Kings Kaleidoscope mixtape takes on war of the soul
Third album The Beauty Between is a hip-hop exploration of Romans 7
“An Alpine peak towering over hills and villages” is how Bible commentator N. T. Wright described the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament. St. Paul’s magnum opus is a cornucopia of theological revelations, speaking richly of justification, salvation, grace, faith, sin and love.
One particular vista that a reader who climbs the mountain of Romans might stop to gaze across is Paul’s reflection upon the struggle between what can be described as the regenerate spirit and the sinful flesh. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” he mourns in chapter 7.
Painful as it may be, this tension that Paul summarises — the difficult ‘now but not yet’ — is core to the Christian experience.
A search for balance in a world torn between opposing ideas, cultures, people and gods
It’s this tension that Seattle indie band Kings Kaleidoscope hone in on throughout their third major project. The Beauty Between was released this month under the banner of an old-school “mixtape” and, in 30 short minutes, frontman Chad Gardner and his host of hip-hop collaborators search for balance in a world torn between opposing ideas, cultures, people and gods. And while they take different paths up the mountain, the same jagged peak remains at the centre of their frames: the sovereign, unchanging Lord of life.
The Beauty Between is certainly not designed for a Sunday morning worship service — the title track opens with a choppy funk instrumental that leaves you guessing where the 1-count will fall. Playing With Fire is a heated one-two punch against racial privilege by Gardner and Humble Beast Records’ Propaganda that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kendrick Lamar project.
Gardner’s vocals are crisp, oscillating between tired, resigned drawls and the tear-stained, powerful high notes. These soar above the airy, brassy instrumentals, an audio package that has come to be recognised as Kings’ signature sound.
Kings Kaleidoscope have always been a hip-hop inspired band, but they make full use of the genre’s lyrical density in the rap verses scattered across the mixtape.
Hip-hop is a powerful conduit for the mixtape’s themes, and one that most Christian bands don’t have the luxury of accessing. Braille, one third of Reformed hip-hop collective Beautiful Eulogy, concludes Gardner’s verse on Alive with “I belong to the King, mind, body and spirit / You’re a lie, I’m alive, that’s the difference.” This defiant two-bar war cry against Satan would be difficult to work into a Hillsong United album.
The packaging of The Beauty Between is a window into its content.
It would be remiss to ignore the visual contributions of Tobias Gutmann, a Swiss artist based in Zürich most famously known for his Face-O-Mat (a half-performance, half-artwork that involves Gutmann posing as a portrait machine). Gutmann’s bold strokes are primarily featured on the band’s Instagram, as well as in an art zine packaged with the mixtape. They are a natural partner to Kings’ colourful, off-centre soundscapes.
It’s probably no coincidence that The Beauty Between has been packaged and marketed in such cavalier fashion. Easy it seems to be for us to dismiss the agonising three-at-a-time Instagram teaser artworks, the four-pronged release format (including a cassette tape, of all things) and the colourful Kings Kaleidoscope streetwear as evidence of a band that’s trying a little too hard to be different. But that criticism falls short when compared against the difficult subject matter of the mixtape — one that isn’t easy on whoever you are, no matter how you feel about Jesus.
Rather, the packaging of The Beauty Between is nothing more than a window into its content. What you see is bold, overwhelming illustrations, and what you get is a bold, overwhelming mixtape. There is a beautiful melange of sonic environments on offer here: the overdriven guitars of Sometimes Phoenix transport us to a lonely kingdom with a crimson sky before a soothing piano introduces Safe Retreat, an emotional, slow-burning reminder of the refuge we find in God.
“I am enough, always enough. You are enough, precious and loved.”
It’s not until the mixtape’s final track Rain that we finally hear a note of a smile in Gardner’s vocals. Running in parallel to the penultimate track, A Prayer, on Kings’ sophomore album Beyond Control, Rain is sung from Jesus Christ’s perspective, with bright woodwind and brass adding real joy to the encouraging lyrics.
But while A Prayer was a glorious, epic revelation of God’s unconditional love, Rain is more of an affirmation of something that we desperately crave — something that draws every believer to fall at the throne of God to begin with. The answer to those torturous questions that The Beauty Between asks: “I am enough, always enough. You are enough, precious and loved.”