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Monday, January 30, 2006

First review, so why not a double?

No introductions, let’s just get right into it.

Okay, so maybe I’ve jumped onto the bandwagon a little late on this one, but then again, word travels slowly to Hiram.

I was a bit perturbed when I kept hearing all this hype about a “Hasidic Jew rapper”. What? Say again? Hasidic Jew rapper. I avoided listening to it because I was sure it had to be just a gimmick, a joke. I ignored it until a couple of my friends told me about him again, and I still had no intention of him listening to him. Then, on a whim, I searched down some songs by this guy named Matisyahu that everyone was talking about. I didn’t expect much.

Sometimes, I absolutely love being wrong.

Matisyahu, who is actually a Hasidic Jew dancehall artist (which is a form of reggae music that incorporates rapping, hence why my friends called him the Hasidic Jew rapper) is exactly what popular music needs. In this day and age of ours, when musicians are too lazy to name their songs properly and can only play the same derivative music with only enough innovation to make the music press fawn over them, Matisyahu is a breath of fresh air. God bless his rabid and devoted fanbase, of which I seem to be becoming a member.

So here’s the deal. You’ve got this Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch Hasidic Community in Brooklyn, he looks the part, speaks the part, he’s the real deal. Now, he decides to make music, with that image, and the kind of music he wants to make is reggae rapping. There’s no profanity in his lyrics, no wild and suggestive themes, nothing that shocks you into listening (other than being different), he sprinkles his singing with Hebrew and Yiddish, and in fact, his music’s main focus is on religion and spirituality from the point of view of a Hasidic Jew. Now here’s the kicker:

It works.

On his debut, the mystically titled Shake Off the Dust…Arise, Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, storms out with his own musical battle-cry that, while being distinctly Jewish, would no doubt be endearing to even those who aren’t religious and don’t care about religion. The reggae music is vibrant and keeps the beat going, but it’s Matisyahu’s singing that really shines. His voice isn’t just a vehicle for delivering lyrics, it is its own instrument. Even when he doesn’t seem to be singing any words, you can hear and feel hope, humility, prayer, and yearning in his words.

“Warrior” feels like it sounds; epic, as Matisyahu sends his message to each and every one of us, that “You’re a warrior fighting for your soul”. “Tzama L’cha Nafshi (Psalm 63:2-3)” is that song you’ve always wanted to hear, the moving religious song that doesn’t sound trite or saccharine. It is, as the title suggests, the 63rd Psalm, but it’s never sounded more beautiful. It is a song of religious yearning from one of G-d’s chosen people. The song segues into “Got No Water”, a rousing reggae song that nonetheless recounts to us the truths of the Torah. It’s hard for me to find fault with the debut, but if I were to make any complaints about it, it would be that the interludes feel more like an interruption and can mangle the flow of the album. However, thanks to Matisyahu, Old Testament study has never been this much fun.

That’s the key word: fun. As spiritually heavy and an absolute gem for the ultra-literate and Religious Studies majors that this album is, it still retains the most important element. It’s just fun. It’s a joy to listen to. This isn’t an album for music snobs that like to appreciate the technicality music, this is an album that reminds us that music has the power to move us to intense feelings of joy and sadness, to life us up from where they are, and just be an absolute blast that anyone can love.

Which brings me to Matisyahu’s second album, Live at Stubb’s.

Wow.

The performance starts slow, with a new song called “Sea to Sea” before it goes into “Chop ‘em Down”. There’s nothing impressive at first, because while it has the same essence as the debut, it sounds like how it would sound live, nothing much to write home about. Then things pick up with the live version of “Warrior”. It’s just as epic, but being live gives it a greater sense of urgency, and it’s here that you begin to hear the power of Matisyahu live. That culiminates when he starts speaking to the audience, talking theologically, but never talking down to them. That’s what makes Matisyahu so great. Being utterly earnest in your music, you can touch people, especially when you’re not trying to tug heartstrings or anything like that. Matisyahu creates some of the most spiritual music I have ever heard because you can hear the mysticism behind his words and the utter honesty with which he sings and speaks them.

And we’re only on the third song. It just keeps getting better, escalating in energy. “King Without a Crown”, while still a great song on the debut, gets a whole new life on the live album, and blows away any doubts I’ve had about him. It’s punchy, endearing, moving, and completely energetic. The song, the live rendition, has been climbing the charts, and with good reason. The message one is a good one too, one that music could use more of, as Matisyahu extols us to check our egos and make room for the healing powers of God’s love. If only music was as rousing as this is.

While this is the album’s high point, it never lets go of the energy that “King Without a Crown” establishes. Another standout is “Beat Box”, when Matisyahu plays a song that he learned from his neighborhood, and beatboxes to it. Yes, a Hasidic Jew beatboxing. File it under ‘Now I’ve heard everything, and I’m glad I did’.

I’ve praised these two albums a lot, and I mean it, they are that good. The hype is right, and we can only hope that Matisyahu continues the steam he has generated for his next album, due out in March.

Jesse’s rating:

Shake Off the Dust…Arise - A+

Live at Stubb’s - A

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