On June 14th we received some very big news: that Sho Baraka was signed to Humble Beast Records. Sho already chose to leave Reach Records in 2011. A few years later, he independently released The Talented 10th. Now his fourth album, The Narrative comes to us as a result of his partnership with Humble Beast Records, who have a slightly unconventional way of distributing music—They actually share their music for free via their website along with releasing it across many platforms. Despite that, people still directly support what they do and buy a ton of albums.
For me, Sho Baraka has always been a challenging artist to listen to. I didn’t understand every detail on the subjects he speaks on, but I’m always more educated after I finish the album. He continues touching on conversations of social injustice and politics. Sho Baraka literally wants to change the narrative on the general view of these topics, encouraging us to be conscious and thoughtful of their impact during a crucial time.
With any form of hip hop you will somehow find mention of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sho does bring these things up in a careful context, reminding us that this is indeed the lifestyle of some folks. He brings up social injustices in the black/african-american community going all the way back to the civil rights movement and slavery. He makes a reference to gun violence, in the form on an analogy asking “Is it a ballot or a bullet?” This line is inspired by a speech from Malcolm X, but is part of a wider message to use wise voting rather than violence, without promising allegiance to a single political party. In the last song he states that he “thought with his penis,” reflecting on how his former thoughts and actions were driven towards sinful lust and sexual desire.
The fact that Sho isn’t afraid to talk about such heavy topics, on another level that no other artist is willing to go, is ultimately a good thing. Matthew 13:16 says, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” The thing I see happening is that not every listener will have the eyes to see and ears to hear the overall message of this album. Many listeners of “Christian” hip hop seem confined, listening only to upbeat anthems from artists like Lecrae, Andy Mineo, and Social Club. The genre has evolved so much beyond what gets played at youth groups, and Sho wants his listeners to mature too.
Much like Lecrae’s Church Clothes 3, the album cover of The Narrative gives off a classy vibe. Sho is rocking a suit in this picture, which looks like an old photo you might find in the history books. The same style carries on into the track list: alongside each song title is a specific year. The year listed beside each song title closely represents the subject or theme of the song. For example, the year 1979 in “Road to Humble, 1979” is actually the year he was born. Then in “Excellent, 2017,” Sho is pushing people to look toward the future instead of dwelling on the past. Notice that the songs are not ordered based on the year; the track list itself appears like a scrambled timeline.
A huge tool that helped me understand the themes of the album was Fourth District’s “First Spin” series on Soundcloud. In this particular episode they play each track, then talk with Sho about what went into each song’s creation. I learned there were only two songs out of 14 that were created from samples, with every other song being made from scratch. That was a very surprising fact, considering that every track in the album either has a flavor of soul or jazz put into it from actual instruments. I am no musician myself, but it clearly took a lot of work to produce such a collection of songs.
The tone of the album has a both fun and serious feel, the first half especially leaning on the lighter side. “Kanye, 2009” is parodying Kanye West’s rant that occurred during the 2009 VMAs. Sho obviously had a lot to get off of his chest, and he did it in a comical way. However, I do feel that Jackie Hill Perry’s verse doesn’t quite fit with what Sho was going for; she puts some genuine anger into a song meant to be playful.
“30 & Up, 1986” is a really fun song for those who grew up in the 80’s. Although I was born in 1990, I grew up with my parents and family bumping this kind of music since the day I was born. The first half is really great (“Too old for skinny jeans, too young for linens/ Got a young man’s fresh with an old man’s wisdom”), but the second half is when things get real and Sho says what’s really on his heart.
The seventh track, titled “Profhet, 1979,” is where we see a major tone shift. The song title creatively blends the words “profit” and “prophet,” taking a look into how much we are trying to sell ourselves out for a personal gain, compared to our mission to be prophets by sharing the gospel.
One song in this second half that greatly moved me is “Words, 2006,” where Sho considers how words are not always the most powerful form of communication. He shares the experiences he’s had with two kids who are autistic, along with all emotions he felt towards God and the cards he’s been dealt in life. I was brought to tears when listening to this song, because I could relate closely through my own life experiences. Through my dad’s multiple sclerosis leading to suicide a few years ago, and more recently my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis… I felt that same testing of faith and emotions Sho describes here.
Sho has always been bold with each album he creates, but The Narrative was clearly built with strong and humble transparency, using that same vulnerability to bring things full circle up to the final track. He encourages us to switch up our train of thought on many subjects that we encounter daily, sharing experiences from his own life that greatly add to the context. The music behind him is just as important as the lyrics he writes, with the band taking us back to a great time in music.
Sho Baraka, you have successfully taken me to school once again. The Narrative is here to help us “stay woke”.
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