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Review: T.J. Reynolds, 'Purpose'

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T.J. Reynolds & the Freehand Orchestra
Purpose
3.5 stars

Indianapolis-based hip-hop artist T.J. Reynolds (and one-time NUVO contributor) is back this summer with his second album, Purpose, this time with his full band, the Freehand Orchestra, backing him up. It’s been a little bit more than a year since the release of Reynolds’ first album, Sugar on the Tongue, but if the new album is any indication, Reynolds has grown as a musician in the meantime.

For one thing, unlike Sugar on the Tongue, the new album is almost totally bereft of samples. Purpose shows Reynolds has burnt some midnight oil in the beat laboratory and come up with some hooks that, even after the first listen, will stick with you. It’s either that or the samples are so well-disguised that Reynolds still makes the beats all seem like his own.

Hear: 'Purpose' (via Bandcamp)

Although Reynolds rhymes over all of his songs, the album seems to owe as much to jazz and funk influences as hip hop. In fact it’s almost hard to call this a hip-hop album, given tracks like “Paternity,” which is, in my opinion, the album’s gem. The song opens with a slowed-down, funky bass line that lulls you into a reminiscent reverie before Reynolds drops in a high, clear keyboard line and a distant, dusky saxophone riff. Then come Reynolds' vocals, rife with life lessons and carefully-planned rhymes.

“Paternity,” like a lot of Reynolds’s tracks, is cautionary and instructive; in this case, he urges men to do the right thing and be a part of their children’s lives, even if they’ve fallen out of love with their children’s mothers (“And even if the love that you made has soured/that is no excuse for you to live like a coward/the time has come for you to be selfless/reach out your hand, your child is helpless…).

At the same time, the only thing that could perhaps stop “Paternity” from being a go-to stop on someone’s iPod is that same lyrical denseness. At times, “Paternity” comes off as a little bit too urging and preachy, and the full-blown, in-your-face presentation of Reynolds’ vocals detracts from the smooth, dusky, noirish quality of the track.

Simply put, Reynolds gets a little too close to the mic on some tracks. Opening track “Hustle Ketchup,”, saddled down with a cutesy name, suffers from Reynolds' vocals taking up too much auditory space. The song opens with the chant “Comin, comin, gonna getcha,” recorded so closely that one can hear the sound of saliva crackling in Reynolds’ mouth just a tad bit too well. That technique plagues the opening tracks, until, on “Vibe,” Reynolds smooths things out, combining high-on-the-fretboard bass and keyboard with raps about a “hip-hop culture that is getting ultra-conservative.”

The album's other true stand-out track, "Father," also has to do with fatherhood, and it’s not difficult to see why: Reynolds is biological father of a toddler and step-dad to his wife's child. Vocals on “Father” are more subdued than on “Paternity,” fitting more inside the song than taking charge of it as Reynolds reflects on fatherhood and whether he is repeating the same mistakes his father made (“Fighting the fact I’m exactly the same as my father”). Again, Reynolds seems to shine most when he combines his rapping with a smoother, funkier vibe, softening the beats and extending the basslines into clean, highly catchy refrains.

One more track is worth mentioning: the almost-unclassifiable, acoustic-sounding “Unplug,” on which Reynolds and his orchestra employ tom-toms, chimes, shakers and an eerie keyboard to urge people to leave social networking and actually get social (“Unplug and recognize real life love/the internet is just another drug…I don’t wanna know everything that you’re doing/I don’t need to know everything that you’re doing”).

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