God, This Guy's Good

That must be a joke, I thought -- along with a million or so others.

Months ago, there began to appear, on newspapers and Web sites and storefronts, pictures of a tall young white man in a long beard, broad-brimmed hat and flowing coat: the perfect Talmudic scholar, dressed in the uniform of the Hasidic Jew. The word was this: He's an MC doing some kind of reggae-rap amalgam, who's been building an audience with late-night TV appearances and sold-out nightclub shows across the country. His rhymes combine ferocious God-love with the kind of celebratory, Zion-seeking global uplift once associated with Bob Marley. He has a Top 10 rock hit, “King Without a Crown,” and a surefire smash third album, Youth. He's the latest pop sensation. His name is Matisyahu -- the Hasidic beatbox reggae-rapper.

We tend to associate popular genres with well-defined physical and sartorial images: rapper, rocker, diva, folkie. That's partly because it's convenient, and partly because pop culture, for all its talk of freedom, usually codifies itself that rigidly. When someone comes along to confuse the styles, to hang the wrong clothes on the wrong sound, our first response is skepticism, if not laughter. And rap, in its popular dominion, has become a readier frame for the comedy of cultural contrast than rock ever was. Remember “Rappin' Rodney” Dangerfield? That rapping granny from The Wedding Singer? “Do the Bartman”? Surely a kosher MC straight outta the shtetl is the sidesplittingest permutation yet. Matisyahu? That must be a joke.

For certain, it's the Yiddish name of Matthew Miller. Born in Pennsylvania, raised in Berkeley and upstate New York, Miller was a typical post-hippie American teenager, wearing tie-dye and following Phish around the country. At 17, on retreat in the Rockies, he saw God; eventually he went Orthodox and joined the Lubavitch sect, which is centered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and whose controversial messiah was the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Given that Matisyahu, now 26, sings about God and related matters, it's impossible not to class him as a devotional artist -- and pusillanimous not to acknowledge that Hasidic doctrine is as male supremacist as any other churchly fundamentalism. But despite the sexually oppressive roots of his faith, Matisyahu sings music that is open, rangy, catchy, novel, and compulsively appealing enough that any listener can take from it the sound and feel of a certain kind of freedom -- a licentiousness of the spirit that by its nature is anti-orthodox and represents the opposite of oppression. In fact, more than Hasidism's harsh moral strictures and gender inequality, Matisyahu incarnates the sect's other tradition: its 18th-century comprehension of song as religious rapture and its emphasis on joy expressed through wild dance, free gesticulation, the open throat.

Youth -- which follows Matisyahu's 2004 debut Shake Off the Dust … Arise, now out of print, and last year's Live at Stubb's -- is crafted to take the pop charts by storm, and can stand beside Prince's Purple Rain as a work of brash genre-mashing. The music's constituent parts have been flying freely for years, but the totality makes a sound that we haven't quite known. Its fundament is the rhythmic commonality of Jamaican ska and Jewish klezmer -- blasted through with rock guitar, plumped with tubular bass, and broadened by the busy paws of noted dub producer Bill Laswell. Matisyahu and his three-man band, Roots Tonic, combine the joyous leap of reggae with the spatial expanse of dub and the aggression of rap. The pieces come together, and the whole hurtles itself outward in multiple directions.

It's the voice that centers the sound and draws the crowd. Influences are apparent: Matisyahu's rapping evokes the Beastie Boys' snarky Brooklyn edge, while his reggae phrasing reaches back to Barrington Levy's dancehall holler. Also in the mix are the middlebrow popular stylings of the late Shlomo Carlebach, Orthodox rabbi and the most prolific modern writer of Jewish religious songs.

Matisyahu's synthesis is instinctive and inspired. Every echo of the familiar is subsumed in the creative cacophony of the instant. His voice -- deep-throated, rich, utterly confident (“Youth is the engine of the world,” the title song quotes Schneerson) -- has not only technique but an unquantifiable thing called temperament: It comes off the disc as a living thing, a wild, charismatic entity excited by the world and by itself as a force in the world. Matisyahu allows himself no great range of vocal subtlety -- his goal is exhortation, not reflection, statement, not nuance. But his tones can soar and succor like those of a Southern soul man, and in stray stanzas (see “Shalom/Salaam,” a collaboration with Muslim rapper Yusu Youssou) he evidences some of Bob Marley's warmth.

