Welcome to Blake (B.I.C) and Carl’s review/conversation about Propaganda’s newest release, Crimson Cord. We exchanged some emails over the course of a few weeks and arrived at a few conclusions about the album, but also dug deeper in questions of hip-hop and Christianity and how the two intersect.
Carl: So, what do you think about Crimson Cord overall?
B.I.C.: I think this album is more consistent than Excellent, Propaganda’s last release. It feels like it has a bigger story to tell throughout its run time. Excellent was, in my opinion, a more striking album overall, but it suffered from inconsistency and was mainly held together by Propaganda’s humble approach to his music and lyrics.
Carl: I definitely agree. Excellent has a few shining moments, but then I would find myself checking out for one or two songs before being ensnared again by a beat or quick turn of phrase from Propaganda. I find Crimson Cord a more intriguing and consistent album, especially musically. On Excellent, the music often sounds the same from track to track, while on Crimson Cord, we are treated to a wider sonic palette.
B.I.C.: I think we see that on songs like “Daywalkers,” “Three Cord Bond,” “Redeem,” and “How Did We Get Here,” which are my standout tracks from the album. They represent the perfect mixture of theological/experiential depth and head-bouncing grooves and beats. I will say that Courtland Urbano’s production was quite good on this album. I was starting to think he might be a one-trick pony, seeing as how Satellite Kite, Instruments of Mercy (albums he produced being part of Beautiful Eulogy), and Excellent all had a similar flavor of music and production. Crimson Cord felt like he was stretching himself in several places. Parts sounded like old school hip-hop beats and samples. I appreciated those moments. What were some of your favorite musical moments on Crimson Cord?
Carl: I love “I Ain’t Gave Up on You Yet.” Kind of reminds me of a Kanye slow-jam type beat, with the echoing sample in the background. You mentioned Beautiful Eulogy (another Christian hip-hop group from the West Coast) as a comparison point for Propaganda: how do you think Crimson Cord and Propaganda’s approach to his art stacks up to artists like Beautiful Eulogy?
B.I.C.: In comparison to Beautiful Eulogy, I think Propaganda is the better artist. Some days I am digging Beautiful Eulogy, other days their music feels like Reformed rhetoric without a bit of transparency. Propaganda never feels that way. He is a poet first, painting pictures of what he believes instead of trying to use as much Reformed theological terminology as possible.
Carl: I’m with you there, I was just listening to the newest Beautiful Eulogy the other day, and every once in a while you get hit with lines straight from the Westminster Catechism—not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I really want to hear in my music. With Propaganda, I never feel like that. His music confronts with the Gospel with no particular theological variation at the forefront and is all the stronger for it. Another thing that I appreciate about Propaganda, here and on his previous efforts, is that he confronts reality head on. Instead of suggesting, as a lot of Christian music does, that God will be there once we’ve “escaped” from the world, he asserts that God exists in the midst of everything, good and bad. I think that shows up lyrically on “Crimson Cord,” “I Ain’t Gave Up on You Yet,” and “I Don’t See It.” The lyrics on Crimson Cord are, as usual, excellent. What songs did you find the most powerful lyrically?
B.I.C.: Lyrically, I really dig Lee Green’s verse in “Redeem” talking about his pastor/doctor father who was neither a counselor/healer nor a father to him when he up and left him and his mom. I think that is one of the best examples of theology and life experience compressed into a profound poetic verse from the album. Though in a larger sense, I think that Crimson Cord maintains the lyrical humility of Excellent. Propaganda has a way of calling out the reality of difficult situations (calling a spade a spade) while not pretending to have THE ANSWER outside of the person and work of Christ. I think that is where he has always shined.
Carl: And, on Crimson Cord, I think that is most evident on “Three Cord Bond,” where he tackles issues of ethnicity and race with a lot of nuance. It’s unusual, in America at least, to see any kind of nuance when it comes to issues of racism, and I really respect how Propaganda deals with it from three different perspectives on “Three Cord Bond.” Now, we come to a bigger thematic question: what does the “crimson cord” represent?
