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At the end of “Garvey,” the second track on his 2014 album “Eyes Watching God,” the Dorchester-based rapper Reks includes a snippet from a speech by the Jamaican Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. “You can shackle the hands of men, you can shackle the feet of men, you can imprison the bodies of men,” declares Garvey, to rising cheers. “But you cannot shackle or imprison the minds of men.”
The moment is a turning point, a signal of things to come. “Garvey” functions in part as a back-patting introduction for Reks and producer Hazardis Soundz, and while the song—which includes a cheeky hook and verses from rappers N.O.R.E. and Saigon—makes mention of Malcolm X, Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., there is little pause for reflection. With the Garvey speech, Reks—who performs at Church of Boston on Nov. 6— shows he is not merely name-checking or making facile historical references. Rather, he is priming his audience, setting the scene.
And indeed, free thought and freedom from oppression are enduring themes throughout “Eyes Watching God,” which clocks in at a generous hour and nine minutes. The album, which loses some focus in the second half, is densely literate, deftly rhymed and deeply felt. The title evokes Zora Neale Hurston’s great Harlem Renaissance novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and Reks toys adroitly with open-eyed imagery, sometimes pointing his gaze heavenward, other times toward the earth. But the act of looking to a higher power is portrayed as fraught, if not entirely futile; instead, Reks searches for meaning in the work of great thinkers, and within himself.
Reks, who grew up as Corey Christie in Lawrence, has always been a verbose rapper with a surfeit of ideas. Over the course of his 13-year-long career, he has developed a fuming, garrulous flow. He began to hit his stride with 2008’s “Grey Hairs,” which ushered in a prolific period marked by personal contemplation and an evolving political awareness. Then 2011’s boom-bap-inflected “Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme” was nominated for a Boston Music Award; 2012’s “REBELutionary” marked the beginning of a more cerebral style. “Eyes Watching God” continues in this vein, digging deeper into Reks’ preoccupations—racism, religion, mortality—and excavating them with the tools provided by history and activist thought.
On the cover of “Eyes Watching God,” Reks is depicted as half Nazi SS trooper, half Dalai Lama, a striking image that seems to allude broadly to lyrical motifs around violence, enlightenment, and religion. The rapper is particularly influenced by the 20th century Harlem writer James Baldwin (name-dropped in “Eye 2 Eye”), who argued that Christianity’s emphasis on salvation in the afterlife only bolstered the slave system by encouraging African Americans to endure mortal suffering. Similarly, in “Free Minds,” Reks portrays religious indoctrination as a form of oppression that, like slavery, reflects a culture predicated on black inferiority: “Instead of reading scripture/ Said that when he whipped you/ It was god’s work/ Bible said a n***** must be ready to endure hurt.”
Reks picks up these themes again in ”Eye 2 Eye,” “Lesser God,” “I, Visionary,” and “Unholy,” painting the reality of black life in America as literal fire and brimstone to which religion offers no real salvation. “In the slums some will make/ Best of living in conditions with minimal space/ Literal waste/ Of an existence/ Dead eyes yearning for pearly gates/ Murder rate tripling/ Crippling faith,” he laments on “Lesser God,” a melancholy meditation on mass incarceration and urban violence.
As “Eyes Watching God” progresses, religious imagery warps and inverts; rosaries, especially, take on symbolic significance, becoming empty-yet-comforting tokens deployed with increasing irony. “Better get that good book/ Kiss your rosary and pay your tithe/ ‘Cause I was reading Baldwin ‘The Fire Next Time,’” the rapper taunts in “Eye 2 Eye,” the trappings of Christianity rendered hollow next to his ultra-literate poetry. By the end, Reks has shown that religion, like every human institution, is vulnerable to corruption, be it by a preacher in the pulpit or a rhetorically-gifted rapper.
Throughout the album, Hazardis Soundz sticks mainly to a tried-and-true recipe of chilly minor-key beats built around minimalist piano riffs and orchestral theatrics. While he provides fodder for some intoxicating hooks—the onomatopoetic percussion of “Unholy,” the eccentric, chromatics-splashed texture of “Lesser God”—he relies too often on overwrought dramatics and after a while sinks into monotony. (This might not be a setback were “Eyes Watch God” 20 minutes shorter; the producer’s tendencies set a consistent and suspenseful mood throughout.) Reks hits a false note or two, namely on “Poison,” the rapper’s confused engagement with misogyny—it’s hard to tell when he is playing a character and when he is in earnest—though he wisely gives a woman, the rising Boston-area emcee Dutch ReBelle, the last word.
“Eyes Watching God” finds its emotional center in “Martyrs,” an ode to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who founded the Black Consciousness Movement and was brutally beaten to death by South African police in 1977. “Didn’t want no black consciousness/ If you can’t kill his soul,” Reks intones in the chorus. “Africa to U.S.A. they say/ We not equal.” That the emcee draws parallels between apartheid in South Africa and mass incarceration in America may not be novel, but that he does so within the context of black consciousness is significant. In “Eyes Watching God,” intellectual engagement signifies individuals’ autonomy, and by extension, their humanity. For Reks, it produces a kind of apotheosis. Grappling with a long, traumatic legacy of racial oppression, he arrives at no easy answers, but it is this struggle, more than its outcome, that releases him.
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