Philadelphia’s Atiba Halisi is a Christian rapper with a lot on his mind. Far more engaged with what’s happening in mainstream rap culture than many of his peers, he offers what he hopes will be constructive criticism to artists on both sides of the sub/cultural divide, while simultaneously calling himself to task often enough to avoid charges of hypocrisy. His engagement with both sides of that divide serves him well musically, as the wide-ranging beat selection and non-traditional song structures of the post-”cloudrap” landscape support his deep investigations of marriage, parent-child relationships, and theological conundrums alike. Constantly fluctuating the referent of male pronouns and affectionate father-figure nicknames between God and his father, Pastor Vincent J. Stevens, Halisi’s insights on the latter two are especially interesting and serve as the main theme of The Understudy. As far as singles, though, it is the former that seems the most fruitful territory, with “Unconditional”, a love song for his wife featuring Atlanta producer Tone Jonez, a definite standout. There are a lot of great tracks and great moments on this debut album, however, some of the best of which are almost painfully Philadelphian. Obscure Rocky references and use of the word “jawn” aside, it is his lyrical references to other Philly rappers that will stand out most to rap fans: “A dreamchaser though it’s hard to stay meek/mills stay on my mind ’cause bills come every week” from “Dreams” or his salute to “everybody in the chain gang” from “Sparks”, the track that most fulfills the hard-hitting promise of single “Woosah”, the video for which dropped just before the album.
Far more than a simple Bad Boys reference, “woosah” is the pronunciation of a calming meditative breath, something Halisi advocates for himself and seemingly by extension other young people in notoriously dangerous Philadelphia, both as a survival mechanism and means of self-advancement. One of many lessons from his father(s) he outlines throughout The Understudy, it is perhaps this one that sets the theme for the rest, even when the Biblical “selah” becomes a substitute for it on “Carpe Diem”. Those moments of peace give opportunity to meditate on love, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, or God and creation, the comparison between which is made most clear on lead single “Deep”, featuring local jazz vocalist Valencia Pearl. The lush synths and tropical drum sounds of the track feel warm and welcoming, the perfect support to the lyrical focus, nicely complimented by a video shot in Coney Island over the summer:
The musically and lyrically variegated themes of The Understudy are held together both aurally and conceptually by Halisi’s strong narrative voice, one that often sounds like that of a man many years his senior. The album is a testament to the strength of his character and sense of self, as well as that of the man to whom it is so obviously dedicated. One might go so far as to say the apprenticeship is complete, as listening to these songs give a sense of knowing both men. Whether or not the elder of the two would express himself this way is a generational issue, not a conceptual one, which helps me appreciate perhaps the definitive moment of the album, when the younger sums it all up on “MastersPiece”: “why you mad? ’cause our squad praise look like the shmoney dance?”
By Dave Fox | Philadelphia Ambassador | @philosofoxthedj | Beat-Play and Music Without Labels, LLC