KJ-52 New Album MENTAL
Finds Its Way To ESPN!
Besides reaching the #1 spot on the iTunes Christian charts, it hit #23 on iTunes overall Top 100. That means his song was competing against the cream of the crop from the secular industry, and still he broke into the top 30. That’s a huge accomplishment for anybody, Christian or secular.
Mental is his fastest selling album in 14 years. And, if that wasn’t enough, his song “Tonight” from the new album was selected as theme music for ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
In other words, as Ron Burgundy might say, “It’s kind of a big deal.” That’s an understatement.
According to his recent press release:
MENTAL is a project that returns KJ to his musical roots that launched him as one of the most respected names in the genre. Produced by Soul Glow Activatur (AKA Solomon Olds – FF5, David Crowder Band, Andy Mineo, Lecrae) and KJ-52, MENTAL features guest appearances by an all-star cast, including Lecrae, Propaganda, FLAME, Social Club, SPZRKT, Tedashi, KB and Soul Glow Activatur. With MENTAL, KJ hopes to instill a desire for listeners to renew their minds, to find calm in the chaos and to seek God for guidance in our daily lives.
KJ has had a fascinating career. Besides pioneering Christian hip hop and leading the way for so many artists on the rise today, he’s been given some unique ministry opportunities.
For example, in the early 2000s he penned a song called “Dear Slim,” an open letter to Eminem. Although the song caused some controversy among Eminem fans (who mistakenly thought it was a diss on Eminem), eventually a pastor with access to Eminem handed Slim a copy of KJ’s song and told Eminem that it wasn’t a diss; it was meant to encourage him, to let him know that KJ was praying for him, etc.
When Eminem’s Relapse was released a few years later, the deluxe version had a song called “Careful What You Wish For.” In the song Eminem replies to a fan who has been praying for him. Many people interpreted it as a response to KJ’s open letter.
I recently had the chance to talk with KJ over the phone. We covered a wide range of topics, including ESPN, Eminem, Old Testament prophets, the exhaustion of touring, and his new album and the message that it brings to a world gone mental:
I saw your blog post about the crazy weekend you had, how you had to play two shows after not sleeping on a red eye flight — and I hate red eyes, personally — have you recovered from all of that yet?
You know usually I can catch some sleep. I’ve caught many red eyes in my day. And for some reason this is the first one where I could not fall asleep. It’s just the worst feeling because you’re halfway there — but, no not until probably Monday did I finally collapse in a fit of exhaustion. [laughs] But I’m okay now though, thank you, man.
[laughs] Sure, and I’m glad you survived! Congratulations on getting the song “Tonight” on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Have you had a chance to catch a Monday Night Football game and hear it?
Yeah, the first one that they were doing — I think it was the Steelers and the Texans, if I’m not mistaken — we had a little Monday Night Football party at my house, and my mom came over. We didn’t know when it was going to show, and, honestly, man, with a lot of those placements there’s no telling. It could be five seconds, it could be 10 seconds, it could be a minute, it could be anywhere. We all kind of, to be honest with you, gave up. My wife is preggers so she was definitely barely holding on to staying awake. [laughs] Everybody stopped paying attention, and I looked up for a second and they were playing it, so immediately I hit record and watched the Twitter-sphere blow up on it. Yeah, it was cool. It was funny though because it was a shot of a guy dropping a pass, and I thought, “Well that sums up my eighth grade football year, so–”
[laughs] Well, that’s appropriate then.
Yeah, there ya go.
I love the EDM vibe and the big layers of synth on “Tonight,” where it just kind of swells in on the chorus — some really great moments on that song — and you also do some great singing; will the singing be something you start doing more often?
You know, honestly, it’s what the song tells me. It’s less usually about, “Oh, this is this thing I’m gonna try do this on.” I just felt like that’s what I wanted to say, and it felt appropriate to do it that way. I usually sing most of my choruses if I’m writing them. But my voice doesn’t always work on the chorus, and so sometimes it’s a matter of you writing it, recording it, and going, “Who can do this better?” But I think in that case, when it’s kind of said and done, we were just like, “Well, this kind of works on its own.” And, yeah, that’s really all it was. I don’t have that much of a thought-out plan. But, you know, like “Misfit Toys” that’s another song I did where I produced the majority of track, and I wrote the chorus and sang it, but I just did not sound right on the chorus. So SPZRKT was kind enough to re-sing it for me. And his tone is, like — it’s color palettes, you know what I mean? That’s really what it comes down to.
Right, the timbre of the sound, and so it’s like a case-by-case, really what the song calls for kind of thing.
Absolutely. Or we just can’t get anyone else to be on there. [laughs] So we go with me.
[laughs] Like, “Well, I guess it’s me.”
[laughs] Yeah, I’ve been in that situation too.
