Reviewed by: BWD
Good to Great, the classic Jim Collins management book, sought to explain the difference between companies that succeed and fail over the long run. Central to Collins’ book are the dramatic improvements that “great” companies made to their previous strategy and execution, leading to long-lasting success where others fail.
Why would I mention some pop-management in a hip-hop article? Because just like Collins, Stephen the Levite figured out what it takes to go from good to great. The Last Missionary, his latest work, is a bona fide masterpiece. Hopefully, through this review, you’ll understand what Mr. Levite did to take his craft to the next level.
StL is rightly known as a backpack hip hopper through and through. Unfortunately, backpacker rap is known way more for great lyrics than holistically enjoyable music. And that’s the first big change in Last Missionary versus his previous projects. He not only says dope things, he sounds dope while doing so. Compared to his previous LP, To Die is Gain, the vocals are are-tight and crisp each way through. No longer will you have to struggle to try and hear the words that form his incredibly complex rhyme schemes. Everything comes in just about perfect. In the same vein of excellence, the instrumentals are delicious ear candy. From the groovy “Voltron” (yes, that Voltron); to the emotionally moving* and sample-driven “Beauty & the Beast”, his beat selection includes more depth than ever before. The instrumentals never get too bare-boned nor too hard to digest, giving StL a perfectly proportioned plate to serve his lyrical goodness.
Speaking of the lyrical food on said plate, you can see another way StL has grown dramatically. His lyrics and wordplay on To Die is Gain and his EP, The Appetizer while strong, are sometimes, (dare I say) too complex? The fine line between esoteric wordiness** and weighty well-crafted lyricism is a hard one to consistently hit. He finds that sweet spot on Last Missionary. Gorgeously planned wordplay expertly crafted into song. Amazingly, StL performs all sorts of gymnastics, routinely varying between multiple flows and rhyming the same sound the entire way through. Levite continually reminds us he’s in the conversation for best lyricist in the game.
Lastly, the best and most important leap forward in Last Missionary is his seamless unification of the majority of his songs behind a single theme. Whether poetically crafting love songs for his wife (“S.O.S.” feat Wes P), amping up with his Redeemed Thought partner-in-rhyme muzeONE about community (“Fight Club”), or simply sharing his issues (“Temptation”)–the purpose of the Last Missionary is always in view. That forces the question– Who is the Last Missionary? I won’t spoil that for those that haven’t listened yet–but once you figure it out on your own time, you’ll want nothing more to join this proverbial Missionary in everything She’s been called to accomplish.
There’s not much more to say, this album is a tour-de-force in every conceivable way. Any critiques? In theory, sure–but I can’t find one. I dunno, maybe you will? Probably not, though. Tremendous from front to back, all hip hop fans will enjoy something about the The Last Missionary.
Artist growth is a beautiful thing.
*I love good instrumentals, don’t get me wrong, but beats usually don’t move me. This one did. Props to Tee Wyla for the incredible work.
** Believe me, I’m not lost on the irony of using the word “esoteric” to describe a rap album. That’s so esoteric of me, or something like that.