Magic: Blanc et Noir starts off with a narrator telling us of the constant battle between light and darkness and between love and fear. She reminds us that these contrasting forces are what help us make a balanced journey of self-discovery and growth. I’ve been following John Graham for some time now and that sounds like a perfect description of his music.
He always delivers songs that touch on a variety of topics and issues. It is clear that he hopes to wake us up as listeners. The second track is appropriately titled “Alarm Clock” and in it, he raps, “Instead of me asking you to wave your hands / or being in the club trying to make you dance / I want you to take a moment and create a plan / cause this could be the last time to take a chance / So wake up.”
We need lyrics like this in hip-hop, lyrics that foster thinking and can actually inspire us to get up and do something. Too many songs these days glorify a party lifestyle and pretty much tell kids that their only responsibility is to have fun and forget everything else. That’s one of the reasons I find this album refreshing. The lyrics actually mean something and John Graham delivers them without irony.
The third track on the album is called “Ready or Not.” I could actually visualize Shade Cobain hitting buttons on his Akai MPD 24 as the sample starts again and again on every beat. It’s a technique that some producers use to build tension and start off a track with a bang. But Shade Cobain uses it a little bit differently as the sample changes pitch in a nice pattern. The sample never really kicks in. Instead, the drum pattern blends into this intro and forms the backdrop for the chorus.
The chorus snaps, “Are you ready or not? / Are you willing to stop / anything that is not / pushing you to the top? / We only got a small window of time / to execute the plan / while the planets align. / Are you ready or not?”
A vocal sample is scratched throughout the chorus but stops when John Graham starts spitting the verse. He drops a lot of knowledge on this track and almost all of it is quotable. I want to share one verse in its entirety with you because he touches on some great content here. He really is giving us food for thought.
“Did you know that the mass media is owned by only 6 companies?
So what you see in your homes
when you’re watching television and you think you’re alone
they’re right there in your living room creating a clone
but not you, cause if ya listening
I know that you’re different
You see the ignorance without a coincidence
Get out of bed today and rip up your resume
Know there’s a better way by not living in yesterday
You are not defined by your title at work
You’re not the car that you drive
You’re not the style of your shirt
You’re more that what you acquire
’cause all the things that you got,
won’t answer one simple question,
Are you ready or not?”
This is definitely my favourite track on the album. It is inspirational without being preachy. The beat is catchy and the chorus begs you to sing along.
John Graham always strives to have his music be about something. He’s not content with just showing lyrical prowess, but fortunately he has a great flow and delivery. The messages continue on the following track, which I’ve featured on the podcast last month. “Uncivil Rights” is produced by Mr. Mad Flow and I love the soulful vocal sample he uses to construct the beat. And I also like the subject matter John Graham covers on this one too. He touches on issues of racism, racial profiling by police, and the financial inequalities in society.
I can certainly relate to “All I’ve Got.” Graham talks about how he has a hard time making ends meet. He does some double time rap here as well. He mentions how he got into debt as a student. ‘You paid for undergrad / but now I owe you back. / You got your hand out / every month you want like half a stack. / What kind of math is that? / when take home after tax / is not enough to cover half of that can keep a habitat.” He goes on further to say that credit card companies take further advantage of students. “Gave me credit as a student / I was dumb enough to use it / wasn’t interested in interest rates / you know that I was clueless.”
Hopefully students are listening and can be smart about credit. I know that we don’t teach students about this kind of stuff, and even if we did, post secondary education is expensive. Many students are paying back loans for years and years afterwards. I know I am. The message of this track goes beyond the “broke man rap” that a lot of independent artists talk about on their tracks. It really is refreshing to see a rapper address some of the reasons he is broke too and it’s not simply because he smokes, drinks, and spends all his money on studio time, promotion, and touring.
The soundscape for “Not in Love” is provided by the late-great J. Dilla. The soulful vocal sample and the laid back groove are the perfect terrain for John Graham’s rhymes. After listening to John Graham for a while, and even if you had not been familiar with him before now, by the time the ninth track comes along, you believe him when he says, “I do what I do for the benefit of the listener.” He shares that “the plan has always been to raise the standard of your stereo.”
Conscious lyrics, dope beats, a nice flow, this album has it all. It’s credited as being his farewell album but hopefully, it won’t be the last we hear of John Graham.
Magic: Blanc et Noir is out now on Ego Free Music