Karlton Jones exists in a rare niche as a Christian artist who both raps and plays the jazz saxophone—sometimes, it seems, in a single breath. He believes riding that narrow lane is the key to his success—that and, of course, the exaltation of Christ in his lyrics.
Jones, whose life changed after what he says felt like a near-death experience in 2007, is confident about his craft and mission. A press release touts his latest project, I Believe, as “[a]nticipated to be the #1 chart topping record of the year.” While I Believe, released February 16, has yet to explode on Billboard’s standard Christian or Gospel charts, the new EP’s title track has been getting love on Christian radio.
Running under 20 minutes, I Believe offers five eclectic tracks that are both breezy and bouncy, with Jones defining the mood of each with his deft saxophone skills. Though well-produced, I Believe falters slightly in some places on the tracks “Da Blood (featuring Braille)” and “All This (featuring Rachel Jones),” the latter of which woos you with its reggae rhythm but disappoints with a shaky vocal delivery. However, the stand-out title track, “I Believe,” offers a seamless blend of jazz, hip-hop, and EDM that Jones rides comfortably with an energetic lyricism.
Jones explained via email that he approached I Believe “from a relationship perspective of how I can personally see Jesus in my everyday life and walk with Him.”
“I can see Jesus living inside my wife, children, family, and friends. I can also see how the hand of God has moved in my life through the blessings I have received and obstacles that He’s helped me to overcome,” Jones added.
Jones is the music minister at The Calling Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and has been playing and recording music for nearly two decades. He made his debut as a Christian hip-hop and jazz artist with The Calling in 2014, which has a strong rock influence and a radio-friendly/CCM feel.
Once a secular hip-hop artist known by the moniker Crucial, Jones had a life-changing experience when one morning in 2007, he says, he heard God call him by name.
“God’s voice sounded like pure love, a still small voice, and a gentle and quiet whisper… I felt and knew He wanted me to change my lifestyle and live for Him,” Jones said.
Although the supernatural experience roused him from his sleep, Jones says he didn’t really wake up until several weeks later when he began experiencing what turned out to be a lengthy and severe illness. Now “healed,” Jones said he had believed the illness would kill him.
After that trial, Jones committed himself to making music that glorifies God, with the aim of drawing others to Him.
Among those he’d like to reach with his testimony—via collaboration—are Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance The Rapper. High on his wish list of top producers are Timbaland, 9th Wonder, and Pharrell.
If these dream collaborations were to materialize, though, their purpose wouldn’t be to “boost my own popularity,” Jones said in a lengthy preamble to his wish list.
“I want to do this so the name of Jesus would be known, so He would receive the glory, and encourage people to completely give their hearts to Him. I really want to spark conversation with these types of artists about Jesus and reach them as Jesus reached me with love when I hadn’t fully given my heart to him yet,” he said.
Jazz-inspired hip-hop is nothing new, having gained prominence and its modern shape in the ’90s with iconic groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Digable Planets—artists Jones grew up listening to.
“As I grew older I learned more about jazz and became a fan of saxophonists and jazz legends Charlie Parker and John Coltrane,” Jones said.
Jazz-rap artists like Jones likely don’t emerge at the top of popular lists of “Christian rappers.”
But Jones’ latest album has been making headway, thanks to the EP’s lead single, “I Believe,” emerging on playlists of Christian radio stations reporting to Billboard.
“There is no one else that I know of that is doing this and right now,” Jones said of his Christian hip-hop/jazz mashup. “I’m in my own lane.”
Jones is adamant, however, that his successes are at home.
“My biggest accomplishment so far is being a good husband to my wife and good father to my three children. God has blessed me with a beautiful family. They are the inspiration behind the music I make,” he said.