What did we expect from a new Beautiful Eulogy album, really? An opener titled "Jell-O from Portland," or another obligatory Propaganda verse? A more fitting question would perhaps be: what did we want from a new album? The four-year wait has felt very long for Worthy, the follow-up to 2013's Instruments of Mercy. Pardon the pun, but what the hip hop trio has brought to the table this time is an entirely different beast than Instruments: an album that sets a specific, ambient mood and hardly (if ever) deviates from it, in order to give laser-focused attention to lyrics that expound upon some often-overlooked attributes of our triune God.
To call Worthy lyric-focused might appear to suggest that Satellite Kite and Instruments of Mercy were not; to the contrary, Beautiful Eulogy built its notoriety largely upon the poetic profundity and prowess of co-frontmen Odd Thomas and Braille. However, I would personally be shocked to see Worthy receive an instrumental re-release like we saw with the first two albums (Satellite Kite Instrumental and Instrumentals of Mercy). The opening track, "Weight," teases something greater than we actually receive, with its arpeggiated synthesizers and cathedral-sized organs. These cinematic sounds soon fizzle out, though, blurring into a single verse from Odd Thomas that turns out to be less of an epic opener and more of an introduction.
This brings us to "If" and "Sovereign," two songs that pair some of the most astute, biting lyrics of these two rappers' careers with unfortunately straightforward, atmospheric backbeats and flimsy choruses. Almost every track is built upon a foundation of sustained piano chords, elementary key-playing, sparse drums, and other ambient sounds that wouldn't be out of place on any modern worship album. In fact, one of this site's readers, Scott, commented that this album's genre is "worship hip hop," and I think that observation is spot-on; it's upsetting, then, that a group of producers known for beats as intoxicating as "Symbols and Signs" (as well as their production work on every Humble Beast release) would succumb to creating sounds and samples that aren't far removed from typical modern worship fare. Small details differentiate these songs from, say, Hillsong United, but only one track, "Slain," adds some variety, recalling the band's older, more exciting work.
Beyond the beats alone, "Slain" is a standout that seamlessly ties social issues into the overarching themes of Worthy. It also solidifies my opinion that Braille provides the best performances and lyrics of the album, if only by a small margin above Odd Thomas. Even then, Braille only appears on eight of the twelve tracks. Concerning those other four, there's Odd Thomas' introductory "Weight"; the instrumental "Overture," which sounds like a beginner's piano recital; "Devotion," the mismatch of an experimental score with a sermon clip from the trio's uniquely-voiced pastor, Art Azurdia; and the interlude-like "Immanuel," another solo Odd Thomas verse which, while impeccably written, is performed less like hip hop and more like a chapter for Odd Thomas' reading of Hebrews for the Streetlights Bible audiobook project (which I highly recommend, by the way). Those four tracks all stand in stark contrast to "Slain," which boasts the only chorus that has the fun, 90's hip-hop vibe of tracks like Satellite's "An Open Letter to Whoever's Listening." It's telling, then, that this great chorus is just a spliced sample from Mercy's "Organized Religion." In line with the unimpressive choruses that make up too much of Worthy, it's similarly telling that the album's first good chorus is on "Doxology," where Page CXVI's Latifah Alattas sings the famouse first verse from the hymn of the same name.
Musically, the album doesn't really come alive until the sixth song, "Messiah" featuring Citizens (the newest signee to the Humble Beast roster). This kicks off the most guest-heavy section of the album, followed by the beautiful "Mosaic" featuring Aaron Strumpel, and "Omnipotent" featuring Kings Kaleidoscope, a very good track that nevertheless fails to reach the heights of KK's hip hop mixtape from earlier this year, The Beauty Between. "Messiah," though, is sincerely breathtaking, and it's also the one full-length song that breaks from the template of one Odd Thomas verse and one Braille verse, separated by choruses. This album would be far more interesting if the two rappers interacted on the same verse, engaging in dialogues or callbacks. I hope in the future to see Beautiful Eulogy mess with structures like on "Messiah," as it gives one pre-chorus for Citizens' vocalist Zach Bolen to sing, along with a concluding verse for Odd Thomas at the end, giving the song a thematic feel that's truly like going on a journey. It's the compositional peak of this collection, further amplified by its powerful lyrics; rather than straightfowardly tackling the concept of the "Messiah," the song is actually about the ways in which we allow our feelings and desires to replace Christ as our practical messiah-figure.
Quite frankly, I am relieved to be finished writing this review, so I can stop critiquing this album and allow this album to start critiquing me. If this whole review seems shockingly negative, believe me, it was hard to write. It's a weird position to be in, attempting to criticize or compliment music where I hardly like the music but I love the lyrics. To be clear: this is a lyrical masterpiece. I've refrained from quoting specific songs because, while there are certainly killer one-liners, everything's best heard in context. And if I were to tell you my favorite lyrics, I'd have to point you toward entire songs. I don't find the finished product very entertaining, but to Beautiful Eulogy's credit, I don't think this is supposed to function as entertainment; if "Devotion" is any indication, this album is meant to be heard devotionally. And if you allow yourself to experience this album in such a fashion, you'll find yourself at the mercy of unadulterated wisdom, saturated in Scripture, overflowing with truth, filtered through the poetry of two wordsmiths who are undeniably gifted by God.
- Review date: 11/4/17, written by Chase Tremaine of Jesusfreakhideout.com