There’s a couple different ways to go about translating the beauty of an album like Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!? into a review. One requires you to dig deep and really let the music stir in your soul, doing your best to pull coherent thoughts out onto your page, digital or otherwise. Another has you drawing comparisons to similarly stirring music and artists that make it. Both have their uses, even the latter which can be reductive to a fault. I’ll go ahead and get the vapid, yet accurate comparisons out the way early and just say if you like heartfelt, thoughtful hip-hop infused with jazz or artists like Avantdale Bowling Club, Kendrick Lamar or Saba, you might as well just click the Bandcamp link above and close this tab.
Thing is, even those comparisons fall dreadfully short. Even though I think Saba and Kendrick fans would love McKinley Dixon, it’s not because he’s one of those artist’s ‘babies’. Dixon is his own monolith in the making, a Virginian rapper with one of the most tasteful ears for sound and music I could think of. I first found his shit with 2021’s For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her – it made our 2021 best albums list. It was heady hip-hop without the off-putting abstraction or references flying over your head like drones, based in experience like all the best music is. He made a fitting, unexpected appearance on SOUL GLO‘s ripping Diaspora Problems as well where he was thankfully introduced to plenty of other people who likely became fans of his awesome confidence and wordplay (‘most of y’all Bruce Waynes looking uh, way Ku Klux‘).
Now we have Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!?, an album that feels so appropriately like a continuation of Dixon’s energized, touching hip-hop. It has two of my favorite songs of the year so far. “Sun, I Rise” is a profoundly ethereal track with lovely strings and bass throughout as Dixon waxes poetic on the nature of his life, really interrogating himself and asking others for the grace needed to move on and be better with big biblical allegories. The light seems to represent a salvation or purging of specific sins that Dixon’s indulged in as a matter of survival. The live instrumentation smacks of For My Mama, but here it feels notched up even more, heavenly even – a theme that’s sure to recur through the tracklist. I really, really love the start of the second verse were he says the following:
‘I’m asking, please forgive for what I did
When world was on my shoulders
We bent the block so many times
Car almost flipped right over
Said I became a better liar as I’ve gotten older
Is it cuz the tongue got sharper
Or cuz my heart got colder?’
Next favorite is “Tyler, Forever”, the only bombastic rappity-rap song on Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!? complete with huge horns and traditional hip-hop production underneath. It’s celebratory, anthemic, and a very vigorous tribute to a friend of Dixon’s who died. Even with its more hardened foundation, it melts away because the heart and love that Dixon puts in the music gradually, certainly softens it – by the second verse of the song, it’s a fluttery, gentle, cradling reflection. It’s a wonderful dichotomy of grief and remembrance with the first verse’s more boisterous retelling of young, riotous gang life that threatened Dixon and anyone else in his immediate circle.
Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but to me it reads like an admittance that the good times don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t last – there must be a time for calm, for introspection, and taking stock of yourself and perhaps what you’ve lost. Moments are multifaceted – we are multifaceted. That’s exactly what the poignant second verse feels like to me. That said, my favorite part is the end of the first verse which has some great wordplay and metal references:
‘Propelled forward by vengeance
Penchant for taking yo’ pendants
Accountability process is loaded in them extensions
We done fixed on ascendin’, my boys might break through the roof
Y’all become killers alla sudden when you find dusty loops
Ni**a, problem wit this preaching is it might just make my wrist hot
Nine ni**as masked up in that van, them boys Slipknot
They kids up in the hood is Babymetal
Headbanging on ya boy, he push that overdrive pedal’
Just because those are my two favorite songs of the year and therefore the album (and yes, I know “Sun, I Rise” premiered as a single last November) doesn’t mean that there aren’t other standout moments on Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!? – this whole album is a standout moment. This same spirit pervades every song, just with different moments in time and Dixon’s head. “Live! From The Kitchen Table” tells homegrown stories in a fast flipbook format, using the kitchen table as a home base/stage for life to play out in vulnerable vignettes from generation to generation. It’s almost sacred; Dixon builds an entire lineage of people with his words, and, of course, it’s a matriarchal affair:
‘Live from my mama’s kitchen table
Where she pulls heartbreak to her chest
And folds up cards to keep legs stable
Where the currency for meals
Is often the laughter that’s exchanged’
This is another track that expertly pairs live instrumentation with stories of life. It feels appropriately loving, but if you’re looking for something a bit different, you may like the rickety unease of “Mezzanine Tippin'”. This is a song that’s a bit beyond me concept-wise and deals with some of the most abstract lyrics on the album, but there’s an unmistakable fire burning within it – the opening chanting of ‘fuck 12!‘ makes that very apparent. It’s dark and winding, hollow and foreboding, embodying a breaking of sorts, literally represented by the glass shattering embedded in the off-kilter beat.
The first song has poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib reading an excerpt from Toni Morrison‘s Jazz, specifically a very vivid part where Morrison details the minutiae of city life from the Black perspective. Its top-down view is cautionary yet hopeful, acknowledging the victories won, the peace at hand, but also how the shadows seemingly hide darkness. Really, it encompasses much of what McKinley Dixon achieves with his own music. Jazz as a name – for Morrison and Dixon – is a metaphor, and although the latter uses jazz music elements literally and liberally in his work, it’s more about the bigger picture. Dixon said on release of Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!?, ‘It’s for me, but with you in mind.‘ Like Morrison, Dixon uses language poetically, considerately and purposefully, rapped and sung over beats, over instrumentation that’s made to complement his own compassionate voice as he speaks to himself and anyone with an open ear, and heart. To get corny for a second, this goes beyond music – this is a reflection of the sense of community that’s so apparent and important for Dixon, from a young age to now and beyond.
I don’t really wanna live in a world that doesn’t give an artist like McKinley Dixon his flowers while he’s still here to smell them. I see thousands of views on his YouTube videos and I wonder who among them has felt the warm touch of his music like I have. Though I can’t purport to identify directly with many of these stories on Beloved? Paradise? Jazz!?, it’s the care that he’s put into the craft that makes my eyes well up on every playthrough. It’s the deluge of souls that flood onto you, all keenly represented by Dixon’s mastery of storytelling and ability to elicit emotion from the empathetic. It’s the perseverance of people who Euro step and break the ankles of death just to get home and live another day. It’s the love that Dixon’s grown for himself and those who have seen him through. These days, these are all wildly invaluable things and by proxy, so is this music.