The great thing about having an eponymous blog is that Ethan Renoe gets to write about whatever he fancies on EthanRenoe.com, and today that means writing my first ever album review! I’ve been following Heath McNease ever since he teamed up with veteran rapper Playdough for their equal parts marvelous and goofy The Gun Show and heralded himself “The most PG-13 Christian Rapper.” Today, Heath sent me his upcoming album, Be Clean Again, which will be released on March 8th, and after giving it a couple spins, here are my initial thoughts.
It bears mentioning that I’ve been a huge Heath McNease fan for several years, and one thing I’ve consistently admired is his ability to smoothly vacillate between hilariously goofy (à la “Bounce House“) and intensely personal (the best of his melancholy raps easily being “Groundhog Day“). He seems to pop out albums the way I squeeze books out: One or two a year and it’s hard to keep up!
My favorite work of Heath’s, though, must be his theologically rich sister albums with each track based on a book by C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Of these, one song made it onto three consecutive years of my playlists: “‘Til We Have Faces,” dense with humble supplication and theological wordsmithing, this song has brought me to the verge of tears more times than most I’ve ever heard.
McNease has also ventured into more folksy acoustic work, but in my opinion, the best results emerge when he marries the two worlds into an acoustic/rap/pop hybrid, and this is exactly what we see him do in his latest album. The early release, “Cross My Heart” sees Heath asking questions perhaps bigger than his previous, less-mature raps, such as what makes a good man (Despite the fact that every time I hear it, I expect the chorus to sing, ‘cross my heart and I cross my eyes), and can we be free from shame? This song alone wrestles with depravity, forgiveness, self hatred and the endless striving after righteousness which exhausts all believers, and if that’s not intriguing for a curious listener, I don’t know what is.
The sultry “Call Me” alternates rapid fire, beautifully metered bars against a feverishly slick chorus. The fluorescent “Believe” allows McNease to experiment with new sounds which echo some sort of marriage between Kirk Franklin and John Bellion all beneath verses wrestling with doubt and faith: “I just wanna feel some nail scars/hearing secondhand is for the foolish so let me see it for myself, God.”
This album excited me because, just like nearly ever blog post I’ve ever written, it attempts to marry the truth of Christianity with the realness of life. We hurt people and wrestle with guilt (“Needles”), we daily conflate real relationships with follower numbers and fame (“No Victims”), and loved ones often get sick (“Chemo Limo”).
Several of the songs seem to reflect a maturing rapper who has been in the game for a while and isn’t about attention-grabbing gimmicks, but pours out meaningful pontifications over original soundscapes. McNease’s penchant for paradoxical rhymes is in full force, and put to good use here, expressing struggle over swagger; faith over farce.
By no means does maturity equal a relinquishing of fun and goofiness, but that’s exactly what McNease is demonstrating on his latest. As indicated by the title of the album itself, fewer jokes are to be found here on Be Clean Again, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.