed us by placing critique on both sides, trying to figure out which side is a friend or foe – or maybe both. Sho’s lyricism shines on this record, giving way to help listeners think through every subject he brings to light.
The record continues with “Excellent, 2017″, a “trap jazz” of sorts. This record is very much so excellent. Focusing on how music should be done and how you should strive for excellence. “Myhood, 1937” showcases Sho’s ability to be a storyteller in his rhymes and educate listeners in the process.
Words cannot describe “Words, 2006”. From the time you press play, this track pulls you in. It slightly makes you uncomfortable but it gets your attention. Here, Sho invites listeners in and introduces them to the personal issues he wrestles with, and his vulnerability is much appreciated. There are many families who deal with having a child with Autism, and for someone to speak on it, gives it a tangible and raw feeling. He raps about his own insecurities and fears of having an autistic son, the death of his father and having a breakthrough. “Words” is the standout track on the album, and you can feel every line. “Fathers, 2004” is a great transition from “Words” and is a much needed anthem for fathers who are indeed present in their children’s lives.
The record ends with “Piano Break, 33 A.D.” and is a beautiful end to an already brilliant record. The keys and drum kick coupled with Sho’s lyricism, helps bring the record full circle. Sho explains his complexities, all by highlighting the fact that God has been good to him. The track helps round everything back to Christ and his identity in Him.
The Narrative is a project that will resonate with listeners. Sho Baraka is an artist that singer Nina Simone spoke about. One who speaks about the times in which we live in. Sho is the living and breathing example of Simone’s quote, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Sho is doing just that.
If you’re looking for fun, “turn up” youth group music, The Narrative is not for you.
The Narrative is a bag of trail mix, consisting of a blended assortment of sweet and salty treats. Sho speaks on the narrative of his origin story, his faith, love and fatherhood, while addressing the issues of social injustice, politics, poverty and the complex issues of American history. Its texture is both smooth and ridged. Delivering live instrumentation of horns, drums, guitar and keys, with the balance of lyricism and mature content. The Narrative whets the appetite of listeners who have been longing for hip hop to act its age. Fusing the sounds of soul, jazz and gospel, Sho breathes life into The Narrative, by rewriting the narrative and telling a story of his influence and the people who have influenced him.
If you’d like to have a more in-depth understanding of the The Narrative, I highly recommend you check out Forth District’s First Spins interview with Sho.