Good Fruit Co. / 2015
It's bizarre but true that for a while there in early 2014, Sam Ock, an overtly Christian, Maryland-based R&B artist/rapper who produces and releases his own music on his independent label Good Fruit Co., ruled the hip-hop charts in Japan. But it makes a bit more sense when you consider that dishwater-dull lyricism isn't as much of a weakness in foreign countries, and that Ock makes exactly the kind of syrupy, polished R&B/hip-hop that is ascendant in East Asia right now.
On his sophomore LP Grey, Ock plays a kinder, gentler Frank Ocean, deploying a strong singing voice over stale but passable production, yet he's let down by his halting rap flow and the relentlessly flavorless songwriting. After the cloying but chipper opener "Never Ending", the mood turns dour, and stays that way for a long time. Ock sings in wrenching tones about being overcome with shame, cut off from God, and desperate for his presence. But there's no danger in the desperation, and a happy ending sounds like a foregone conclusion. Ock's songs have the peculiar quality of sounding simultaneously anguished and emotionally buttoned-up. There are some awkward lyrical quirks, too, with a line about Jesus' blood, sweat, and tears unintentionally referencing Winston Churchill.
Respite from the gloom finally comes with "Crown", where vocalist Ruth Cho guests on the chorus, but her performance is pitched so high it's one-dimensional. The track also features a verse from AMP bandmate and labelmate J. Han, and it's a definite bright spot. Han raps with comparative confidence, and a flashback to anxious school lunches spent hiding his mom's kimchi from the sneers of his classmates rings true. It's exactly the kind of sincere vulnerability the rest of the disc so lacks.
The record's closer is the other bright spot. Grey often has the worst of both worlds - downbeat music with no real melancholy to give it savor, but "Make Me Smile" is a straight-ahead party song. It's not a masterpiece, but the skittering guitar and autotuned vocal lines have a buoyant energy that feels like a gulp of fresh air after the previous ten songs, and Ock exudes what sounds like genuine happiness.
Grey is ostensibly a Dark-Night-of-the-Soul record in which its singer is dragged through the dirt of doubt and pain to emerge again, eventually, into the light of salvation. Even the album cover is meant to evoke that journey from dark to light. But Ock falls into to a perennial Christian-music trap - the dark feels fake, so the light seems that much dimmer in the end.