In this encore presentation, I review Dee-1's recent EP, "3's Up," his first for RCA's Christian music imprint.
I admire Dee-1's forthrightness about his spirituality. I've encountered a number of Christian musicians who became evasive when asked about their faith, but Dee-1 owns it on 3's Up, his recent EP. Here's an encore presentation of my review of it from February. Today he plays Jazz Fest's Congo Square Stage at 12:15 p.m.
It’s tempting to not lead this review of rapper Dee-1’s 3’s Up EP with his faith. Religion and pop music have rarely been good together, and he has worked too hard to define a very specific place for himself for me to present a less nuanced depiction. Still, 3’s Up is his first release for RCA Inspiration—the label’s Christian music imprint—and Dee’s faith is central to the recordings. One track, “Sway Interview,” even provides a moment-by-moment breakdown of his spiritual awakening while a guest on the “Sway in the Morning” radio show.
Before this, Dee could be heard as simply conscientious, committed and positive. “Be real / be righteous / be relevant” sounded like a call to be upstanding more than spiritual when he first recorded the song “3’s Up” in 2012, and for the most part it still does. Dee-1 doesn’t perform as a Christian artist; he raps as an artist who’s Christian. He’s not encouraging us to walk in his path; he simply says that the path works for him. He doesn’t say it’s easy, though, and he doesn’t oversimplify anything. In “I’m Not Perfect,” he wonders how to handle women who want him:
Should I do it and satisfy my flesh?
Or make up some excuse like “I forgot the latex?”
Or do I man up and say that I can’t do it?
That I’m trying to obey the word of God?
“I’m Not Perfect” is the most overtly Christian song on the EP. More often, his spirituality informs his point of view on real world situations. He feels for the shooter and the shooting victim in “My Student Got Murdered,” struggles with pride, and presents monogamy as a fact of his life in the break-up song, “Just Go.”
This kind of lyrical breakdown might make Dee-1 sound humorless or overtly programmatic, and neither is true. For most of 3’s Up, he comes off as a guy who knows his mind, and I laughed when I first heard the knowingly corny couplet, “I’m looking at some New York cheesecake / thinking how she desserts me.”
This breakdown may also sound like the EP is so driven by concept that it’s weak or forced hip-hop—also not true. Dee’s got skills, as he has shown over the years, and they didn’t go away, nor did his love of rhyme and flow. And even though 3’s Up has a clear point of view, it’s still about pleasure first. The beats have a classic R&B vibe, and “Show on the Road” has a crazy pop hook sung by Jones over an electropop backing.
Many Christian musicians’ commitment turned squishy in the pop marketplace as anxiety over being pinned down seemed to unnerve them. The lyrics on 3’s Up suggest that Dee-1 faces the same anxieties, but perhaps hip-hop’s deep-seeded battle motif is serving him well. After fighting literally and figuratively for years, he can clearly make a choice and live with it, regardless of the consequences.