Anthony Kellems likens his debut rap album, Mixmaster, to a basketball game: It starts with a pregame forecast in which announcers discuss the forthcoming album’s potential. The record is then split into two distinct sides representing halves of a basketball game, separated by a heavy metal guitar solo “halftime show”- and the back-and-forth, slow- and fast-paced tempo changes in Kellems’ verses evoke the ebb and flow of the game. Don’t be fooled, though – this is no tight concept album, a la Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Instead, it is a loosely connected series of upstart and rambunctious rap tracks that solidify the Rice alumnus (Hanszen ’05, M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’10) as one of the genre’s foremost Christian rappers. However, while God is consistently present on the record, it is done in a way that asks more questions than provides answers.
Proper opener “Called Out” appropriately “calls out” those who “say they love you,” who “stash the plastic and cash” when passing the homeless and even those who won’t “remove the auto-tune and view the lies that you groove to.” It’s not a diss track, however; instead, Kellems is calling out everyone and anyone, including himself, featuring a chorus of “Do as I say, don’t do what I do / I’m callin’ out me as I’m callin’ out you.” Stylistically, Kellems’ quick pace (e often fits in two or three times more syllables than expected) resembles Eminem, but his message couldn’t be more different- when Kellems ponders, “but still feel He’s forgotten me / Possibly an anomaly / Maybe His grace is not for me,” there isn’t an ounce of cynicism; it’s merely constant questioning and reaffirmations of his own faith.
Follow-up track “Can’t Break Us” is a guitar-driven rocker that fuses faith with the classic self-boasting bravado that remains a staple of the genre. Lines like, “Lord teach me your ways like you’re Mr. Miyagi” or “He’s gonna give you clear eyes like Ben Stein” make it the funniest track on the record, with the Christian references providing both fodder for puns and a reason for writing in the first place. “On Watch” changes direction completely, featuring slower, atmospheric, R&B inspired production, but Kellems’ deft spitting speed doesn’t relent, and the quirky couplets keep coming- “Does He hear my prayer? Anybody there? Call Bueller, Mute, words come right back to me.” Thematically, the track sees Kellems return to the questioning nature of “Called Out.” He is on watch for God, waiting for a sign and attempting to navigate everyday life in the meantime.
Mixmaster sees Kellems return to a half-joking aggressiveness that flows in and out of the record. It serves on this track to backup the emcee’s boasting description of himself as someone who can jump “on a sick track” and “open the lid back with wicked syntax.” Familiar hip-hop tropes- like regional identity- crop up on the funky groover “I Tell It Like It Is,” featuring turns like “Take a swig of this East Coast rhythm, wicked with a tinge of Southwest vision.” These are juxtaposed with an impossibly quick third verse by featured guest Nemesis, which is followed by a final verse in which the rappers trade lines and critique modern culture and hip-hop alike: “You believe contraception breeds people’s freedom / Paul VI Could foresee it’d decrease how well you treat ‘em-.”
Other times, Kellems slows his pace and tones it down a knotch, such as on “Top Dog,” where
the laid-back, bouncing bass line and sedated flow represent humbleness in the eyes of God. Kellems raps, “You can be the top dog, but you can’t top God.” Despite the weighty nature of this and other tracks, Kellems’ intellectual humor is relentless — “Isaac Newton can’t confine Him to the laws of motion / ‘Cause Christ gave us Mass, not the Higgs Boson.” Similar themes are explored on the piano tinkling “Nothin’ But A Servant,”— the closest the rapper gets to proper R&B, through its chorus, sung by both Kellems and guest Ginny Norris.
The most powerful and perhaps most controversial track on Mixmaster is “I’m Countin’ On You,” in which Kellems plays the role of an unborn child of parents facing an unplanned pregnancy. Production-wise, the piano and low-key drum track create a hollow crevice that Kellems fills with powerful imagery, such as “I’m countin’ on you Daddy, I need a good example of the masculine / An alimony check and blood sample ain’t adequate,” and “Please don’t take me out this Earth / 55 million dead before birth.” While all the record’s other tracks discuss God in open-ended, vague scenarios, “Countin’ On You,” is, through faith, a politically-charged track that could be an affirmation for pro-lifers or a deal-breaker for pro-choicers. By placing himself in the center of the action, as the unborn child in question, Kellems draws a hard line in the sand and uses a pleading, storytelling narrative to make his point. It’s likely that few are to be swayed by a rap song, but Kellems’ passion and deep belief in the subject make it a strong track regardless of its potential influence.
The basketball game that is Mixmaster ends with a post-game analysis claiming that the album was a close game but ultimately a win for Kellems — and I think the analysis holds. Had this been just a Christian rap record, it would have fallen flat. If it had just been a display of quick-spitting technical ability, it would have failed. If it had just been an album filled to the brim with “too-smart-for-their-own-good” couplets, it wouldn’t have worked. And if it had been an album that asked endless questions of society, it would have failed. But the fact that it is all of these, and even attempts to provide some answers, makes Mixmaster a successful rap record in a genre so diluted with homemade productions that no small amount of interesting material is required to stand out. Above all, the album is a course in lyrical hip-hop, and any glimpse through the lyric sheet shows the depth of meaning Kellems puts into every turn. The questions have been asked; we’ll see what answers Kellems has in store for us next.