You mentioned the song “Island of the Misfit Toys.” That song brought me to tears. There was a really dark chapter in my youth, and your song spoke words of life that I could relate to. It’s so powerful. Have you had a chance to hear any testimonies from teenagers or see the reactions of youth who’ve been touched by this song?
Well, I just started doing it live. I’ll be honest, I gauge most of success whether or not it works live. I’ve started ending my show with that song, and even having the people sit down, you know, literally, saying, “Please, grab a seat.” I just felt like the content was too important to not be missed, and so it began almost like this really [effective] way to set up any sort of ministry time, and it was bigger than I — I hadn’t seen something connect like that since “Dear Slim” back in the day. And then I thought, “Man, I might be on to something,” so I did it just recently. Two things stick out. Just recently I did it at a show in Navarre, Florida, and they had a Teen Challenge women’s group there — they’re a drug rehabilitation ministry. So when I had everybody sit down, man they couldn’t sit down, they were standing up. They were like yellin’ along with it. That’s when I knew that people who had gone through a lot can appreciate it. And then I just did it just recently at a high school, and a girl came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for doing that. My brother just took his life a couple weeks ago, and I really wish he could have heard that song,” and things like that, sentiments like that really help me. That was a Christian school. I also did it at just a secular high school. So yes, I’m so excited, it’s my favorite song because of that because of the level of connection, and I look forward to continuing to rock it.
That’s awesome, it will be great to hear about more testimonies on your blog and elsewhere that come from that song connecting with people. And it seems like your career has really been motivated by the joy of reaching out to youth — and I really appreciate that because youth pastors changed my life. Is that what keeps you going every day?
I think maybe when I started it was very youth-driven. I think now the hip hop generation has grown up. I should say it’s still probably my heartbeat mainly because I think that’s when I came to Christ, at 15, so maybe that still resonates with me. Maybe because I’m just a grown up teenager, I guess. [laughs] I don’t know, I think that definitely resonates with me. But I’m starting to realize it’s such a big earth. It’s a bigger scope. It’s like looking at something with a laser focus, and then you pull back, and you realize this picture is much bigger than you thought. And that’s kind of where it’s at now. When I came in 20+ years ago, it was just different. You were relegated to youth group status because of the lack of acceptance by the older generation. But the older generation is now those kids in the youth group, so it’s a good problem.
This new album just feels very relevant to what’s happening in music right now and very fresh and interesting. That’s not easy to do. How do you keep your creativity moving forward and how do you avoid getting in a rut?
I say all the time, I think it’s an issue of as long as you look to God everything kind of works itself out. So if you stay in tune to fresh things that God is showing you, you always have a wellspring to kind of pull from that never runs out. But also, you have to stay listening to the people, and that means issues they’re going through or things that’s going on in the culture or even just the aesthetic of what hip hop is. It’s a constantly evolving genre that never sits still and it’s on to the next. So those two things I’ve just tried to keep at the forefront all these years, and also surrounding myself with people that aren’t yes men. I had a good team around me to bounce things off of, and also being willing to go, “I’m stuck on this, I need somebody else to come in with a fresh perspective,” and that’s kind of what Solomon did, in a lot of ways, on some of the songs.
Here is my random question of the day. I’ve always felt that Christian rappers have a lot in common with Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Those prophets used the art of spoken word in a very intense, aggressive way. Their words really flowed with rhythm. As a rapper — and this is a very random question — but do you ever draw inspiration from reading the Old Testament prophets?
Absolutely. Even before I was a believer, my real, my [legal] name was Jonah, and whenever I was stuck next to a Bible, I always knew there was that book I could read out of just sheer ego. [laughs] But, you know, I pull from all kinds of different things. For me inspiration comes from what I’m reading, could be something from the Old Testament, it could be something from the New, it could be a real life situation, it could my twisted sense of humor, it could be, you name it. It’s probably all those things. I’m just very much an observer of life in a lot of ways.
I love how Christian rappers work so much of the Bible into their lyrics. A relative of mine who has done pastoral ministry commented that “Christian rappers have some of the most orthodox, Biblically informed, and honest music around. Too bad churches won’t incorporate hip hop into worship services because church members would learn a lot more about the Bible than just a few isolated verses from Psalms.” [A hat tip to Tyler Bream for that quote.] Why do you think some Christian leaders and churches have so much prejudice toward rap music?
It’s probably just a generational thing. People fear what they don’t know. If you didn’t grow up on it then it just appears foreign. I mean obviously we speak in code in a lot of ways: what our slang is, what our values are, and even the rapid rate that we disseminate words; I mean obviously it’s a lot of words. It’s a wordy [laughs], it’s a wordy genre. Well, I should say, it’s not so much anymore, unfortunately. It used to be a very lyrical driven genre. And it’s easy to get distracted by maybe the dress or the look or the imagery — you know — those things. I think that’s probably what it is; it’s really just a generational thing.
