JOHN REUBEN – self titled
self released, 2020
In the very first lines of his 2017 comeback album Reubonic, John Reuben says “They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place/So this will be the last record that I’ll ever make.” Given that it’s 2020 and I’m reviewing a new John Reuben album, this prediction clearly didn’t come true and it might be because he’s still in an unhealthy place. Now I certainly hope that isn’t the case, but either way, I’m happy that there is more John Reuben music in the world.
I’m just going to be up front and admit from the start that I am pretty biased in favor of Reuben’s music. I’ve been a fan of his since the mid 2000s and I could honestly write an entire separate post about why (and maybe I will). I’ll try to keep my fanboying to a minimum and focus on the review. This new self titled album is Reuben’s eighth and it finds him back in what you might call his “traditional” form, especially when compared to the darker and almost industrial tone of Reubonic. Reuben has always operated from a strong position of self-awareness. He’s never really tried to be something that he’s not, and that honesty has permeated into his beats and lyrics. These attributes are on full display on John Reuben, and I personally believe it’s his best album in many years.
One doesn’t need to look much further than the first track on this album for an example of what I’m talking about. On “Secular Music,” Reuben raps humorously about the culture of youth group concerts and about how he was what the kids were allowed to listen to instead of “secular” music. This track is funny to anyone who grew up in this culture, but it’s especially funny to me because I actually saw Reuben perform at a youth group concert. The self awareness continues into the second track, “Cheer Up” where Reuben acknowledges his own corniness but uses it to encourage people to lighten up and enjoy themselves.
But another notable thing about John Reuben is he’s not afraid to get heavier. He doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects, and it only takes three tracks to get there on this album. “Other People” covers the complicated relationships that people can have with their heritage and identities, both from the black and white perspective with guest rapper Alon offering the unique point of view of a black man with Haitian heritage. Other heavy topics include religious practices that turn people away in bitterness and how God is often invoked in destructive political actions (“Still Something” and “God’s Politics”).
Reuben offers lighter criticism of the rapid-fire way we live our lives and consume media in the modern age (“Highlight Reel”), people who use and obsess over personality profiling tests like the enneagram to define themselves (“You’ll Get Your Wings”), and how evangelicals are too eager for the end of the world rather than trying to create more of a heaven on earth (“Here on Earth”). Finally, throughout the album there are more instances of lightheartedness and positivity like a petition for unity, a track about his friendship with Alon, and an ode to nostalgia (“Off Key,” “Call and Responsey,” and “Looking at Now”). Alon provides guest verses on six of the eleven tracks on this album, and he has clear chemistry with Reuben. He has no trouble matching the tone and mood of the track, complementing Reuben like “brie and salami” as they say on “Call and Responsey.”
Another signature of John Reuben’s is his unique instrumentals. Especially in the second half of his career, he pulls a lot of inspiration from pop rock and indie, with his beats using samples of live instruments like guitars and even the occasional banjo. Seth Earnest returns as the producer on this self titled record and he occasionally brings some of the more electronic influence that defined Reubonic. And Reuben isn’t immune to the influence of modern hip hop with a couple tracks employing cicada hi-hats and beat switches, though one of those beat switches is to a more subdued acoustic guitar instrumental only a third into the track on “Still Something.” The bottom line is this album sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a modern John Reuben album.
Overall I think this is a very strong release from John Reuben. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, I’ve always kind of felt that Reuben isn’t the artist that Christian hip hop needs, but the one that they deserve. After figuring out who he was and creating a unique brand for himself, he used his platform to say things that he believed needed to be said. Some of his lyrics might bring up topics that would make more conservative evangelicals bristle, but in the end all he’s doing is encouraging us to be more like Christ. This record gives us that John Reuben brand for the modern era. My only real criticism is that some songs are presented in such a way that the humor might be lost on some people and give them the wrong impression. But apart from that, this easily ranks among some of his best releases like The Boy vs. The Cynic and Word of Mouth. I’m entirely biased, but I don’t care. It’s a great album.