Like the society it mirrors, the music industry is hobbling in the wake of technological flux, economic freefall, and massive uncertainty. And like most of us, recording artists are spending less energy in these difficult times dreaming big creative dreams in favor of just hanging on to the bottom line.
Yet despite the tornado of unsettled dust swirling around him, hip-hop veteran KJ-52 refused to play it safe, zigged while so many others zagged, and managed to create what’s easily the most mind-bendingly ambitious project of his career, Five-Two Television. There’s certainly nothing remotely like this conceptual magnum opus in our flagging musical marketplace.
Eschewing convention and the party-line siren call of “less is more,” KJ-52 instead dives headlong into a new renaissance, boldly tackling sounds and words and ideas that at-once capture the dizzying array of galaxies in our media-drenched universe yet ultimately point to the One who holds time and space—indeed our planet, our very lives—together.
“I wanted to create a record that’s almost like a TV station,” KJ-52 explains, tipping his hand to the album moniker and its packed, 24-track menu. “We live in a completely visual society, and more and more we experience life with all of our senses and on multiple levels. The record’s really about embracing where culture’s at and the way we relate to each other because of it—so I’m running toward it and using it and letting people see themselves in it.”
If that weren’t enough to chew on, KJ-52 ups the ante by inserting among the adventurous tunes a four-act spoken-word biography starring “Chris Carlino”—a fictional character representing who KJ-52 may have become had it not been for Christ crashing into his life at age 15.
“You get to hear this guy’s story told almost like a rehab reality show,” KJ-52 explains regarding his altar-ego. “It’s kind of like his blog.”
In a sense, KJ-52 says, the songs themselves can be viewed as “commercials” for what can only be described as The Chris Carlino Story—which adds a bolstering layer to the multilayered Five-Two Television concept.
And the kicker? (What? You thought KJ-52 was done?)
Embracing the trend of electronic music sharing becoming more the rule than the exception these days, KJ-52 dreamed up the idea of awarding purchasers of Five-Two Television access to a downloadable version of the album they can give away. Why? “It’s a mix tape geared to reaching the lost,” KJ-52 says—in other words, the main record speaks into the lives of believers while the download (which contains exclusive tracks that resolve the rest of the Chris Carlino saga) is for those searching for answers.
“So, yeah, I want fans to share this album,” KJ-52 notes. “And not only that, but doing so is a vehicle for sharing the gospel—except that I’m not spouting off some five-point salvation plan...it’s being done through storytelling.”
Once the concept of Five-Two Television and Chris Carlino took root—a painstaking, sometimes painful process that involved KJ-52 literally revisiting his old neighborhood and old friends to relive what it felt like to be without Christ and without hope—the songwriting and recording came relatively fast and furious.
Teaming up again with longtime producer-collaborator Aaron Sprinkle (Kutless, Jeremy Camp, Hawk Nelson) for four tracks, KJ-52 flew from his Florida home to Seattle where the pair “crafted the album from the bottom up” off and on for two months—a major shift from mailing the music back and forth across the country. The increased face time with Sprinkle, KJ-52 says, helped get things off to a perfect start. KJ-52 handled the remaining tracks with a star cast of co-producers, engineers and musicians.
“The first song we did was ‘End of My Rope,’ and it came about after a conversation we had about how either God breaks you down, or we break ourselves down—until we’re just hanging on to a rope. We’re often very self destructive, and the only way we can begin our healing is by letting go.”
Like the lion’s share of Five-Two Television tunes, “End of My Rope” is a mixing bowl of multiple genres, KJ-52’s unmistakable MC delivery mashed against blistering hard-rock guitar and a four-on-the-floor funky beat that, together, coax the listener on the dance floor with microphone in hand while playing air guitar:
…you’re the one gonna save me / and I don’t wanna ever live safely /
destroy my world and take me / past the end of my rope, break me…
Among the catchiest tune in a cadre of hook-filled tracks is “Calling You,” which sports an electronica-drenched melody, KJ-52’s rapping, and distinctive R&B crooning courtesy of J.R. The mixture combines underneath KJ-52’s lyrics that humorously employ “text-message speak” (e.g., LOL, TTYL, etc.) as an analogy of God’s text message to us (his Word) and to show how much God wants a relationship with us. “Just like others try to get a hold of us with text messages,” KJ-52 explains. “God does the same thing with his text, the Bible.”
…now I was like LOL / you hit me with a call, but it wasn’t on a cell / I went and got ya voicemail / right at the times when all the choices failed / I was heading right towards hell, laughing like ROFL / I couldn’t even find self, but you hit me on back like TTYL…
Another track that speaks directly to a very dark aspect of our technological age is “Help Me Change,” a rapid-fire tune that poetically takes on pornography—and takes no prisoners doing so. Here KJ-52 joins forces with Pillar vocalist Rob Beckley (who serves on board of XXX Church, an anti-porn outfit) and the pair speak to pervasive struggle shared by so many, Christians and non-Christians alike. The tune came about after one line about porn in KJ-52’s previously recorded tune, “Fanmail,” opened up a flood of emails from guys and girls affected by pornography.
“I felt it really deserved a full song addressing this secret addiction/problem,” KJ-52 notes. “In the church it’s mostly ignored and yet has been a major downfall for many I’ve known. I wanted to present multiple scenarios that would hit the scope of this issue as well as put a face on the struggle that many are going through.”
…next time when the boy she’s texting / that texting turns into sexting / that sexting creates such a mess and / it leaves her mind in a state of depression / she’s blind, can’t see that the lesson / every time there’s a message she’s sending / of exposing her body her flesh and / leaves her caught in a place of deception…
The ending track on Five-Two Television is “Dear God,” which takes listeners to only One who can save and heal and renew. “This was the final song on the album because it represents the conversation that most people have with God,” KJ-52 explains. “They have doubts, fears—I wanted to articulate those struggles that most people have trying to work through the issues they face.” Thematically it’s the character Chris Carlino’s final moment of decision. “He’s struggling with how he feels, wanting to make that decision to go forward and yet is still plagued with issues of doubt and regret,” KJ-52 reveals. “I felt musically and lyrically it was the best place to end the album as it begins the next part of his chapter in life.”
Concept album. Biography. Vehicle of humor and wisdom. Sonic adventure. Mirror to culture and society. Evangelistic storytelling. KJ-52’s Five-Two Television is all the latter and more.
So by all means stay tuned…and keep the remote handy.