Christian hip-hop is an interesting genre. On one side of the spectrum, you’ve got your street-wise theologians, translating the truths of scripture over beats. On the other side, you’ve got artists rapping more from a Christian perspective, not that these artists are shying away from theology but their music is usually less evangelistic and didactic. Without crafting a full-fledged thesis on the state of Christian hip-hop, let me say the following: any Christian art form or medium is meant to bring glory to the Lord Jesus whether it’s a hip-hop album or a children’s book. Still, Christian hip-hop needs both ends of the spectrum. We desperately need our rappers who spit huge amounts of doctrine and we need our rappers who proclaim Christ in other means, too. As long as Christ is the center, diversity in Christian hip-hop is a great thing.

So where does Promise’s debut album, ”More Than Music,” fit in the spectrum of Christian hip-hop? First of all, this album is good. Promise possesses a clear delivery and craftiness with words, handling them more like a spoken word artist and less like your everyday rapper. Promise is certainly not that. A Toronto native, Promise knows the trappings of a misguided life in the inner city as evidenced by his desire to promote social change on ”More Than Music”.  The album is extremely well-produced and its soulful canvas, mixed with hip-hop and R&B blends, meshes perfectly with Promise’s poetic talents.

Secondly, I’m not really sure if Promise touts himself as a “Christian rapper,” he may just be a Christian who raps. But yes, I know what you’re saying, one’s faith does indeed define their identity and it certainly does overlap into all of one’s endeavors. In a nutshell, ”More Than Music” is a return to authentic hip-hop: an album that doesn’t fit in a box but delivers a message of social change and hope.

Promise’s desire to reform the minds, attitudes, and outlook of his culture is unmistakably clear throughout ”More Than Music”. Over some melodic John Legend-esque piano keys, Promise delivers a song of encouragement to young girls with “Girl,” urging them to fight through the pain of the world. Aside from its musical quality, what impressed me about this track was the fact that it refrained from be too lovey-dovey or cliché. Promise encourages young girls to strive for their dreams but he (along with Famous, Probz and John Hope) remains totally honest about the trials these young females will face. This song, and the album for the most part, also strongly benefits from an outstanding cast of guess appearances (I’ll speak more on the guest spots later).

Promise’s call for social change fuels the album’s standout tracks including “Change,” “Brotherhood,” “Could Be You,” and “Much More”. In addition, Promise opens up about past relationship struggles on “Spend Some Time” and “It Ain’t You,” two smooth tracks with enjoyable vocal performance by Melanie Durrant and Lathun.

The longest, most overt reference to God on ”More Than Music” is not really an explicit one. “True Love,” featuring Ray Robinson, serves as Promise’s testimonial encounter with a real love, presumably the love of Christ though he does not overtly say so. Nonetheless, upon pondering the lyrics, “True Love” will certainly have you rethinking your idea of love, at the least. Promise’s deliberate choice to not meet the so called “Jesus Quota” (I don’t think Jesus is explicitly mentioned once) on ”More Than Music” is curious though not entirely problematic in my mind.

What is more problematic regarding ”More Than Music” is the catalog of featured artists on the album and the conclusions that may be drawn by impressionable minds based on these guest spots. Promise enlists an incredible amount of well known talent on”More Than Music,” getting guest appearances that most artists simply can’t get unless they have a lot of cash to spend, are supremely talented, or well connected (usually a combination of the three is needed).

While, no doubt talented, some of the artists featured on “More Than Music” have past and current works that are less than wholesome, to say the least. Artists like Rhymefest, Royce Da 5’9 and Elzhi of Slum Village are some of the best in secular hip-hop but I’m afraid some may mistake Promise’s collaboration with these artists as a sealed approval of all of their music and that some young impressionable minds may go so far as to misconstrue such collabs as a sign that there is not, and does not need to be, any lifestyle distinction between Christians and non-Christians. On the flipside, as Promise maneuvers in the secular scene, his impact on others through friendship and the sharing of his faith may be profound.

At the absolute worst, some in the hip-hop culture may only hear the hope and change in “More Than Music” and equate it to President Obama not God through Christ. Let’s face it, everyone from Lil’ Wayne to Ice Cube mentions God in their music. Let’s hope listeners realize that Promise’s musical themes and lyrics point toward the God that is altogether different from the god of prosperity and bling. Promise hints at this distinction in “In God We Trust” ending his last verse with, “In God we trust was just printed on the bill/ but if it’s God we trust we should listen to His will”.

“More Than Music” is the fruit of an intelligent, talented artist pushing for social change. It’s an album that is accessible to any music fan, boasting a soulful laid-back vibe with lyrics infused with heartfelt hope for social reform. I’m typically a fan of theology laden hip-hop but this is the one album on the other side of the spectrum that has captivated my ear. “More Than Music” is just good music, plain and simple, with a message of social change that is explicit and a more implicit message of a greater hope that is larger than Promise, Toronto, or any person or place. It’s there but you have to be listening with an ear to hear.