Hip-hop turned 50-years-old last year, and naturally, some of the mainstream greats have begun to outgrow their relatability. At this point in his career, Jay Z’s music has surpassed the wallets of his target audience. This even includes the fans who have found financial success and upward mobility. Jay Z is in a class of his own and his music has become aspirational and that of pipe dreams.

But that leads us to the question “What should you be rapping about as a grown ass man?” Is it still clubs, hoes, money, and drugs, or can we unearth more substance? Well, for there to be something more in the music, there has to be something real in the artist, and the artist has to be willing to share real shit.

The bravado and bragging will likely be a mainstay in hip-hop for eons to come, and that’s fine. That’s not the point of contention here: the issue is finding something that makes sense for the adults we’ve all become. Hip-hop is so damn new as a music genre. On the other hand, rock music has been around for centuries and can easily trace its roots back to Africa. Rock’s been around so long that it’s had time to incubate and expand into sub-genres like death metal and proto-punk. Hip-hop is that two-year-old that’s just now figuring out their fine motor skills and discovering that they no longer have an affinity for applesauce. Younger generations are creating new and interesting hip-hop off shoots, just as rock music did, and often, many heads in the culture are still questioning the validity of these new waves.

Then you have artists like Reef The Lost Cauze, who, unlike Jay Z, are accessible to many of the grown folks who came of age alongside hip-hop. In his album The Triumphant, Reef’s growth and development as an artist, father, husband, son, brother, and friend are on full display. On this 15-track project, Reef dives deep into fatherhood, substance abuse, work/life balance, and other adult responsibilities. There’s even a quick nod to the next generation.

Reef the Lost Cauze | photo by Melissa Simpson

If you’ve been a fan of Reef for any amount of time, you get a sense of deja vu when looking at the cover art for The Triumphant. It looks strikingly similar to his 2018 release The Majestic, which is an ode to his eldest child Isaiah. With the new release, we see the same backlit shoreline setting, but this time we witness his middle child, Manny, leaping into the sky with an air of, well… triumph. In both these works, there is a story of growth and maturity, with a strong focus on what it means to balance being a family man while chasing your dreams. Reef plans to continue the message in future projects.

“In my mind, it’s a trilogy because now I have my baby girl – I have a photo of us on the beach that I think will work great,” says Reef. “I look at a lot of different album covers and movie posters and there’s always a consistency to it. You’re a part of the journey. There’s a connection between the two albums. It’s a continuation in my mind of where I was a while completing The Majestic, and now where I’m at five years later with The Triumphant.”

“I think at that point in 2018, I was still kind of trying to figure out who I was as a man. Not so much as an MC, but as a man,” says Reef. “There’s something that happens when you hit 40 – a lot of things for me kicked into overdrive. My health, my mortality, my position in music, all those things were questions and things that were eating at me. And I didn’t have the answer. I feel like life happened, growth happened, and I was able to look at all the things that I’ve done, whether it be these children I created, this life I created with my wife, my friendships and partnerships, the music that Caliph and I were making, and feeling that it finally reached a point where it was firing on all cylinders. Writing for this album is the sharpest that I’ve ever been because all that clutter was kind of moved. I feel free right now.”

Reef the Lost Cauze | photo by Melissa Simpson

The cinematic theme of The Triumphant does not end with the album cover. There is a smorgasbord of film and television references that Reef and Caliph-Now, The Triumphant’s executive producer and engineer, threw on the project. This includes snippets from The Simpsons, August Wilson’s Fences, Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and more. Early on in the album, Reef refers to the “Def Poet’s Society” episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Geoffrey pretends to be a famous spoken word artist. The episode is iconic to anyone who came up in the 90s. Between strings of jolly puns Reef bellows on the chorus, “Canons to the right, canons to the left, all metal, Raphael de la Ghetto!”

On this album, Reef and Caliph-Now do a phenomenal job of ordering the tracks into little packages as if they were acts in a play. He kicks off The Triumphant with booming bravado and a formidable delivery. You go into this album thinking you’re here for a good time, and yeah you are, but the energy takes a solemn turn once listeners get to track six. And in no way is that a bad thing; sometimes things need to get a little dark.

Once the hazy smoker’s jawn “Tangerine” ends, listeners are jolted awake by the ramblings of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, as he ponders his relationship with alcohol. In “The Light of Day,” Reef goes all the way there while exploring his drinking habits. If you ever had the true privilege of interacting with the West Philly rapper in real life, or even got a taste of his personality through the internet, you will know that Reef is a ball of intense emotion and expression. He raps, laughs, smiles, jokes, protects, and defends with his entire being – and even if you’ve witnessed him in the flesh, nothing can prepare you for the emotion that he delivers in this song. Here, Reef traverses choppy waters full of disappointment, depression, and destain that can arise when one overindulges with alcohol.

