2013 Hip Hop Album of the Year

thepaintedman’s top 10 albums of the year is not quite ready, but this is one of them… and, by far, my favorite hip hop album of 2013. Peep the below review that originally appeared on Burnside Writers Collective.

Anyone who’s been around the Christian music scene for a little while knows of L.A. Symphony, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective that featured a rotating cast of talented MCs and producers like Flynn Adam, Joey the Jerk, Uno Mas, Pigeon John, Great Jay, and of course . . . Jason “CookBook” Soto.

Anyone who’s been around the underground hip-hop scene for a little while knows of World Famous Beat Junkies, a group of incredible DJs and turntablists from Orange County. DJ Rhettmatic has been part of the crew since day one and has performed and collaborated with hip-hop’s finest. Rhettmatic is known throughout hip-hop for his boom bap style and his creativity.

On their first collaboration together, the Phantom Menace EP, CookBook and Rhettmatic have crafted six tracks of Rhett’s hard and dope beats fitted with Cook’s spitting extremely naked and raw lyrics with his patented delivery. Phesto (Souls of Mischief) and Pigeon John join Cook on “Let’s Go” and “Accolades,” respectively. The finished product is in-your-face, thought provoking, emotional, and… well… Mr. Soto’s strongest release to date.

A major theme of the EP is where Cook fits in. CookBook raps his way through his journeys in the Christian and secular markets and his struggles in both. He has been held down for being too Christian for the secular scene and too secular for the Christian scene. He explains that his old L.A. Symphony fans have disappeared and no longer support him, but he isn’t willing to let go of trying to live a good, godly life. “Either too holy or too worldly full of sin,” Cook raps of the struggle.

“At first I thought these Christian fans would keep supporting me. But no dice, these pro-lifers aborted me!” A line from the standout track “I’m Thirsty” is but one example of Cook being open and honest about how he has felt scorned and hurt by the scene he came from. He goes on: “My online presence is at an all-time low. My fans tell me I’m dope, then suffer from Alzheimer’s bro!” Cook is honest about his frustrations in finding where his so-called supporters are hiding.

Through the lyrics of every song on the EP, it’s obvious that CookBook has been struggling with figuring out how to just be himself. As he raps about where he’s been burned and how he has had to refocus his mind, CookBook explains that leaning on God is only a small part of success. He leads off the EP warning listeners this isn’t the CookBook they’re used to. On “Accolades,” Cook and his L.A. Symphony crony Pigeon John discuss the whole story of the rise and fall of their old crew in the face of the Christian industry. On the heartfelt “In Your Memory,” he talks directly to his deceased father and the deceased father of DJ Rhettmatic, honoring what these two men did for Cook and Rhett in their lives and struggles. Each track has its own flavor, but they share a clear theme and a clear message.

“I wanted to tell a different part of my story that I’ve never spoke on before. This is the most honest, and rawest version of Cookbook yet. In these songs I go harder than I have in the past, and I don’t hold anything back. The goal was to work with a producer whose sound is different than mine, and who would draw out a different part of me. I feel we met that goal with Phantom Menace,” says Cookbook of the EP. That’s about as dead-on an assessment as you’ll find.

If you’re honest with yourself as a Christian, it’s hard not to relate to Cook. The label “Christian” carries preconceived notions about what we are and aren’t. Only when we break the chains of those constraints can we move forward and truly live the lives we are called to live. Cook explains on the EP that he truly believes the Holy Spirit called him to work harder and rely on himself more, a message that seems contradictory to the “let go and let God” mentality the Church often teaches us. However, what God asks of us and expects from us cannot be dictated by some cliché or colloquial catch phrase. We are humans and we are all different; God calls us to be so.

The Phantom Menace EP is a must listen album for fans of straightforward, honest hip-hop. If a few cuss words and/or a man being honest about struggles with his faith and his place in this world are enough to offend or scare you off, you may want to look elsewhere. The truth is not sugarcoated here in the least. CookBook is as raw and honest as he’s ever been—and it’s incredible.

Justin has been running websites since his first Geocities site in 1994, but only did he ever start covering anything of substance years later. After he stopped regularly running local concerts in Northern NJ and the greater Philly area, he knew he needed to step up his writing game if he expected to continue to get free music to listen to. He writes regularly here and at Cinapse, as well as contributing to a few other sites on occasion. He likes music, film, the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, talking about Criminal Justice, reading Intelligence Report, and his family... not in that order. His beautiful wife is far more talented than he is and his kids far more adorable... and crazy.
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