B.I.C.: As far as the larger theme, I looked up the crimson cord as a Biblical concept and found a Catholic website that had a good key to the meaning behind the album. Talking about Rahab, the site says the crimson cord remind us: “that God works wonders with unlikely prospects.” It seems to me, most explicitly in “Tell Me Yours,” that Propaganda is looking back on his life—and asking us to do the same—and considering all of people, both friend and enemy, that led us to a deeper understanding of God and our place in the world.
Carl: What I think is really cool about how Propaganda uses the “crimson cord” is how he both suggests that the past should not control us, but that we can’t try and run away from it either. “You Mock Me” is a particularly telling example of that approach to our past mistakes and successes.
B.I.C.: Yeah, no doubt. I was struck by a recent interview of Propaganda by Christ and Pop Culture, he mentioned that the idea behind the Crimson Cord idea is to foreground the value of every interaction we have with people in our lives. These interactions, whether positive or negative, are part of God’s grand tapestry of each individual’s life and of the grand cosmic narrative of redemption as a whole. Because each person is an image bearer, their appearance in our life is no mere coincidence or mistake. There is a reason, often ones we can’t see. But they are there to bind us, to tie us.
Carl: That’s a beautiful idea that I often forget. Sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis and the concepts in “The Weight of Glory.” One more big question: we’ve talked a little bit about where Propaganda fits in the Holy Hip-Hop scene, but where do you see this album fitting in mainstream hip-hop culture? Or can it fit there?
B.I.C.: As far as where Propaganda would fit in hip-hop writ large, that is a difficult question for me. No matter how much I try to see the Holy Hip-Hop guys in light of the larger hip-hop movement as a whole, I still, in my mind, isolate them from “real” hip-hop. Maybe it’s because most Holy Hip-Hop is, like we talked about before, so bent on pushing the message that they end up not paying attention to the art and making good art first. Then, I counter myself in the ongoing argument in my mind, as a large majority of hip-hop has pushed a political rhetoric (i.e. Nation of Islam, Black Panthers) or a religious rhetoric (true Islam, or watered down, prosperity-tinged Christianity) so, how is the hip-hop of the sub-genre of Holy Hip-Hop any different? At some level, I don’t think there is a difference. I think I tend to grade them harder because I am a Christian and I believe, generally, what they believe and because I love the art of hip-hop and a lot of Holy Hip-Hop’s output, with my bias in tow, feels forced, not transparent.
Carl: I totally agree with you on the Holy Hip-Hop scene. There are artists and tracks I really dig, but I rarely find an entire album as engrossing as albums from artists like Kendrick Lamar, The Roots, or even Kanye. I am a bit mystified as to why this is, as I don’t think being a person of faith should limit your ability to create beats. I was listening to Late Registration the other day in my car and thinking about your email, and I was just blown away by how much better it sounds than anything I’ve heard from Christian hip-hop. And Kanye isn’t even that good of a rapper, especially on Late Registration. If someone with Propaganda or Lecrae’s flow could get a really, really solid producer, they could be awesome, and probably wouldn’t have to “water down” the message, but just express it a bit more creatively.
B.I.C.: I think that is where Propaganda comes in, because he is so transparent and puts his faith and theology in a broader perspective, he is able to capture some of the beauty of hip-hop in general. It doesn’t hurt that he intentionally does spoken word pieces which separates him both in the Christian rap and secular rap games. Admittedly, I would like to see what Propaganda could do in the hands of a major hip-hop producer. I appreciate what Courtland Urbano and the Humble Beast guys do, but their production is nowhere near the quality of, say, J Dilla, Madlib, Prince Paul, etc. The art of making hip-hop music (JUST the music) is still, in my opinion, a glaring hole in Holy Hip-Hop. Final thoughts on Crimson Cord?
Carl: Ultimately, I think this is a strong album and Propaganda is an artist that I really respect. It’s difficult to make Christian music that doesn’t suck or pander to one theological faction to garner listeners. I never feel like Propaganda is trying to force anything on anyone; although, I’m sure some from more conservative/fundamentalist backgrounds may not like his takes on race. But he challenges without offending, and always keeps grace in the forefront. That’s really all I can ask for from an artist: give me a chance to think and continue to reveal the depths of God’s grace in this world.