Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: A Hip-Hop Road Not Taken

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I've already written that I think P.M. Dawn is one of the great, underappreciated groups of the 1990's. They're nearly 20 years removed from their only #1 hit, "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss," which sampled "True" by Spandau Ballet and rode in from left field with new age philosophy, a nonviolent hip-hop influenced by De La Soul and smooth R&B. Their future albums would leave rap more or less behind, but Of the Heart, Of the Soul and Of the Cross was definitely a rap album, albeit one unlike anything released in the years to come. They're hippies, and noteworthy because there really weren't any other black hippie acts in the hip-hop scene at the time. And there still aren't.

Because of their album titles, (their third album is titled Jesus Wept, rating: 75, and the fourth is titled Dearest Christian, rating: 80 -- a reference to the name of the lead singer's son), and the lyric in the album intro, "I wanna say what's up to God," P.M. Dawn is sometimes considered a Christian rap group. They are undoubtedly Christians. But the Christian themes in their music tend to be muted; most of the time, they're much more psychedelic new age new wave than overtly Christian.

Technically, Prince Be is a better singer than a rapper. He likes to ooh and ahh his way through song intros, his voice is breathy rather than forceful, and his lyrics are denser semantically than syllabically. (The opening lines to "Paper Doll": "Imagine yourself as a link on a chain, the chain is wrapped around someone's mind/If you break off, then things start to change. And then you realize that there's no time.") Unlike the spare, jazzy beats of other socially conscious groups like Tribe Called Quest, DJ Minute Mix's production is dense, synthesizer-heavy, and often moves in the major-key direction of dance electronica.

It's not surprising that they had few chart smashes, considering how hard it is to describe their style. Allmusic.com called it a "combination of classic silky soul, trip-hop, psychedelia, and pop," which comes close -- except that, of course, they were ostensibly a rap group. "Of the Heart, the Soul, and the Cross" didn't sound like anything on the radio at the time, and it still doesn't, but they proved remarkably adept at writing songs that fit the mold: pensive, thoughtful, meditative, spiritual lyrics with frequent sung breaks layered atop lush, dense beats. "Set Adrift" may be their commercial high-water mark, but Of the Heart has a number of strong songs, including the single "Paper Doll," "On a Clear Day," and "The Beautiful," which grabs a line from the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man": "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" Harder-edged tracks like "Comatose" and "Shake" aren't bad, but they feel like conscious ploys to get club play, and Prince Be just doesn't sound mean enough to take on sucker MCs.

Heard today, the album sounds like a time capsule from a more expansive era, and it stands the test of time. It's one of the beautiful albums.

Rating: 90

Cross-posted on Remingtonstein.