After his 2010 best-of compilation, the long-beloved John Reuben had been nearly silent for six years (the only exception being a cover of Family Force 5's "Love Addict" on the Gotee Records 20th Anniversary compilation, Twenty Years Brand New). But in 2016, he ended the hiatus with his first two singles in seven years, "Old As Religion" and "Angels & Drums," and in March was featured as a guest artist on MercyMe's album, Lifer. After all that, and with all the pieces seemingly in place, Reuben finally announced last month the release of Reubonic. With a lot to love, quite a bit to chew on, and a little to question, this is an album that deserves some attention.
It's hard to wrap one's mind around just how different releasing a Christian rap album in 2017 is compared to 2009, not to mention 2000 when Reuben released his first album on Gotee Records. Reuben originally gained his popularity thanks to his thoughtful lyrics, combined with his unique blend of pop/rock and hip-hop. His rapping ability was never truly his strong suit, but he made up for it with a distinct flow and personality. However, in a hip-hop-saturated 2017, it is hard to see his typical approach having as much of an appeal to modern hip-hop audiences. So, naturally, he crafted Reubonic to feel like a modern hip-hop album. Musically, its beats are quicker and more processed and spotted with some eerie, hollow-sounding production reminiscent of something you could hear from Reach Records. Songs like "Age of Our Fathers," "Future Nostalgia," and "Candy-Coated Razor Blades" in particular are good examples of this shift. Reuben himself takes on some more sophisticated and nuanced raps than his borderline conversational approach of yesteryear. While it sometimes feels alien to hear Reuben trying to show off his ability to rap fast or drop some clever wordplay, it might be for the best that he has chosen to update himself (although songs like "We Live Best" and "One Drink Johnny" simply drip with old-school Reuben flavors).
Reuben's strongest appeal has been his complex and subversive commentaries, though his albums have always had their balance checked by his fun side and pop appeal. However, the independently-made Reubonic feels no need to check that balance, and the result is something which is unabashedly cynical. It feels like what one might imagine his unrealized side-project (which he had planned prior to the release of his 2005 album, The Boy vs. The Cynic -- which was ultimately a merger of two projects) felt like. The very opening line of "Bury This Verse" is "They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place / So this will be the last record that I ever make," which firmly sets the tone for the album. "Bury This Verse" proceeds to address depression, isolation, fear, censorship, and emotional suppression in what is probably the darkest song Reuben has ever released. His use of the "S" word in both this song and the next fit into the tone Reuben is creating, but the inclusion of these profanities is a decision which is fair to question, no matter how well they fit this project's tone. Meanwhile, "Age Of Our Fathers" feels like quintessential Reuben-esque cynicism in how he addresses the relationship between emotion, tradition and religion, while "We Live Best" contains yet more biting pessimism in lines like, "We can talk about the good life, but I don't think that it exists / We live best close to death." While the tone is pretty overwhelming, and will surely turn off both older fans who preferred his lighter stuff, as well as newer listeners who aren't looking for it, those who can stomach it will have almost endless sustenance for their own thoughtful inner cynic.
I am glad Reuben elected to end his silence, and Reubonic feels like an album that he has always wanted to create. There is more than enough pent-up frustrations present to cover the eight-year gap, and I'm sure he even left some behind in the process. I do think the album ultimately could have benefitted by being a little less heavy-handed in some areas, and Reuben doesn't really offer any resolution for most of his cynical explorations. However, the ultimate result is an album with great depth that lends itself quite well to repeat listens for those who can buy into his approach. The profanities will rightly turn many people off even if they are on board with the concept behind the project, but everything else here is worth checking out.
- Review date: 5/22/17, written by Mark Rice of Jesusfreakhideout.com