In one of my earliest memories I’m somewhere between the ages of five and seven and sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car playing I Spy. I’ve chosen the letter "G," not for grass or grape or gate. But for “God,” I say, beaming with glee when my parents eventually give up, exasperated. The reason, I decided, was “because he’s everywhere and in everything.” So, whaddya know: I either grew up a young religious savant or I was a kid who tried to outsmart their parents at every opportunity (that second one was the truth).
I was religious though, kind of. My granny would be angry at me if I said that I wasn’t, and plus, the second primary school I went to was a Church of England, where we sang about “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.” We had to pray twice daily, but I would often do it after school too, pleading God to give me a better life or just to make everything be okay in the morning. Please, please, please, please, I’d say, gripping my tiny small hands, it’s all I’m asking.
Back then I didn’t know what an agnostic or atheist or monotheist or whatever was. I was just following protocol: if you’re feeling down, hold your hands, ask for help. That way you’ll start to feel hope, and hope is important – it’s one of the few things in life that’s free, which is important when you’re in dire straits, looking to get out from a bad situation, or completely lost. That’s not to say you’ll be saved though—something British artist Ebenezer knows, and puts across on his new project 53 Sundays—as in, “I ain’t been to church in 53 Sundays, sinner—I’m doing road.”
“[It’s] about me being at one of my lowest points in life, with not a penny to my name,” he told i-D, who premiered the official video of the project’s titular track (watch above). “My mum was trying to get me to go to church but all that was going through my head is: 'church ain’t gonna put food on the table'.”
The record—Ebenezer’s second body of work this year, arriving in September off the back of collaborations with Rejjie Snow, Col3trane, and Jeremih—initially presents the north Londoner at a crisis of faith. “Sometimes I wanna talk to God, he doesn’t ever answer me,” he sings on the pre-chorus to opening track “Over My Dead Body”. He talks about moving from crib-to-crib as a child, his family ducking immigration officers. Later, on other tracks, he builds on the references to his upbringing in a detailed and distinct way: four people sleeping in the same bed, putting water in cereal, scraping the bottom of the butter carton with a knife to ensure no smear went to waste.
On paper, the combined narrative of religion and hardship might sound depressing or preachy. In Ebenezer’s hands though, it slots comfortably into the wide canon of hip-hop that’s about religion, but you don’t have to be religious to enjoy. Think: Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, the 2018 album from Novelist, or the song from “Pray” from MC Hammer, which is not as popular as “Can’t Touch This,” but is still vaguely palatable if only for its sample of Prince’s “When 2 Doves Cry.”
Ebenezer is different from all the acts listed above, just as they’re all different from each other. Simply: their link is that they’re musicians speaking about religion in an accessible way. On 53 Sundays, on which Ebenezer produces almost every song, the British act takes his cues from the Toronto league of producers. Tracks like “Christian Dior” and “Faith” are cross-pond cousins to the swirling, nocturnal soundscapes of Noah “40” Shebib and the electricity of Doc McKinney. And just as those producers took inspiration from the likes of Pimp C, there’s also a reference to 1990s trap music—a dirty south organ wheezing its way into the church hall on “Saints and Sinners”.
It’s not all low-key, there are overt references to religion here—this is a record of two halves. “Glory,” a flipside to the bleak architecture of the record’s first few tracks, is a pure light-filled gospel track. Even as Ebenezer reminisces on growing up in poverty, the upbeat angelic production and gold-tinged auto-tune gives way to hope and promise (and later, some brass). “Pass The Offering” opens with an enthused pastor, while the Kojey Radical featuring track “Mercy” is introduced by another choir, giving the record the feel of a sunday sermon—of people coming together in joy and happiness, even as they’re asking for forgiveness.
This is a record about family too. Mid-way through “Mercy,” Ebenezer gets into a monologue. “Aight, so let me set the scene: it’s me, my brother, my sister, in the house by ourselves. Mum’s out working two, three jobs, trying to put food on the table,” he says, going on to tell how he and his siblings would spend their days looking out into the world from indoors. Elsewhere, he speaks about having an older sibling as a role model, his personal champion (“My Brothers Keeper”), and of growing up “piss poor” with single mother who “had to keep shit together” (“Realist”).
By the time 53 Sundays reaches its conclusion, you’ll have come full circle: through the depression, the crisis of faith, and out the other side, optimistic about the unknown future. “I still get anxiety, scared of society” sings Ebenezer over soft, uplifting piano. But there’s a hopeful promise, hinging on the question “What If”. When it comes to faith, that premise centres on the idea of improvement – what if things were better than they are now. But you don’t need to be religious to think that way, and you don’t need to be religious to enjoy 53 Sundays. It’s a delicately layered, astute exploration into the strength of having hope, and the pitfalls you get into along the way.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.