Growing up in Chicago, I often heard the phrase “Imma make a mixtape.” Inspired by rap titans such as Chance the Rapper and Kanye West, who were birthed from the same city streets I walked (or at least lived in somewhat close proximity to), students would often jokingly fantasize about creating their very own rap project that would propel them to stardom. In between passing periods and behind the watchful eyes of teachers, my friends and I would pen our own lyrics with the hopes that with the right producer and beats, we could make a best-selling record. Alas, while I still have a notebook chock-full of hot 16s, I was never able to quite get around to making an album. Though I remain a fan of hip-hop and rap, I thought that the world of music-creation and album-production was best left to the professionals. The best I can do is be an educated and informed critic and consumer.
But Cornell’s very own Brailin Paulino, a junior who goes by the stage name Reach, has convinced me otherwise. Acting as writer and producer, Brailin has managed to assemble a stunning debut in the form of My Shoes, an ambitious and personal 15-track rap project that serves as a sort of lyrical documentary for his own life experiences and a venue for which to communicate his deep love and devotion to Jesus. Each of the songs serves as a humble celebration of his unique abilities, whether it be lyricism or production. Brailin, an interdisciplinary studies major with a specific focus on communication, adroitly communicates a sense of warmth and invites listeners to look at the narrative of his life from the time he spent in the Dominican Republic to when he had to move to the Fresno when he was about to turn seven. In between tunes that tell his story, he expertly weaves stand-alone tracks that serve as confident anthems for those in suffering or who struggle with day to day tribulations.
Although Reach experiments with a variety of different sounds on the project, it never feels frenzied. Any potential fears of a lackluster debut are assuaged by the album’s opener “Back and I’m Better.” The banger sees Reach’s two cousins from the Dominican Republic rap their verses completely in Spanish over an electrifying piano beat interspersed with bombastic percussion. He raps, “If I don’t bleed and win / then I ain’t winnin”, asserting his disciplined work ethic and desire to push himself to be the best that he can be. This track stands in beautiful contrast with the more restrained tempo of “Calling” four tracks after. When it comes to figuring what his calling is as a Christian, he states, “If Adam walked by faith then Imma walk by sight / And if I walk by sight ironically I will be blind.” This level of intimacy and honesty is felt all over the record in spite of the uncertainty. Brailin has his hope in something greater than his present circumstances.
Herein lies one of the project’s greatest strengths; Reach does not flinch away from the harsh struggles of life, yet at the same time he never flinches away from his faith and makes his relationship with God a central point. Though elements of faith often go hand-in-hand with hip-hop (see: Coloring Book by Chance or Anomaly by Lecrae), rather than opt for heady and esoteric theological concepts that could potentially alienate secular listeners, Brailin incites and tickles listener’s curiosity so that they want to hear and know more about who God is. For example, on “Bleeding Heart”, a stripped-down beat with beautiful orchestral strings and light piano, Reach flexes his narrative-writing abilities as he tells the story about a young girl who “in the game of life she would always lose.” Although the song ends on a tragic note, it asks poignant questions about suffering and serves as a powerful reminder to be cognizant of other people’s struggles. Likewise, the vociferous track “Epidemic” creatively talks about the spread of the gospel as an “epidemic” and how it is ironically a cure to the suffering going on in the world. The features likewise are expertly used. Danieyyl provides blistering guest verses that pop with fervor and energy on four tracks, while vocalist Emily provides a soaring high octave hook on “Watch Me Work 2”.
In a conversation I had with Brailin via Messenger, he shared how people in Fresno would often elicit the same statements of “Imma make me a mixtape.” Yet with My Shoes, he stated, “I don’t just want to be a rapper I want to inspire people.” This sentiment is felt all throughout the record, which elevates My Shoes above other rap albums that will grace listeners’ ears in 2017. Brailin strives for a narrative that is inviting while also affirming that in the midst of trials, the best thing to do is to hold on to God.
Zachary Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.