Album Review :
Stephen The Levite - Can I Be Honest?
Artist: Stephen The Levite
Album: Can I Be Honest?
Label: Lampmode Recordings
Release Date: 11/18/2014
Reviewer: Anthony Peronto
- Entering & Breaking
- Frienemies ft. JGivens & Tragic Hero
- The Dynamic Duel ft. Eshon Burgundy, Shaati, & S.O.
- The Dynamic Dual
- Truth Is ft. Melissa T.
- 143 ft. Chris Jackson
- Date Night ft. Sho Baraka & Leah Smith
- Honeymoon ft. Christon Gray
- Double Dutch ft. LeeMo & S.O.
“This is grown folk conversation/It’s appropriate, most of my supporters ain’t kids/Contrary to popular speculation, I don’t do this for youth groups/And this isn’t the language.”
The above statement is not only a disclaimer of the content on “Honeymoon” but also Stephen The Levite’s sound and content overall. Rapping for almost a decade, this Philly-native has only released one album and an EP since his classic debut To Die Is Gain. His last album, The Last Missionary, was one of the best albums of 2012 and a shining example of lyrical theology done right. So when it was announced that Stephen was quickly following up his last album with a more transparent, less theologically-heavy album, it came as a bit of a surprise. So is Stephen’s third album honestly more of the same or does it succeed in being different than its predecessors?
In the same vein as “KnA” or “Rebellion,” the first track on Can I Be Honest is packed-full of constant lyricism. “Entering And Breaking” lets you know right away that this isn’t for the casual listener, even as it fades into a fun funk-inspired outro. Two of CHH’s rising stars, JGivens and Tragic Hero, are brought in for the early highlight “Frienemies.” About the love-hate relationship between emcees and hip-hop and a celebration of the DJ, this early highlight is a perfect merge of Stephen’s classic boom-bap sound and a new sensibility (complete with an infectious hook and choir assistance). New features and a familiar topic (battling our sin nature) are the focus on “The Dynamic Duel,” however the album shifts into a different direction. Where The Last Missionary was about mission, the church, and marriage coexisting together, this album is a continuation of how those three things are lived out. With “The Dynamic Dual,” this shift is focused more on the joys and struggles of marriage in equal measure.
As honest and relatable as they are, the three songs detailing the conflict and perseverance of marriage (“The Dynamic Dual”, “Truth Is,” and “Baggage’) can’t compare to the three tracks that are purely celebratory. A continuation of “S.O.S,” the smooth “143” is a 6-minute ode to Stephen’s wife that is like two glorious songs in one. Many of Stephen’s songs over the years are in response to the lack of artists talking about certain issues. Two of those songs are present here, with “Date Night” and “Honeymoon,” and they’re some of his best songs to date. About the clash between date nights and being broke, “Date Night” is a jazz-influenced reminder that dates are more than just “the clichéd movie date with late-night dining.” Christon Gray kills it on “Honeymoon,” which is a mature look at the good things about sex in its proper context. The slow-jam ending with Gray’s falsetto is just icing on the cake.
As the tambourines and piano keys fade away on “Honeymoon,” the album suddenly addresses a few different issues before ending. And honestly, it doesn’t quite feel right. Despite the time-management struggles of “Double Dutch” and “Smile,” I wonder if the album would’ve been better if it was structured differently. For example, if an EP (with Tracks 1-3 & 10-11) was released several months prior, it would allow Stephen to focus solely on honesty and marriage for an entire full-length album. And in the end it would flow better from start to finish. But in the end, it’s a minor and hypothetical issue and doesn’t interfere with the overall experience of Can I Be Honest.
Overall: After a decade of high-quality lyrical theology (stories, concepts, and arguments based on biblical truth in a hip-hop format), Stephen wanted to show what it looked like in his life. It may not top his last album and does focus on marriage so much that it should’ve been the album’s main focus, but Can I Be Honest could someday top The Last Missionary as my favorite of Stephen’s albums. As a husband and father, I can connect to these songs more easily than those on his prior record. Long-time listeners may grumble about the lack of straightforward theology, but you can’t knock Stephen for trying something different. He aims to show and relate rather than teach and debate. And honestly, Stephen The Levite pretty much succeeds on every level.
RIYL: Any Lampmode artist, Wes Pendleton, Braille, Phanatik, Eshon Burgundy, Theory Hazit