Album Review: Kwesi Arthur’s ‘Son of Jacob’ is Honest To A Fault

Posted on

The song in Kwesi Arthur’s debut album that tugs this writer the most is, coincidentally, linguistically shut off to me. The song, Adom, is the last of the 12-track album’s servings. In it, Kwesi sings in his native Twi for the most part. But there are crumbs of English here and there. Tease together these crumbs and you get the sense that they are in the service of a subject both sobering and spiritual. The phrases, “things you do for me,” “protect me,” “blessings,” and “oh Baba,” suggest an ongoing doxology: Kwesi is thanking his maker for His grace, or adom, as so-called in the rapper’s tongue. Once, Kwesi revealed in an interview that his mother wanted him to work in the gospel music genre. Adom is a song after his mother’s heart. In it, Kwesi the churchgoer upstages Kwesi the amoral HipHop act. The backup singers, lending their voices in intermittent spoonfuls, and the Friday-night church instrumentation, muster a harmonic pull that steals the ears.

“Life starts when the church ends,” Jay Z raps in Empire State of Mind (2009). With this line, Jay Z frames life as a post-church activity. Kwesi inverts the wisdom in the album and frames church as a post-life inevitability. All earthly deeds lead to the church; all the tracks in Son of Jacob lead to Adom.

SOJ is a memoir set to music, a transcription of Kwesi’s most recent thoughts and experiences. And recently, it seems he’s had some trouble keeping his eyes and hands-on one woman, as is expected of a good Christian. You wonder if this has anything to do with a tweet he made in January, where, tongue in cheek, he said he was considering rechristening the album “Ashawo Season.” Track after track, Kwesi puts his foibles — “fine girls” and all — at the mercy of public viewing and vivisection. In the opening track, Drama, he commits the sin of hubris, one of the seven cardinal sins, when he sings that “what I do for the homies, I deserve a trophy.” He seeks divine reconciliation in Paper, giving gratitude to God and acknowledging how hard it is to earn a living. The album is the diary of an inveterate sinner, one salvaged only by his readiness to go to confession.

There’s a flashback in Silver Spoon, as Kwesi recounts his days of strife in the Ghanaian city of Tema. In the same breath, he mourns his grandmother’s demise and makes an unapologetic avowal that, though life in Tema may have been rough and rustic, he remains proud of and true to his roots. As if to back his words, the entire album is produced by a kinsman, Yung D3mz, who, too, hails from Tema. Kwesi’s carries over this brutal honesty to Toxic, where, supported vocally by Nigerian pop star Adekunle Gold, he pointedly tells a lover that theirs has become a poisonous romance.

What we see is a man for whom honesty is the best policy. And though this constitutes good morals, it often makes for unmemorable lyricism. Sometimes, indirectness is the way to go, and truth needs to be hidden in a metaphor. If only so that listeners can enjoy the task of discovery. As Wilde writes in The Critic as Artist, “to be obvious is to be inartistic.” I can’t access the parts in which Kwesi sings in Twi, but the English bits are without the bon mots that you’d expect from one who’s a rapper at soul. Instead, the lines, when they are not painfully literal, are attired in pop culture clichés like, “I was on the bench / now I’m on the field,” and “ball-like LeBron.” There’s some redemption to come when he raps on No Regrets: “Young king / I want the check / I still dey rock Adidas.” It’s a passable double entendre, as a casual dig into any Reddit rap community would reveal that it’s hardly the stuff of novelty.

No Regrets is the only song where Kwesi remembers to rap. In Drake-like fashion, he sings and sing-raps in the other tracks. In Mind Over Body and Animal, where he features his brother, Dayonthetrack, it burns with an Amapiano flame. Much of the album, however, is conceived in an unchanging environment, as one too many songs come off as sonic lookalikes: bearing the same mid-tempo bounce and vocal ambition.

It’s no coincidence that there are twelve tracks in this album, standing in for the twelve sons of Jacob. But which of Jacob’s sons is Kwesi Arthur? Reuben? Judah? He certainly isn’t Joseph. Son of Jacob is not the handiwork of a dreamer. It’s the pencil stroke of an autobiographer. It is factual, in-your-face, and a decent album that officially introduces the artist to the world.