By quickly stacking its artist roster and adding one of TRU’s favorite producers (Wit) as an A&R, Collision Records is quickly emerging as one of the go-to labels for quality hip-hop made by rappers who are outspoken Christians. So when it was announced that the team would be producing a group album, we figured why not let our two most prominently Christian writers (and one expert of the Christian hip-hop subgenre on loan from Wade-O Radio) give us their take on the album? Did Swoope, Alex Faith, Christon Gray, and Dre Murray come off as kings or paupers? Read on.
WLAK (aka We Live As Kings) takes a page out of the G.O.O.D. Music soundbook but colors slightly outside the lines with a more passionate embrace of Christian iconography and language heard on, say, Cruel Summer.
It’s refreshing to hear rappers show genuine respect to the faith and the album’s regal theme is strictly sustained throughout. (So much so that the song “YHWH” begins with Swoope ad libbing: “I wonder how many times we’re going to say the word ‘king’ on this album.”) But there’s a disappointing lack of personality coming through this particular collection of songs.
All of the WLAK members have revealed parts of their personas on other records, but a first-time listener may be left wondering exactly who Dre Murray, Swoope, Alex Faith, and Christon Gray are. Sure they’re royalty in the eyes of their God – but what else?
While I’m unaware if WLAK shattered the record for acronyms on a record (see: “YHWH,” “ABNY” and “WLAQ”), it had me SMHing throughout. At least that’s my reaction to hearing lines as disgusting as Swoope’s “Here for a reason, not a contingency—was an empty seed, just a fetus formed with a Matt Damon-chemistry till the Trinity’s entity entered me with a re-Bourne identity.”
WLAK features all the strengths which made Collision Records’ previous release, Wake Up, a classic in many critics’ minds—lyrics that leave you shaking your head in admiration, replay value and a concept album so deep you’ll be embarrassed to play the radio’s shallow hip-pop with your windows down. It also eliminated, or at least diminished, the perceived weaknesses of its predecessor.
Wit’s A&R performance makes any questionable Wake Up mixing and mastering a distant memory. And if Swoope’s Kanye West/Lupe Fiasco-like sound really grates on your nerves, a collaboration effort with Dre Murray, Christon Gray and Alex Faith’s mesmerizing voices offers variety. WLAK somehow, someway, lived up to its
sky-high king’s throne-high expectations.
WLAK’s self-titled debut aims to shine a light on what it means to be a Christian and have the Holy Spirit live through oneself. The lyrics are for and about Christ, but are accessible to those unfamiliar with Christian hip-hop. Namely, Dre Murray is the strongest rapper of the group, though everyone brings their A-game. WLAK is a group keen for wordplay, and the members convey their message through such. “They say when in Rome, do what Romans do/But this ain’t Rome, so we do what Romans do” Swoope raps on “ABNY (Marty McFly).”
Occasionally, WLAK becomes too self-righteous for its own good. “Reign is Coming” sounds somewhat insulting to non-believers. In particular, LeBron James is name-dropped multiple times on the album, which is probably because of his nickname, “King James.” While WLAK’s point about false kings is clear, the name-checking of the likes of LeBron James and Michael Jordan detracts from the compassionate feel that otherwise permeates the album.
Since WLAK is a rap album, I was surprised- though not unpleasantly so- that Christon Gray’s vocals often stole the show. His hook on “Long Way Down” is soulful and infectious, and he successfully carries a tune on multiple other songs. The only time the album’s singing falters is during the course of back-to-back songs “Eyes for You” and “WLAQ.” The two songs are a bit too similar for their own good; the themes and music should probably have been combined into one track.
While strong lyrics are in abundance throughout, WLAK is bogged down by hit-or-miss beats. In contrast to stronger, soul-tinged production on “Long Way Down” and “Arena” are ear-sores on tracks like “YHWH” and “All In.” The bland production on several songs is WLAK’s biggest drawback.
The members of WLAK are authentically Christian and authentically hip-hop. Their debut album showcases both strong lyricism and emotional honesty, but poor production on too many songs keeps this album from being a clear winner.