Let me start off by admitting that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this album. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t think I’d like it at all, because that’s certainly not the case. First of all, I’d describe myself as someone who enjoys the occasional Propaganda song, but like so many other artists, I simply have difficulty enjoying an entire album. Secondly, I was getting the impression through the song titles and reviews that Crooked was going to be political in its lyrics. As someone who only has a minor interest in politics, and some general disdain for the discussions and attitudes that seem to directly stem from political topics/activities, I was worried that some of the lyrics here might add to my frustration.
Now that I’ve prattled on about my preconceptions, let’s turn to Crooked itself. The first thing that stood out to me was the high quality production on here. While the album definitely has the Beautiful Eulogy fingerprint on it, it also includes production from Daniel Steele, DJ Efechto, Ohmega Watts, and others. There is an amalgamation of sounds on display here, ranging from electronic to trap to jazz, and there’s even an electric guitar solo on “It’s Not Working (The Truth).” The production is eclectic without sounding scatterbrained, and this ought to be applauded.
Lyrically, this album wasn’t quite what I expected. For one thing, Propaganda’s skills as a poet as opposed to simply being a rapper or an emcee became more apparent to me here compared to some of his past work (e.g. the lyrical creativity of “I Hate Cats”). I’d also say that Crooked is less political and more socially conscious in its lyrics. Though Propaganda discusses political topics like racism and gentrification in some of these songs, among other topics, he’s not here to tell you who you should vote for or to feign as though any particular government can remedy the complex ills of society. I found this non-partisan approach to be very refreshing and this attitude becomes most clear through the following lyric from “It’s Not Working (The Truth)”: Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us / It’s not working, is it? As philosopher Peter Kreeft has so eloquently written about, many Christians have become grossly divided on political matters, and Propaganda transcends such ugliness through self-reflection and spiritual awareness.
That being said, Propaganda is certainly aware of the division that can happen between people on political issues, and so, he addresses this on “Cynical.” With Aaron Marsh and Sho Baraka lending their talents, this is easily one of the best songs on the album. My favorite line comes from Sho: Pray to my Savior, middle finger to my neighbor / Create a theology that helps to promote that behavior. My absolute favorite song from Crooked, however, would have to be “Darkie.” What stood out to me most here was the somber trap beat and Micah Bournes’ melancholic vocals and lyrics, as he sings: Man, why should I care at all / when you burn your own city whole / and your daughter want a white doll? / Man, ya’ll don’t even like ya’ll. For a song about deprecation (both from self and others) among black people, it could not sound any more depressing.
For all of the positives on this album, there were also some things I didn’t like so well. One lyric in particular I found to be underwhelming, and it comes from “It’s Complicated,” as Propaganda rhymes: You are a masterpiece / fighting to be a silly selfie, the hideous filter. The references to selfies and Instagram came across rather cheesy, but then again, I’m sure he’s pointing out the insipidity of our self-obsessed and image driven culture. In the end though, I’d prefer that poets just avoid talking about these things altogether, at least, in a direct way. With only one short lyric that stood out to me as rather weak though, this is a rather small fly in the ointment.
A more pronounced drawback for me were some of the hooks in these songs. In particular, I’m referring to “Bear With Me,” “It’s Not Working (The Truth),” and “Made Straight.” The first and the third listed here have some very poppy choruses from Marz Ferrer and Audrey Assad, and to me, these parts of the songs turned hip-hop into hip-pop. While both Ferrer and Assad are talented vocalists, the singing was sweet enough to give me a toothache. As for the second song mentioned, Courtney Orlando’s vocals sound completely out of place with the instrumentation, making for an awkward listening experience.
I think that my biggest qualm with Crooked, however, is that I just don’t see myself listening to a lot of these songs again. While Propaganda has offered an objectively good album, subjectively speaking, I’ll likely only be returning to a few of the songs here. That is a matter of personal taste, and as it turns out, the hip-hop I most enjoy sounds quite different from what is offered here. In some ways this album surpassed my expectations, and in some ways, it didn’t. As a reviewer, replay value is one of the most important factors to me, and for that reason, Crooked gets a strong 3/5 in my humble opinion.