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DonChristian - Where There’s Smoke Music Album Reviews

A rapper, singer, producer, visual artist, and activist, the Philly native puts all of his diverse talents to work on a debut album that is equal parts political manifesto and bold artistic statement.

As a musician, DonChristian is a triple threat: He can rap, sing, and produce, with an ear for experimental sounds. Off wax, the Philly native is a Wesleyan-educated visual artist and activist whose murals adorn buildings all over New York, where he is currently based, as well as Chicago and Los Angeles. His debut album, Where There’s Smoke, is the culmination of all of these talents—equal parts political manifesto and bold artistic statement.

From the outset, DonChristian presents a portrait of duality. His “Intro (Overture)” positions expressions of bravado (sexual and otherwise) beside one-off lines aimed at affirming and validating marginalized groups. He raps at a low growl, his delivery deadpan but still kinetic. The approach is well suited to his production style, which tends toward the sort of futuristic minimalism that could soundtrack a sci-fi film and allows ample room for all of his divergent interests. The title track finds DonChristian playing his own feature, seamlessly switching between flowing through the verses and crooning on the hook. It's one of few songs that follow a somewhat conventional structure, on an album that doesn’t put much stock in normalcy.

DonChristian stands out most when he lets himself drift further away from tradition, on highlights like the sprawling “Unfolding” and the glitchy “Reeling.” Both use sound and space in a way that makes the songs seem to grow, evolve, and die. Elsewhere, “Savings” is a sensual come-on delivered by the artist’s late uncle, legendary loverman Teddy Pendergrass, interrupted at the end by an aggressive stretch of rapping—once again, DonChristian plays up the duality. Though the album favors rap, there's magic in his singing. It peaks with “Gravity (Stretch Break),” a tease of an interlude that features some of his strongest vocal work. “Say you don’t dream no more, baby let me dream for you,” he wails against a pulsing orchestra of horns and drums.

Despite his ability to move between edgy flows and sentimental croons, he isn’t always a one-man band. A mainstay of New York’s LGBTQ art community, he’s recruited guests that are a statement unto themselves. The druggy haze of “Been Sleep” is accented by a feature from trans rapper Ms. Boogie, who lifts the song with a steamy, self-affirming verse. Bbymutha, the eternally charismatic rhymer from Tennessee, appears on the spacey “Crash,” infusing the hook with attitude. On “Unfolding,” shapeshifting artist Eartheater chills the track with her icy falsetto.

Another trans rapper, Chae Buttuh, appears on standout “Black Quaker,” a war cry set to dreamlike synths and double-time percussion. A menacing DonChristian aims darts at those who would cross him—including the law. “You can't make me no object, it's kings in these projects/School hallways built up by the same housing convicts,” he chants on the hook. Chae Buttuh reiterates the need for agency with a demand that people mind their own business when it comes to her body and general existence. The album’s most powerful statement, it comes together like a summary of DonChristian’s experiences, from his Quaker schooling and later work on Rikers to his allyship and the middle finger he raises at all oppressive institutions.

When he unveiled the album, DonChristian wrote that he had to lose himself to find himself in it—but that statement is far bleaker than the music. He sounds confident as he carves out a lane that is unique but firmly of the present, when proud weirdos are creating the blueprint. In doing so, Where There’s Smoke reveals an innovator who knows what it means to be progressive without being pretentious.

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