Reef continues to pull the listener’s heartstrings as he transitions to “Light Of Day,” which features a soundbite from the film Fences. Here we hear Denzel Washington’s character and his son discussing the love between a father and child. Washington’s take is that love should not matter if a man is fulfilling his fundamental obligations as a father. Here, Reef holds up a magnifying glass to examine what it means to be a father and what his experiences have been on both sides of that fence.

“I never truly acknowledged what I went through or in certain instances, what I’ve put my family through. I needed to make that record,” says Reef. “I haven’t reached out to my stepfather who the first verse is referencing, but I think I’m going to send him an email with the song before it comes out just to let him know.”

In West African culture there is the principle of Sankofa, which loosely translates from the Twi language as “to go back and retrieve.” In “Fences,” Reef is utilizing the principal of Sankofa to reflect on how he was reared to inform how he moves forward with his own family.

“The second verse is about me. I was in a volatile home where screaming, yelling, and hitting were how things were dealt with,” says Reef. “Now I’m a father of my own and I have my own family, and I’m trying to break that cycle, and it’s not completely easy. Obviously, I’m a great father but I can be a horrible dad – I can be a horrible partner. I can be extremely hurtful and rude and when you try to block that out, it doesn’t get fixed. You try to make it seem like I’m just doing what’s best when I know there are other ways that I can handle things. I’m getting there. I’m much more gentle and patient. I’m forgiving myself and looking back at how I got here.”

"I'm forgiving myself and looking back at how I got here." - Reef The Lost Cauze

It takes a certain amount of years and life experiences to get to this level of self-awareness and to be comfortable with displaying your humanity in totality – the good, the bad, the ugly – to the world as Reef did here. And it takes an adult to walk away from these songs, possibly feeling sad, maybe seen, or encouraged to self-reflect and do the hard work to become a better person. Reef The Lost Cauze is a prime example of what it means to mature gracefully in hip-hop while remaining tethered to the reality of your fanbase.

The last half of the album has it all, ranging from an uplifting Black pride anthem produced by Wes Manchild, to a sinister boom-bap jawn featuring Philly rapper I-Know Brasco, to an understated bass-heavy track featuring Jillian Taylor, lead singer of the local metal band Ruby the Hatchet.

Caliph-Now is without question Reef’s right-hand man. The pair have collaborated on music for more than 15 years and have their things down to a science. The process for them is still enjoyable, but when they’re in the “lab” it’s go-time. When working on a full-length project like The Triumphant, Reef and Caliph-Now lock in and commit to recording one or two songs per session, sometimes three if they’re really in the groove. Caliph-Now dug even deeper and revealed that they record each verse at least three times and pick the best one out of the batch. They repeat that process for the entire album.

Reef the Lost Cauze | photo by Melissa Simpson

“And when you stick to that and you know exactly what you’re doing,” says Caliph Now. “Once you get into the zone everything kind of comes naturally.”

“It goes from 0 to 60,” says Reef.

Another stand-out track is “Young Bol.” Here Reef calls to attention what it takes for many young and up-and-coming rappers to make it in the industry, how those sacrifices can put their lives and freedom at risk, and how the machine that is social media is fueling it all.

“I’ve never experienced a time in my life where I saw so many people apart of an art form, in this particular case hip-hop, just dying,” says Reef.

Reef decided to leave the ending to this storybook rap open-ended because he, like many, struggles to find a solution to the problem. Reef does question who’s at fault when it comes to violence often being a driving force in hip-hop stardom.

“Right now, the catalyst of hip-hop media is ‘what beef is happening? What kid pulled a gun on another kid,’ and it has little to do with the music. The message behind ‘Young Bol’ is who’s at fault here? Because we still click, we still watch it, we’re still invested.”

Still, Reef believes that you MCs hold the power when it comes to moving the culture forward.

“The corniest stance you can take is to be the guy complaining about what the kids are doing,” says Reef. “We gotta do better as an older generation and try to be more understanding and supportive of these young guys. We can’t ignore the fact that for hip-hop to grow and to live, it has to change.”

There’s no right or wrong way to make art – and if there were, that ponders the thought: who would be the arbiter of that decision? And it seems the answer to that question would be: it has to come from within. Not age, style, fame, nor fortune can determine an artist’s motivation to create. Reef believes creativity should come from a place of joy.

“If you’ve been doing something for 10, 15, 20 years and you’re not ‘successful,’ sit down and look at all the art you’ve created and given to the world – if it doesn’t bring you joy or happiness and you don’t feel content, then that’s the conversation that you need to have,” says Reef. “But if it still makes you smile when you create something, then just create from that place and remove all the other expectations.”

Reef has given us humility, transparency, pride, and quite simply, an example of what it means to be a whole person. The Triumphant is a supremely transparent album, and is devoid of pretense yet overrun with raw emotion. It’s the human experience in its purest form. Coming up on February 9, Reef The Lost Cauze and Caliph-Now will be delivering that same undiluted intensity to fans at Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s with guest performances from Bear-One, I-Know Brasco, and The Out Sect for The Triumphant record release show. Get your tickets now.