The sound punches and the music glides, stopping here and there to switch up the rhythm or play with a plaintive melody. Especially heard in tandem with its limited-edition companion disc, Youth Dub (which is thickened with sound effects and nearly devocalized), the album is exciting in its variety. It helps that Roots Tonic are an amazing band -- on the evidence, one of the best around. The straightforward rave-ups and plucking of guitarist Aaron Dugan add color and cascade to virtually every track, and without Josh Werner's bass and Jonah David's drums, the whole rhythm-centric machine could never start up, let alone move.

Youth has triumphed commercially, but the album hangs an undeniable notch below Matisyahu's real breakthrough, Live at Stubb's, which found a modest success last year and got his current momentum going. Recorded in February 2005 at the legendary Austin, Texas, nightspot (and barbecue rib joint!), its music is every bit as fluid and precise as that of the studio-polished Youth. But it's also rawer, more in the moment -- not merely because it's live, but because its material is stronger, and because it places Matisyahu in an environment where performance is all, momentum the absolute.

Stubb's doesn't let up. Not once. On “Sea to Sea,” Matisyahu goes from sonorous soul phrasing to freak-jazz scatting. The intro to “Lord Raise Me Up” -- calling down sources as obvious as Simon and Garfunkel's “El Condor Pasa” and as obscure as the Feelies' “Loveless Love” -- is a rush of guitar strums and vocal intonations, a dramatic suspension between restraint and explosion. The live “King Without a Crown” is far more exciting than the near-generic version retrieved from the debut album for reissue on Youth. There is the fantastic funk-reggae combo of “Chop 'Em Down,” and the arsenal of breath effects and tongue dances that comprise the nearly a cappella “Beat Box” -- a gamut of tonsil trilling, plosive spitting, and palate scraping.

The new album is more melody-centered, less fervid and frantic than Stubb's. It's a clear attempt to move past roots, to see how one artist's eccentric expression, formulated at the margins of today's music, sounds in the mainstream. And inevitably, a few of the faithful are perturbed. Samples from the fan forum at www.matisyahu.org: “Get back to your roots matis and get rid of all this synthesized crap.” “I know he is going to be mainstream, and that's what kills all great musicians. … Matis sold out.” Granted, these are the usual cult geeks whose pleasure in popular works is inextricably bound with an illusion of private ownership. But the geeks, hateful to admit, may have a point. Youth is full of life and juice, but it lacks the wildness of Stubb's, that expanding shock of innovation made on the spot, of a moment being snatched and new pages written. To go on being the innovator he can be, Matisyahu may have to dump melody and elaborate production and get back to brazenly crossbreeding genres by tongue and throat.

But he's only three albums in; one can hardly proscribe a future for an artist who, as far as the mainstream is concerned, barely has a past. For the moment, Matisyahu does well enough to embody the impish instinct and creative promiscuity that distinguish the crossover artist from every other kind.

Listening to Live at Stubb's again, I tried to remember the last time any pop sensation had me thinking, “That must be a joke.” Was it the early '90s, when Kurt Cobain first staggered, slurring and screaming, past an MTV lens? Or a decade earlier, when Annie Lennox and Boy George converged on the mainstream with visions of an eye-shadowed, pansexual future that for an instant seemed almost plausible? Or the late '70s, with flaming creatures like George Clinton and David Bowie? And what about before my time -- hadn't people laughed at the Beatles when they first appeared? At Little Richard? At Elvis?

Let's not get carried away here: Matisyahu is not yet in that class. But he has placed himself, wittingly or not, in that tradition. Like those artists, he has mated musical forms for personal ends, outraged codes of hip, and risked all consequent dismissals, slurs, and reflex suspicions that he is merely a joke. Talent has brought him out the other side. He is in a tradition, all right: a tradition of tricksters. Matisyahu is funny enough, and good enough, to make you wonder whether the essential pop personality -- the one that makes history as opposed to filling it in -- is an innovator, or a novelty act, or a joke. Or all of the above.

Devin McKinney, author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, writes regularly on pop music and culture for The American Prospect Online.