But the funny thing is, to me, whatever our generational thing is, they have the same thing, just in a different form. There’s not one generation that is absent from rebelling or going against what the previous generation’s thing was. So it’s really more about perspective. It’s about looking at something from someone else’s perspective and realizing that just because it’s not your own doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
And I’ve been around not as long as some guys, but I’ve been around long enough to see the growth and the acceptance of it. So when you’re saying they should use it more in congregations, I would tell you, man, they are! I mean I have been in multiple church services where it’s incorporated or some aspect of it is incorporated–
Oh, really? Wow!
Yeah, oh yeah, definitely. And in certain situations there are full blown what you would call “hip hop churches” that have pioneered that for years.
Yeah, yeah, honestly, it just starts with the leadership. And I’ve been in churches where the leadership had nothing in common with it. But they just simply said, “This isn’t my thing, but I respect it enough to know that I want to reach people with it,” or I respect it enough to go, “I want to learn from it,” or I respect it enough to go, “Teach me.”
There’s an element of humility there, it sounds like.
Yeah. I mean, I’ve done Sunday morning services on multiple occasions — though it scares me [laughs], more than any other show.
[laughs] That’d definitely be an interesting venue to play — on a Sunday morning. Changing subjects a little — just a quick question about your history with Eminem. I really believe God used you to minister to Eminem with the whole “Dear Slim” thing, and I definitely agree that his song “Be Careful What You Wish For” was his response to your efforts to encourage him. Do you still pray for Eminem, is he still kind of a burden on your heart?
I mean, to be honest, I can’t say — to be completely transparent — I can’t say every single day I remember to pray for him. But some days I forget to brush my teeth. [laughs] So I am a flawed human being. But I mean I think when I would either once in a while see something come up with him or I would think back to those moments of the song and, you know, VH1, or MTV, or someone might remind me of the song, I can’t help but go, “God, I hope this fell on fertile ground, etc.” But it’s funny how that song, which again I wrote, man, I might’ve written it 14 years ago, is not — I don’t want to say it’s not relevant — but it’s relevant to a different generation now. Kids don’t have the same place in their heart for Eminem that, say, someone in their 20s might now because it’s almost like there’s come a divide between — I don’t want to call it adult contemporary rap, but [laughs], you know what I mean? — rappers are still holding careers into their 40s, which I never thought would happen. But the younger generation, their Eminem is Macklemore, or their Eminem is Mack Miller. It’s just changed. I’ve seen a shift in it, and I used to do that story all the time, I used to tell messages off that story, and now if I tell it to a youth group they’re kind of like, “Yeah, so?” [laughs]
Things change so fast.
Well, 14 years in the music industry is like an eternity.
Your album Mental just seems like a very timely album. In recent days, our culture has just been bombarded with nightmare after nightmare in the news, everything from Ebola to beheadings. The album has a powerful message about looking to Christ to deal with all this insanity that surrounds us. How did you arrive at that theme?
When I originally did it, I more or less had a concept, and the concept was something like, “I’m going cray cray,” or, “I’m going crazy” — it was just a phrase that I had in my head, and I thought that would translate well into a song, I thought it would translate well live. But after bouncing it off of Solomon and a couple other people there were like, man, there are multiple layers to that. And they said, don’t call it that, call it “mental.” You know, I be goin’ mental. And when Solomon shared that with me, everything made sense. The map got clear for a second. It wasn’t even until later that someone else was like, man, that’s just a picture of the world going crazy, they think we’re crazy, sometimes we feel like we’re going crazy. Sometimes you make a statement, and you don’t realize the different levels that it can live on. But sure, absolutely, now it totally makes sense. Especially when I say that right before I do the song, you watch the light bulbs just click on.
Here’s some additional information from KJ’s press release, including tour dates and his various homes on the Inter Web:
KJ-52 is hitting the road this fall primarily as solo dates where he will be sharing his new music and message. Additional tour announcements and tour dates to follow in the coming weeks.October 24 – Mount Gay-Shamrock, WVOctober 26 – Navarre, FLOctober 28-29 – Hendersonville, TNNovember 1 – Myrtle Beach, SCNovember 9 – Everett, WANovember 11 – Roseville, CANovember 20 – Bluffton, OHNovember 21 – Melbourne, FLDecember 6 – Joplin, MODecember 12 – Gladewater, TXDecember 13 – Toledo, OHKJ-52 MENTAL is available in stores and online digital outlets. MENTAL is released via the Paradigm Collective and distributed by Central South and Gotee Records digitally.Facebook: facebook.com/kj52Twitter: twitter.com/kj52Instagram: instagram.com/