*disclaimer: I have no business writing a review of a hip-hop album. I have no expertise other than my own taste. Read the review at your own risk.
All of life is a story. The question is whether the story is well told or not. To dive into Taelor Gray’s new album The Mocker and the Monarch, my thoroughly biased opinion needs to tell the story of why this album is worth your time and money (spoiler: it is). You see, I don’t harbor the myth that music artists live a “charmed life” and that making music isn’t work. I have read enough interviews to know that hours go into the craft (at least for the good ones), that perfecting things in the studio takes the same concentration as preparing financial reports. All of us are judged on our product, not on the effort, so perfection is something that we strive for. So I know that being a musician is work. The lucky ones get paid to do this work. Taelor? Taelor’s Bruce Wayne alter ego works in the corporate world. Throw in his work in the church, being a father, and I don’t know how, but somehow he emerges, Batman with lyrical guns flexed, to drop an album that challenges and inspires.
The Mocker and the Monarch is a cohesive journey that takes go from the opening track “Hollow Man” to the killer closer “Hallow Man.” It is no mistake to see the journey even in the track names. There are no throw away tracks on the album; rather, the thematic journey is about innocence, the loss and redemption. It isn’t a concept album in the sense that there is a overarching story that weaves from track to track but it is thematically consistent. From the confessional opener where he is “just me, working through the wreckage,” you get then sense of where the album will go. Not one to shy from controversy, the tracks address the work-party taboo subjects; politics, abortion, race, sexuality, church, hypocrisy and nowhere does the spotlight shine as bright as when he looks at himself. And by spotlight shining bright, I don’t mean in the “look at me” sense, but in the “exposing my flaws” sense.
#MOCXMON (as he has dubbed it) is leaps and bounds ahead of anything Taelor has released, production wise. Simple and effective on songs like “Famous”, the simplicity allows Gray’s swag to hook the listener without the braggadocio that gets in the way; the music video captures the delivery and touches on the fact that up to this point, he was always better live than on record. This album brings the record up to the live. Other songs explore the creativity of meandering jazz piano riffs, old gospel songs, autotune, and even some old school guitar riffs that took me back to some 90’s hip hop on “Powdered Toast Man.” The album is enhanced by features from a B.Reith hook on “Gorgeous” and multiple guest spots, especially by brother Christon Gray on the closer. The only song that didn’t work for me was “Vogue”; the stilted delivery and dreamy synth didn’t do it for me and lyrical content wasn’t enough to pull me back.
Any production work without true content would be lipstick on a pig. Thankfully Gray doesn’t lack in depth. “Famous”, the second track, starts out the party by calling out hypocritical artists and the gullibility of consumers who buy the image presented. The theme of brokenness and struggle to recapture at times feels hopeless as Tragic Hero laments “I’d teach you to let go but I don’t know how to” on “Gorgeous” and B.Reith croons that “we let strangers destroy us.” When Gray says “this is me moving on, I did it myself,” on “In.Secure,” it feels like he is trying to convince himself that he can be the Monarch.
The album takes off after the aforementioned “Vogue” with the furious “Cold.” Talk about a song that doesn’t hold back. FEMA, racism, politics, sexual assault on campus, transgender issues, abortion. All the issues covered in one song and somehow it remains one of the more upbeat songs on the album, thanks to the feel in the production. It felt like the transition song on the album, as Gray posits himself as the “Black Bruce Lee with bullets in my mouth” and lives up to the billing. It seemed like with this song the journey takes the turn from Mocker and striving to be Monarch to a hands-in-the-air freedom. It is as if the mask drops off and honesty rises to the surface.
That honesty comes in “Powdered Toast Man”, with its 90’s vibe, as he makes no bones when he says “I serve the right king, more servant than right wing.” And yet the next track, he and ArmondWakeUp bare their soul with confessions about lust, Armond saying “these are the fights I face while I work out my soul” and Gray offering “I hope you don’t expect the shallow man to be more than this.” The final two tracks are highlights; “Scapegoats” musically is ambitious and lyrically comes across like a diary entry. Honesty about church and music politics, hypocrisy and his failures, and even about miscarriage doesn’t come across preachy but authentic. The closer continues the heart on the page theme, starting almost as spoken word over meandering piano. It is a sprawling song exploring personal and spiritual life with imagery, wondering “Whats living when death can’t hurt you?” As he seems to wind down, almost broken, brother Christon Gray jumps in, almost conversational, and the song explodes into a climax, “No more metaphors, it’s not just for the conscious rhymes, it’s for my conscience, I swore I wouldn’t compromise.” Forget the Mocker, forget being the Monarch; “a strip search of my motives, broken cisterns in the ground…the King wields the weapon, it’s the spear or it’s the scepter, we ain’t never left Him, we’re holding up the lighters.”
Every once in a while, I come across something in hip-hop that draws me back in. Usually I end up being disappointed, because I want to like it and honestly, it’s not my scene. Digesting The Mocker and the Monarch is like finding a new restaurant; I am glad I was early on the scene but I hope everyone else finds out what they were missing and soon. It is an album that deserves to be heard.
1. Hollow Man // prod. by Wit
2. Famous // prod. by Wes Pendleton
3. Gorgeous (feat. B.Reith and Tragic Hero) // prod. by Wit and 42North
4. In.Secure // prod. by Swoope
5. Vogue // prod. by Wit
6. Cold // prod. by Peace 586
7. Enemies // prod. by Wes Pendleton
8. Powdered Toast Man (feat. Beleaf, Jurny Big, and DJ Efechto) // prod. by Daniel Steele
9. Mike Lowry X Marcus Graham (feat. ArmondWakeUp) // prod. by Daniel Steele
10. Scapegoats // produced by Wit and 42North
11. Hallow Man (feat. Christon Gray) // prod. by Wit and 42North