Matthew Paul Miller, or as he is more readily known Matisyahu, arrived on the pop culture scene radar with a boom in 2006 following the release of what marked and what continues to mark his most popular output, Youth. While Youth is a masterful album, one of my favorites of 2006 without a doubt, it was just as much Miller’s image as his music that immediately seized the interest of so many. A devout Hasidic Jew does not exactly fit the mold of Rap/Reggae star. But here came Matisyahu, proudly donning his Yarmulke, a long dark beard, and even declining to perform on Fridays after sundown out of respect for the Jewish Shabbat. Surely a man not afraid to break stereotypes.
Since that time time Matisyahu has evolved from what could have been a amusing novelty to a full fledged force. Now his career seems to have reached a sort of crossroads. He is no longer a breakout artists, his single off of 2009’s Light titled “One Day” gained significant radio play and was used in numerous advertisements leading up to the 2010 Olympic Games.He has even decided to ditch the long beard and traditional Jewish hairstyle that made him so instantly recognizable and even made him the butt of one the many jokes aimed at Seth Rogen’s stoner buddy in 2007’s Knocked Up.
He has stated since the initial reveal of his new style that it was in no way symbolic of any sort of loss of faith. He insists that he is just as devout as ever but no longer feels the need to keep to such a strict lifestyle that, as a young man, was essential to keeping his rebellious nature in line. This kind of maturation is not only evident in his drastic change of appearance but can be heard throughout Miller’s newest album, released in June, Akeda, which translates to “binding” in Hebrew.
The album seems much less focused on garnering radio hits and more on delving into themes, both lyrically and musically, that Matisyahu has resisted in the past. This is usually some of the most exciting news that I can hear about a new release from an artist. Liberation can lead to boldness in an artist that brings out his or best, but often in Akeda this liberation leads to the loss of some of the immediacy and excitement that was his welcomed trademark. This is evident from the get go as opening track from Akeda takes over 2 minutes to fully evolve. While it does eventually culminate with a flourish into a quality song it takes a bit more patience than many will be used to when listening to Matisyahu or the genre in general.
While much of the album features more musical exploration than previous outputs, Matisyahu still can’t resist but put together undeniably catchy songs that have made him who he is. “Watch The Walls Melt Down” opens in direct opposition to early tracks on the album with a chorus of horns, drums, and Matisyahu’s half beatbox and half gibberish singing that is uniquely his own.
Perhaps the most radio friendly, “Champion”, is in equal parts catchy as hell and nauseatingly cookie cutter. With a chorus of, “We could be champions / Do it together / Here for you are you here for me?” the track sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that resists such overt triteness.
The album works as a whole and it is commendable to see an artist striving to evolve rather than settle into a comfortable niche, but in some cases throughout Akeda the creative leash that was loosened led to a lack of focus.