The Columbus-born rapper takes a hesitant step onto his soapbox with a ferocious, politically and socially charged album

Jake Bragg wrote the song “Terrorist” while sitting in a jail cell in Clermont County, Ohio, tapping out a beat on his leg and repeating the lines over and over in his head until the words stuck.

“All I feel is paranoia/All my money’s spent on lawyers,” he raps on the finished track, which falls at the close of 2019 album Terrorist Threats, a ferocious, incisive effort that casts a wide net. Throughout, Bragg, who records and performs under the name Icee Jake, takes aim at police violence, capitalism, organized religion, private prisons and the growing opioid epidemic, among other concerns.

But before Bragg could complete the album, he first had to navigate the U.S. legal system, having been charged with one felony count of making a terrorist threat in association with a March 2018 Facebook post directed at State Rep. John Becker. At the time, Bragg shared an article from The Appeal that referenced comments Becker made in defense of Cincinnati police tasing an 11-year-old girl, Bragg writing, “Someone please kill this piece of shit. Y’all want me to believe in a government where people like this are put in power?” (Bragg, who had no previous record and was then employed in a group home working with at-risk teenagers, now says that he used the wrong choice of words in attempting to make a larger societal point; he was eventually acquitted on all charges.)

On Terrorist Threats, Bragg uses his case as a jumping-off point to examine a host of societal ills, including a legal system littered with loopholes that can have devastating effects on those with less means. (Bragg received financial assistance via a crowdfunding campaign launched by local podcast Street Fight Radio, which now employs him as a full-time sound engineer.) As an example, he recounted the week he spent in jail after a grand jury reduced his felony charge to a misdemeanor.

“In that preliminary hearing, the judge was like, ‘You have a warrant for a misdemeanor now, since the charge has been [lowered] to a misdemeanor, but you’ve already paid your bond, so I’ll just sign it over,’” said Bragg, who was told by the judge he’d be free to leave as soon as officials processed the paperwork. “But since that judge was a felony judge and not a misdemeanor judge, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t accept the signature, so I had to sit in jail for another week waiting for a different signature.”

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These frustrations boil over on songs such as “Officer Down,” which touches on the overt militarization of the modern police force, and “Legalize All Drugs,” which decries the criminalization of addiction, Bragg denouncing for-profit prisons, the politicians who push to build them and the police who work to fill them. “Got no respect for an officer/That badge look like a swastika,” he spits.

Bragg, who grew up on the city’s North Side writing depressed, insular raps, hasn’t completely abandoned this more personal, self-reflective touch. Even within Terrorist Threats the MC makes space to address everything from his long struggle with depression to his rift with the church, to which he used to have a seemingly inseparable bond. Up until five or six years ago, Bragg operated as a Christian rapper, writing faith-based verses that often explored the ills he viewed within the institution. Bragg said he started to drift from his faith as he realized that his increasingly liberal-minded personal views didn’t align with church teachings, pointing to Christianity’s regressive views on homosexuality as just one example.

“One of the biggest things, for me, was where it says in the bible about being lukewarm, and that you either want to be hot or cold because ‘lukewarm will be spit out of his mouth,’ and I felt like I was lukewarm,” Bragg said. “It was like, ‘You can’t believe this and then not believe this. You have to believe the whole thing.’ And I finally got to a point where it was like, ‘I can’t believe the whole thing.’”

This type of deep self-exploration has been a hallmark of Bragg’s music since he crafted his first verses as a teenager — “I started doing music when I was 13, and I was a little depressed kid, so the music was all very personal and emotional,” he said — and has remained so even as he has shifted this gaze outward with stated hesitancy. “I am not a political pundit. I haven’t read many books and I am far from an expert on anything. I am not a leader,” Bragg writes in the acknowledgments that accompany Terrorist Threat. “I am getting off my soapbox now and going back to being that emotionally insecure person I am.”

“I don’t want to be looked at as a guy to come to with stuff, because I’m not,” said Bragg, 30, who as a teenager twice entered and won a hip-hop songwriting contest sponsored by Berklee College of Music and Essence magazine, placing in back to back years. “I’m very emotional. I’m a depressed person. I’m shitty at organizing.

“The whole reason why I even started doing music was that it was a way for me to share my emotions with people. … It’s a way of communicating and venting and getting stuff out, and hopefully it can inspire people in a positive way to get out there and do something for themselves.”