by Sam Robinson
Less than two years since the release of his wonderful Minorville album, Derek Minor (formerly PRo) has returned with a sixteen-track epic named Empire. This is one big album, calling in such producing heavyweights as GAWVI and Dirty Rice; and a slew of guests including Tedashii, Lecrae, Canon, and Colton Dixon.
As one would expect from Derek, Empire crosses all sorts of musical territories to construct a record of creative live arrangements, held together by some challenging storytelling.
The album opens with cinematic pomp. Intro takes us into a middle-eastern space with a rich orchestral sound, and some big drum beats and handclaps. It moves into All Hail the King (ft. Deraj & nobigdyl.), a number with big intensity. It’s a song of praise, all about our God, set to this filthy grinding beat. The words put us in our place, pointing to Jesus, the real king, who has saved us from our own flesh and sin.
The title track challenges what we usually spend our time bragging about. The production from Derek and Black Knight is wonderfully cool, mixing Traneshia “Truth” Chiles’ warm vocals with piano. ‘And now you’ve given us a new beginning. You placed us high above and nothing’s bringing us down. This is our empire.’ Lead single Who You Know is brutal in beat and delivery, full of staccato and trappy rhymes. The song questions the authenticity of believers and shows our need to point to Jesus, the true perfect human. ‘It’s all about Jesus. He got a people that he been redeeming. The world is so tired of the fake so they look for the real.’
Babel 1 is a gorgeous interlude that comes as a bit of a surprise straight after the intensity of Who You Know. Rachel Kate sings some words of truth, that we build our own kingdoms but need to hand these over to Jesus. He needs to be king. Not us. The message is reinforced on Kingdom Come, which to me is the high point of Empire. Over a soul-filled, scratchy arrangement from yesteryear, Derek tells a story about the stupidity of building an empire for ourselves here on earth, which can’t take with us when we die. It’s the storytelling that Derek does so well (see Homecoming, from Minorville) and the production from Anthony AntMan Wonder Reid is on point.
Slow Down (ft. Tony Tillman & Tedashii) is dark and clubby, with an injection of trap. It’s a warning to slow down and take stock, referencing the ‘chasing of wind’ as Solomon writes about in Ecclesiastes. Life is to be enjoyed, but without knowing Christ it’s just a fleeting exercise. This idea is continued on Save Me, where it’s shared that while everything might be crumbling around us – whether it be riches or possessions – only God can save us. We can’t even save ourselves! This is a very transparent song for Derek, and quite moving. I hope people hear this track and realise that God is greater than anything our world can offer us, and his salvation is the most important thing we need.
As much as I love Empire, it does sag slightly in the middle. Fly (ft. Colton Dixon) is a sweet radio-ready CCM hit, but it doesn’t quite fit with the sound of the album to this point. The same can be said for Oceans, which follows immediately after. There are some smooth summer vibes on that track, but it just seems out of place, both in style and thematically.
The heat is turned up however on Right By My Side (feat. Chad Jones, Anthony Evans Jr.). GAWVI has produced this tight, 80s-infused piece that again shows the silliness of building our own empire without God being involved: ‘What’s a castle without you in it? It ain’t nothing.’
The final two tracks bring the record home in style. Party People (feat. Social Club) is another track that feels out of place – more like it should have been placed as a bonus track – but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
And album closer Until the End of Time (feat. Lecrae & Canon) is a strong five-minute finish with some quality guests. It wraps up the empire theme of the record, and shows that things have switched.
Empire is a very strong album. While I felt as though it misfired a few times, it’s a record that challenges the way we view our world, our intentions behind the way we live, and throws back to some important pieces of scripture: Babel, Ecclesiastes, the parable of the rich fool, the prodigal son, and of course, the glorious hope of the gospel that sets us free from sin, and allows us to be part of God’s kingdom forever, inheriting riches beyond what this world could offer us. It’s challenged me to reconsider whose empire I am building – is it mine, or God’s? – and make a change.
I’m giving Derek Minor’s Empire three-and-a-half stars.