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Professional Rapper - Click to view! The recording and producing of one's own musical endeavors can be something of a two-edged sword. On the plus side, the autonomy it affords often spurs an artist on to new levels of creativity (a la Stevie Wonder's string of landmark, post-Motown albums during the '70s). On the negative end, its pitfalls include the temptation to sacrifice listenability for the sake of experimentation. And no small number of performers have been caught up in endless cycles of recording, re-recording and tweaking of raw tracks, only to watch their actual recorded output fall to near-zero (as Axl Rose and Boston's Tom Sholtz can no doubt attest). The aforementioned risks notwithstanding, Gotee hip-hop artist John Reuben has taken the short trip down the stairs to his newly constructed basement studio to record and produce his third album, Professional Rapper, on his own.

Fans of his first two recordings will be glad to know that Reuben's latest undertaking marks anything but a complete departure from that which has come before it. To be sure, Reuben's characteristic Beck-meets-the-Beastie-Boys old school aesthetic and intermittent, half-spoken stream of consciousness monologues are both present and accounted for on the new project. Likewise, entries such as the eminently joyful "Treats" hark back to the irresistibly light-hearted calls to celebration of tracks like "Run the Night" from the Hindsight record. And "Life Is Short" ("Don't call it jiggy / Call it danceable") and "Move" ("Just some wording to make me sound good / And pep up the recording") illustrate the rapper's continued oscillation between tongue-in-cheek braggadocio and self-deprecating humor.

None of this is to say that Reuben has stayed in one spot since the release of his sophomore album. "Born, Live, Strive, Succeed" is laced with a previously muted dark sarcasm that renders its treatise on materialism all the more affecting. In the same way, cuts such as "I Have No Opinion" ("Grab your picket signs / Find out what you're protesting later") find Reuben wading out into bolder, more confrontational waters. On the other side of the coin, "I Haven't Been Myself" ("There was a time when I had control / But I let it go") and the best-of-album "Five Years to Write" ("She's observant so she's seen my behavior / It's got me nervous wanting to stay away from her") show the artist turning the spotlight inward to examine his own shortfalls in both the spiritual and interpersonal arenas.

To be equitable, the Rapper record does lack some of Hindsight's endearing musical eclecticism, and its more somber lyrical thread may ward off some listeners. That said, the new album's weightier subject matter arguably points to a certain artistic growth on Reuben's part. And the narrower musical focus helps to make the third record his most cohesive project to date. Admittedly, the differences between Rapper and the first two efforts are probably too subtle to lure existing naysayers, and Reuben's decidedly old-school musical inclinations and quirky lyrics tend to place him in something of a niche market. But, as his solid and engaging most recent offering attests, it is a niche that the Ohio wordsmith continues to fill in decidedly first-rate fashion.
- Bert Gangl
February 2004
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