Montana of 300 Fire In The Church

[Self-Released; 2016]

Styles: drill, battle rap, professional sports, Old Testament
Others: Meek Mill, G Herbo, Talley of 300, Jalyn Sanders, Kevin Gates

There’s a schism in hip-hop. There are the old heads, the self-appointed “real hip-hop” spokespeople, the talking heads of Charlamagne Tha God and Lord Jamar, whose sole contribution to modern hip-hop commentary is to bemoan the genre’s supposed descent into incomprehensibility, into unintelligibility and empty showmanship, into secret emasculatory agendas and actors whose real lives don’t match their rhymes. The schism has been present for years, widening through the widespread dissemination of FL Studio-borne, club-oriented production styles and the wave of young anti-logocentric emcees spurred by the latent influence of Gucci Mane’s early works. With over-the-top, persona-based artists like Young Thug, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert deterritorializing the shit out of the English language, elevating the creative deployment of phonetic ad-lib to an art form all its own, it seems the genre has finally reached a point where the creative edge scarcely resembles that of its ancestors.

Between these overexposed polemics, though, there are emcees working from within the bounds of convention to explode the expectations imposed by genre. The recent works of Chicago-bred emcees like Lil Bibby and G Herbo have negated the supposed mutual exclusivity of desensitized, wanton violence and mature lyrical barb, and Montana of 300’s steady rise over the past two years, through a brutalizing string of freestyles broadcast over YouTube, has proved that a “drill rapper” (YouTube commenter’s designation, not my own) can elicit fire emoji comments from hypebeasts and curmudgeons alike. Montana boasts the lyrical ethos of a classical battle rapper, building his rapport over snarling, extended freestyles that explode into flow-switching calisthenic exercises, punctuated by cinematic, load-bearing punchlines and a deadass-serious moral conviction, yet his visual brand and subject matter mirror that of the other 300, those infamous Chicago teens that forever changed rap just a few years back.

Fire In The Church, though not Montana of 300’s first mixtape, is his first album, his first earnest effort to introduce himself to the world at large. It seems the emcee mostly in a self-proclaimed beast mode, injecting the hyperaggressive style of his early freestyles with a hefty dose of earnest religiosity and a framework of blockbuster-size, good-vs-evil, God-vs-Devil imagery. It’s fitting that the 300 in Montana’s name refers to the Hollywood depiction of the Spartans: a stylized underdog mythology bolsters the chip on the rapper’s shoulder, and there’s almost a lone-wolf, vigilante-style morality to his ranting, cascade flows. Like when he rapped on his “Chiraq” freestyle about wanting to buy guns to kill everyone that ever sold his addict mother crack, a matrix of fire-and-brimstone morality belies every depiction of wanton killing and self-righteous chest-beating.

Beyond a surface-level appraisal of Montana’s obvious mic skills, what makes Fire In The Church a thrilling listen at turns is its ever-present metaphysical schema, which lends gravity to the very plainspoken, though pun-ridden, language, and brings the trauma-scorched rage of the record’s nihilistic moments into broader focus. On “Angel With An Uzi,” Montana’s lyrics reveals that in the sacred temple of the human body, spitting aggressively functions as spiritual reconciliation or purge: “If you are listening/ You are witnessing exorcism,” also playing into a dualistic theme that comes up over and over on the album. This paradox is of sublime importance to Montana, good and evil becoming coeval in the narrative of struggle. The dual necessity of the sacred and profane is present everywhere here, from the title of the record, between the sinful life of hustling to its point of genesis in pure aspirational benevolence.

So even while Fire In The Church has an uneven sequencing, a decent number of straight-up missteps (the “for the ladies” tracks come off a little awkward, and the melodic, autotune-heavy numbers obscure Montana’s double-edge through hackneyed, concept-driven repetition and round, sing-songy delivery), and clocks in at a taxing 80 minutes, I can’t help but feel a spirited solidarity rising in my chest when Montana gets on a roll. His unabashed contradictions tempered by his utter conviction to craft, the holiness of dedicating oneself fully to a discipline, and his ultimately humbling faith in the ubiquity of God in all human struggle make it hard not to like him: and let’s face it, when you’re listening to rap music nowadays, you are buying into personality and aura as much as you are into any specific “sound.” As Montana himself puts it in the bases-loaded 9th inning of the gripping, grime-reminiscent “FGE Cypher Pt. 2,” “Godly: how is he heavensent but so devilish?” If Chance the Rapper and Kanye are leading a Chicago-based gospel-rap movement, then Montana is both its fire-and-brimstone counterpart and its pariah: “I don’t want to go/ If my loved ones ain’t all in Heaven.

Links: Montana of 300

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