Disclaimer: All views presented in this Album Review are those of the reviewer and not of DJ Wade-O
In music, much like every other profession, balance is important. Artists have to balance a lot, especially when creating their art. Of the many things they balance, one of the more polarizing and difficult things they have to balance is their creativity. Do you step outside what fans like you for, to try something a little different, or do you continually do the same things and not be considered creative enough? This is a constant push and pull between artist and audience. The idea of “staying in your lane” and balancing what you do well with innovation, can be extremely difficult.
Over the course of his career Stephen the Levite has been very consistent. You pretty much know what you’re going to get with him, and he’s built a pretty strong reputation as a lyricist. He’s been on Lamp Mode for as long as I can remember. He’s been a master of the lyrical theology brand made famous by his Lamp Mode brother shai linne. With his new album Can I Be Honest? dropping Tuesday, November 18, the question is, will Stephen stay in the lane that he has paved for himself? Or will he branch out in hopes to expand on a style that has brought him this far and that his fans have come to love?
For long time Stephen the Levite fans, Can I Be Honest? will be an interesting experience for them. Throughout his career he has steadily been a boom bap lyrical theology lyricist. He rarely strayed from that. On Can I Be Honest? there were a few times that he stepped out and took some creative chances. Tracks like “Entering and Breaking”, “Date Night” featuring Sho Baraka and Leah Smith, “Honeymoon” featuring Christon Gray and “Double Dutch” featuring LeeMo and S.O. all stretch outside of what Stephen the Levite fans are accustomed too.
Some of those tracks were hits and some were misses. Stephen felt and sounded comfortable on “date night.” He rode the beat well and meshed with Sho even better. It was a solid song with a “grown man” feel. It’s smooth enough to play anytime but lyrical enough to keep the listener stimulated. However “Double Dutch” just never really came together. It was a very different sound, but it was a good different from a production standpoint. As a whole track, the elements didn’t really flow together.
Stephen ventured outside of the boom bap sound again for the Christon Gray assisted “Honeymoon.” This was a much more smooth track and Chris’ beautiful vocals took it to another level. This is different from what Stephen would historically do, but he excelled on this track and put together a very solid song. There was one flaw in this song and it’s that the song drug on too long. The song ended with about a minute of Chris singing the same lines repeatedly, in which it hurts the playback value of the track.
This also happened a few other times throughout Can I Be Honest?, most notably on “Entering and Breaking” and “Frienemies” featuring JGivens and Tragic Hero. On the former, the track started out good. It was classic Stephen the Levite; he was spitting bars over a good sampled beat. After lyrically destroying the track he just let the beat ride out for far too long (about 2 minutes). Then he transitioned into (what had to be him) singing that “he wants the dough” in a James Brown, type, voice, that was just odd.
“Frienemies” had an odd transition at the end of that track as well. I have no problem paying homage to the DJ’s by letting them show out on a record, but it didn’t fit on this song and again it lasted for far too long. The track ended up being six minutes long. In these two instances, potentially really good songs were altered with odd creative choices. More than anything, those decisions hurt the playback value and may leave the listener a bit confused.
Anybody that is familiar him knows exactly what to expect from Stephen the Levite in this area. Bar for bar he can match up with pretty much anybody. He has shown a wide set of lyrical skills. He’s a storyteller, great with the lyrical theology, he’s got punches and he’s got the intellectual lyricism. His smooth delivery is one of the best in the genre. He rides a beat beautifully and can spin words like none other. Can I Be Honest? just adds to the lyrical legend that Stephen the Levite is becoming.
He was at his best when he was in his “boom bap” lane, like on “Smile” and “Baggage.” He rode the beats like a pro and displayed a beautiful array of lyricism. On “Smile” he shared his struggles with managing time in God’s word and keeping in touch with friends and family. It was a heartfelt track that will reach plenty of people with similar struggles. “Baggage” is some more heartfelt lyricism, but this a bit more aggressive and in your face. It’s done in a way that he has done before, candid but relatable.
He also put on a lyrical show on “Frienemies” with Tragic Hero and JGivens. As a collective they manhandled that track and gave a lyrical showcase that will leave listeners with their jaws dropped. Another great lyrical display came on “Dynamic Duel” featuring Eshon Burgundy. He sparred here with one of the best in the whole genre and gave listeners some classic wordplay. As a whole, Stephen the Levite gave a very good lyrical performance on Can I Be Honest?.
As good of a lyrical performance as he gave (and it was really good), it wasn’t without flaws. At this point in Stephen’s career he’s a veteran, he’s put out several albums and has a long resume. He needs to be able to switch his flow up a little. Now he does have a classic flow and delivery, but a change in his tone from time to time would have done this record some good. He pretty much sounds exactly the same on every track, no matter the pace or sound of the record. It hurts because there is nothing that separates one track from another. It is a small adjustment, but if that small adjustment is made, this record becomes much better.
Overall, there were some high points and some low points. It was a good record. Lamp Mode fans will enjoy it because it has a Lampmode feel to it, however, it won’t stretch too far outside of that fan base. In true Lamp Mode fashion it will definitely feed your spirit and soul while at the same time educate you. So if you enjoy lyricism or some good lyrical theology then Can I Be Honest? is a record that’ll you’ll enjoy.
Can I be Honest? is now available on iTunes for purchase.