Talented Xth is Sho Baraka’s first release as an independent artist, at least under his own name. He was part of High Society Collective a little over a year ago, which was one of the best releases I’d heard in a long while, and still gets time coming through my speakers. He released a small project called Hello Revolution (or was that the listed ‘artist’ name?) between then and now, but for the most part, we’ve simply been waiting. Sho left Reach Records, stepped out, created excellent music with many people, and now has to prove he can still make decent solo albums.

In short, this is Sho Baraka’s strongest album.

Let me clarify that, though. Sho comes out of the gate strong on nearly every front: sonically, lyrically, emotionally, topically, and, well, in terms of the actual language. But we’ll get to that. When I say this is a strong album, I mean it. There’s nothing weak on display, plain and simple.

Sho Baraka has never sounded better here, and some people will probably hate it.

Let’s talk style for just a moment. The album has stand-out production, and draws a lot of influence from Kanye West. Vocally he doesn’t sound too much like West (Swoope ends up in that category more often, anyway), and at least one person has compared him to Common. Throughout, Sho sounds like he is at home with the beats: this isn’t just familiar territory, it’s a place he can rest, for the most part. That isn’t to say he is laid back; I simply mean that it is clear that Sho made the majority of the decisions, so it never feels like a song is ‘forced’ because ‘you need to have this sort of song on this sort of album.’

From a lyrical point of view, well, here is the controversy. In case you haven’t heard the album yet, or read any of the myriad of opinions that I’m sure will be spreading throughout the community, here’s the brief recap: Sho Baraka’s album could very well have an ‘explicit’ label on it, though that’s primarily for one track. The song “Jim Crow” contains the word “n*gga” in the chorus and “b*tch” in the final verse. (It is worth noting that Suzy Rock’s verse on this album, on a separate track, also uses the mild expletive ‘ass,’ though I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it, nor do I think it really needs much discussion; it doesn’t bother me, but know it is there). What I think many will miss in the track is the message, which may feel ‘bogged down’ by the language itself. “Jim Crow” is an anti-racism song, plain and simple, and expresses frustrations that people don’t realize racism is still happening. I said it in our Dual Impressions review, and I’ll say it again here: anyone who says racism is a good thing is a very bad person. The message Sho’s conveying is important, and I absolutely agree with it.

The question for everyone, however, is the methodology. I won’t detail my thoughts too closely for this review (though I’ll likely write them elsewhere), but here’s my brief version: I’m hesitant with the use of this sort of language in a public platform, primarily for the witness we are to have to the world. But I’m not willing to condemn Sho for this decision: it’s one I haven’t made, and one I probably wouldn’t make, but one I can understand.

Let me say this again, just to be clear: I’m not going to suggest to you here that Sho Baraka made a mistake writing, recording, or releasing the song “Jim Crow,” even though I would not have done it that way.

On to other points of the album, which I think should get more time, though they likely won’t in many people’s minds. Highlights of the album include, well, just about every track on the album, save “Mrs…” and “ME!” The former’s beat is bizarre, and while Sho says great things that he should say, it isn’t a track I’d find myself going back to anytime soon. The latter track features Lee Green and Theory Hazit, both artists that I love to hear. The lyrics are solid here, from everyone, but something about the beat just didn’t live up to the rest of the album. Some will love it, but it ends up falling a bit flat for me. I keep going back to it for the lyrics, but am not a huge fan the overall sound.

That said, the rest of the album is excellent. “Ali” sounds at times critical of the trend in Christianity (especially hip-hop) to run from greatness under the guise of humility. I get the sense that some will be uneasy (I recall many complaining about Swoope’s ‘bragging’ about lyrical ability on the High Society Collective album), but I think Sho’s on to something here.

“Madoff” will push against fiscal conservatives: the track addresses economic disparity, and Sho is candid with his frustrations with the rich. Occasionally biting, but always passionate, the track deserves more thought than I have been able to give it so far, and I’ve been listening to the album for nearly a month.

“Cliff and Claire” probably would have driven me nuts at the beginning of the album. The track starts off relatively cheesy, in my opinion, and immediately turned me off. But by this point in the album (nearing the end), I had grown to trust that Sho was going to do something good with the track. I was proven right, and grateful for it.

I’ll sum up here, because I could talk about this album for a long time:

This is Sho Baraka’s strongest release. With few missteps, the album deserves to be listened to. It will cause controversy, but I want to make one thing clear: sometimes it can be easy to disagree with someone for their message, or perhaps their methods, but in this case, regardless of my conclusion, Sho Baraka’s earned my respect.