SAINt JHN’s Problems Mount up With His Money on ‘While the World Was Burning’

A few years ago would probably have been a better time to aspire to “be the next Kanye” than now, but as one of goals he reveals on “While The World Was Burning,” Saint Jhn could use a bit more of his polarizing hero’s unpredictability, even if his new full-length continues to establish him as a creative force to be reckoned with. After a steady and understated stream of releases boosted by songwriting efforts for Usher and Jidenna, Saint Jhn seems poised to take his place in the spotlight with his latest, a solid, engaging musical effort bookended by two versions of his 2016 single “Roses,” including the Imanbek remix that hit Number One on the Australian and UK singles charts.

The hustler mentality that Jhn highlights on this album vacillates unusually broadly for a hip-hop artist, from guerilla warfare to blue-collar bootstrapping, evidenced most clearly on the album opener “Sucks To Be You:” “Runnin’ through cartels and jumpin’ through bombshells / I thought we would die growin’ old, holdin’ hands… So I tell nobody ’bout my dreams, workin’ at the hotel / ‘Cause I don’t think confessions over there might go well.” At a moment where living large and in charge seems like more of a priority than ever, the rapper’s honesty sets him apart from his contemporaries, telling stories about the shoe-leather struggles that paved the way for his current status. But the fact that the song is a bittersweet lament for relationships he lost while trying to achieve his dreams, both romantic and familial, gives it real gravitas.

It’s a theme that runs through the whole album, picking up again on “Switching Sides,” this time with a tinge of resentment but again recognizing the double-edged sword of struggle and success that exerts strain on friendships and tests the person that an artist is on the inside. Unsurprisingly, he extends this skepticism to women as well (“Don’t keep a main, hoes be betrayin’”) but at least on “Quarantine Wifey,” he hints at the possibility of a second date: “Ain’t got no time for no love or no fiancée / That don’t mean in the future, in a couple months / Maybe wе could just meet up once or twice for a little lunch.” To be fair, at least he seems to come by this mistrust honestly, but his repeated return to these ideas and stories create an atmosphere on the album that’s more cautious about the future than celebratory of the present.

To that end, even his mentions of wealth are more subdued than his fellow rappers — at least at first; where just a week ago 2 Chainz opened his new album “So Help Me God!” with a track entitled “Lambo Wrist,” Jhn goes only as far as suggesting he’s got a watch worth the price of a Honda Accord on “Freedom is Priceless.” He more than makes up for that prior modesty on  “Gorgeous,” however, rattling off a string of six-figure purchases (“I just left Celine, yeah, I probably spent the mortgage / Diamonds ’round my neck, know it’s fuckin’ retarded”) indicating he can compete penny for penny with all comers. But if a song like that feels destined to become a new wealth anthem for listeners to model their ambitions around, it’s more of an outlier for the ideas that seem to drive Jhn. 

Though “High School Reunion, Prom” doesn’t spend much time exploring the premise of its title, he and Lil Uzi Vert trade verses over a reworked version of his 2019 song “High School Reunion” talking about the deeper connections they wish they had — and yet fight against — with the women that enter and leave their lives. He follows it with “Monica Lewinsky, Election Year” featuring DaBaby and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, where all three reminisce about adventuresome young women who ultimately want more from them than they’re willing to give; although none of them acknowledge the coincidence of naming the track after a young woman who was manipulated by a person in power and then unfairly vilified, there are hints of vulnerability that peek through the garden-variety misogyny and objectification. Future takes listeners further down this path with a new verse on Jhn’s “Roses,” offering word associations that bounce back and forth between brand names and dismissive characterizations of the women he sleeps with.

Jhn finally gets a chance to work with Kanye on “Pray 4 Me,” with decidedly mixed results. The young rapper’s verses sound more like Future than himself as he seeks blessings for his future, his personal growth, and even his enemies, while West mostly rambles, pausing only long enough to suggest he’s on another level since he found God (“They wanna ask, “Is he well?” when my mind’s on Israel / I know that I’ma live to tell that we lived through a livin’ Hell). But after ten tracks, “While the World Was Burning” starts to slip into sameness — of subject matter, and of musicality; Notorious B.I.G. recorded “Mo Money Mo Problems” back in 1997, so when Jhn says “Not a lot of sleep in my oversized bed,” the only thing he’s highlighting on “Time For Demons” is how little has changed for the impossibly wealthy. 

Further, it’s hard to be too sympathetic to Jhn on “Ransom,” when he argues that it’s asking too much to answer calls or respond to texts, even with Kehlani peppering in harmonies over his and 6lack’s verses. But songs like “Back on the Ledge” yearn with an emotional energy that makes the listener want to believe the sincerity of his “too rich to trust anybody” claims elsewhere, suggesting that at this young stage in his career, Jhn is firmly trying to fake it until he makes it. Overall, there’s slightly less variety in the record than one might prefer, at least to ensure that they can properly distinguish one track from another, and there’s nothing quite as catchy on here as “Brown Skin Girl,” which he recorded for Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” record. But even if he’s already a little too busy worrying about problems from the bright future he’s prophesied for himself, on “While The World Was Burning,” it’s nice to hear a rapper for a change who isn’t so eager to get there that he’s already forgotten where he came from. 

While the World Was Burning” releases Nov. 20 on Apple Music.