by Carlin Doyle
What does a journey to manhood look like in the 21st century? Where do you start, and what is the destination? What are some of the signposts along the way?
Asian American Christian hip-hop artist J. Han describes his new studio album Tower Ivory as his “journey to manhood”. The Good Fruit Co. artist paints a picture of self-discovery and personal reflection on his life, some of the issues he’s battling, and where his hope is at the end of the road.
At the centre of the album, J. Han is learning what it means to be a man of God, and all of this over a very funky arrangement.
Tower Ivory is wonderfully jazzy and soulful; every track has elements of jazz, blues, gospel, and I think maybe singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach. I can’t pinpoint an exact formula because I’m no expert, but J. Han certainly loves his bopping off beat drums, his 7th chords, laid-back brass instrumentals, and his silky smooth, extremely catchy melodic choruses, complete with backing choir.
The third track, Tired makes this clear, a wonderful song that is more gospel sounding than hip-hop. I loved how he brought these two styles together. Over a very funky set of keys, drums and a Southern Baptist call-and-response backing choir, J. Han demonstrates with his deep and silky voice that when it comes to sound on a track, less can certainly be more.
Though quite an alternative sound, it is still overall a hip-hop album, but it never enters party or trap beat territory. I respect J. Han for being true to his own musical influences and not simply throwing in a signature party song just for the sake of it.
The sixth track, curiously titled Han Solo goes further into J. Han’s personal journey, however he jokingly noted in a tweet, “I think the title has misled and disappointed some Star Wars fans”, as the song itself has nothing really to do with the blaster-wielding pilot of the millennium falcon. However, it is an excellent track!
Han Solo combines eerie synth and boom bap as J. Han shares his journey as a musician and a man. He shares, “I’m tryna be a man so rise up, to the occasion to the high call wise up, but this peter pan is really tryna beckon me to eat a couple peppers out the juvenile tree”. He recognises how difficult it is in our day and age to answer God’s call towards responsibility as a man, yet he chooses to embrace it.
Comrades (ft. NAK and Gowe) is perhaps my favourite song on the album, a funky boom bap calling on young men to be in brotherly community. He sings, “Well if you didn’t know, then surely now you know, you can share your burden with me, you can’t walk this life alone”. All three share witty verses calling on each other to support them in their walk with Christ. They recognise that in their journey as men, they simply won’t make it without each other, their brothers, and their community of God’s people. This is something God affirms throughout his Word (Hebrews 10:25).
Tower Ivory is very fun, playful and uplifting, however the lyrical content isn’t always so trivial. Thank Me Later is a sombre and beautiful reflection on God’s longsuffering love, and Growing Pains is a testimony of J. Han’s very personal experience of losing his grandmother. He describes the bittersweet grief he and his family shared, mourning her loss, yet also the joy they had knowing she was secure and safe with Jesus through her faith in him. He shares, “On funeral day could you believe it? With great pride I delivered your eulogy, and I talked about the greatness of Jesus, the sole source of your joy and your freedom”.
At the end of this story, he reaches an understanding of how God has grown him into a better man through his experiences, “I’ve realised now in the dull moments, God was chiselling my character… I gotta race like I’m trying to win the prize….I’m going through my growing pains”. This is a great summary of his message for the album.
In terms of downsides, the album is just a little bit repetitive. Every chorus is very catchy and I found myself singing along, but sometimes they played out just a few too many times. I also found myself waiting for him to add more meaning and content to his words and say something a little more substantial at times.
Still, it is an excellent blend of playful and sombre. I loved the integration of his jazz influences with alternative hip-hop. Overall, Tower Ivory is a reflective album, full of the insights of a godly young man growing in character, yet at the same time quirky and fun, and I liked the combination. I give this three-and-three-quarters out of five stars.
Tower Ivory by J. Han is available now on iTunes.