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Avenue: 2004 Edition
It’s been four years now since KJ-52 appeared on the Christian rap scene. Most fans are familiar with 52 for his “controversial” song “Dear Slim,” which challenges Eminem’s worldview. It all started, however, with 7th Avenue, an ambitious hip-hop album that introduced a skeptical Christian rap audience to a fresh rapper who could preach like Billy Graham with the youthfully appealing style of Slim Shady.
Since most of KJ’s fans emerged during the Collaborations release, Essential Records decided to reintroduce people to 7th Avenue, because, as an industry exec put it, “Many fans are either unaware of or unable to get their hands on his first project.”
If you take a simple look at the track listing for the “2004 version,” you’ll find that this version of 7th Avenue isn’t an exact reproduction of the 2000 recording.
The first and most obvious omissions to the original are the “Greatest M.C.” vignettes at the opening, middle, and closing of the disc. The well-meaning, but somewhat goofy integration of hip-hop culture and Christianity didn’t really set the mood for the rest of the album. This deletion was a good call.
Instead, the re-release opens with “1-2-3,” a hard-edged rap that makes for a great opening to the album. KJ doesn’t waste any time getting to his theological position, stating “No matter whose the dopest / without Christ you’re hopeless.” Reggae rapper Yankee Man, who sounds like a Jamaican DMX, contributes a catchy chorus hook.
Also missing from the new version are two skits, “Melvin’s Not Here” and “Mickey Cakes.” I never personally heard these skits, but I would imagine that they are something like the “leave a message” bits from KJ’s sophomore disc, Collaborations. I heard that there was a song about cheeseburgers and fries from the original, but it was nowhere to be found on the ’04 edition.
In my opinion, the deletions were probably a good thing, because it made room for previously unreleased tracks that are stellar.
The first track that is new to 7th Avenue is “Lift Me Up,” a song that label Essential Records calls “KJ’s take on the hit tune ‘Flood’ by Jars of Clay.” I enjoyed the song, but I was half expecting to hear the “If I can’t swim after 40 days…” chorus. It never came! Computerized voices repeat the phrase “lift me up” throughout the song in Jars of Clay style. The familiar violin bridge from “Flood” is also thrown into the mix. I think that most people will be left feeling that something was missing from this track. It was good nonetheless.
“All Around the World” throws a trio of awesome rappers together on one track. KJ’s friends John Reuben and L.A. Symphony member Pigeon John appear for a tag-team-style rap attack. I give you permission to crank this song in your decked-out Escalade, seriously. The hook rocks (All around the world go / ooh-ooh / my brother in the Lord would you sing / ooh-ooh / To all my little ladies in Mercedes / ooh-ooh / we step into the scene and make the place / cool-cool), and shows a lot of fun between rappers who have the same mission statement.
Christian rockers Silage contribute vocals and instruments for “Need Someone,” arguably the best track on the album. We’re all familiar with KJ’s alternative tendencies (Peace of Mind ring a bell?), so this song comes as no stylistic surprise to me. The chorus, provided by Silage, reminds me of Jars of Clay’s “Unforgetful You”. Fans of alternative rock could find some common ground with hip-hoppers. Don’t expect head-banging rap-rock; this particular fusion of styles is mellower than KJ’sPeace of Mind escapades.
7th Avenue ends with another song new to the album, “12 Round Knockout.” This isn’t really a new song; die-hard KJ-52 fans know that this was on the soundtrack for Carman’s movie, The Champion. The song is as brash and as in-your-face as the first song, using boxing as a metaphor for the Christian walk. “I’m going all 12 rounds and I’m never going to drop out!” says KJ.
Of course, we can’t forget the original songs that were kept. “We Rock the Mic” is a great tribute to old skool hip-hop, a true KJ-52 classic. Also check out the “It’s the S.O.I.” remix (way better than the 2000 versionl). The 7th Avenue version of dcTalk’s “The Hardway” destroys the original (sorry, Toby). It’s true that the new songs rock, but they’re just bonuses on an already sweet album.
If you’re a fan of the classic, pop-friendly stylings of today’s KJ-52, don’t expect a like-minded prequel to Collaborations and It’s Pronounced Five-Two. This disc is harder, but not in a Peace of Mind, hard rock sort of way. This is edgy rap infused with biblical truth. It’s true that KJ’s style has changed over the years, but his commitment to using hip-hop as a vehicle for the Gospel has not.
Marcus Hathcock 4/5/2004