The Roundup, 4/19: Charlotte's Got A Lot (Of Hip-Hop)
Home to more nationally compelling acts than ever before, the Queen City is coalescing into the hip-hop epicenter of North Carolina.
Ever since it debuted as Charlotte’s motto nearly a decade ago, “Charlotte’s got a lot” has been an instant and easy target for out-of-town derision, thanks to its awkward, pseudo-rhyming cadence, extreme vagueness (even by Visitors Bureau standards), and lack of imagination (it was reportedly between that and “Charlotte: We’ve got stuff here”). But mostly, the phrase was doomed by its attachment to a city that — unless you were looking for a suffocating banking culture or a living monument to urban sprawl — was perceived to, well, not actually have a lot.
Whether members of the Charlotte-based agency BooneOakley had been taking in some local Charlotte hip-hop at the time of conception or not, in at least one cultural corner of the Queen City, the dumb, 10-year-old slogan has started to ring a tad prophetic.
First was the emergence of Deniro Farrar, the oft-shirtless rapper covered in tattoos and bestowed with a bone-chilling voice of God. When he signed a major label deal with VICE Records and Warner Bros. in 2013, he immediately became one of the most high-profile acts in North Carolina, forging a unique lane for himself that weaved between aggressive criminality and heartfelt positivity (he launched a book club focused on knowledge and self-empowerment in 2015). While a full-length album has yet to arrive, a slew of EPs and singles have kept the momentum going, with videos consistently racking up hundreds of thousands of views.
While Deniro’s steady ascent is fairly easy to comprehend, Lute’s is almost too miraculous to be believed. Four years after the release of a celebrated and buzzing project titled West1996, the once-emerging Lute had seemingly drifted into thin air. I even wrote about it at the time, questioning if we would ever hear from the Queen City emcee again. As it turns out, he was just about to release a follow-up mixtape, West1996 Pt. II — out of a sense of obligation and closure more than anything — and leave rapping altogether, when he was visited by a guardian angel: J. Cole. Cole reportedly asked him to hold the tape’s release and join Dreamville, sending him on what must be considered among the biggest career U-turns of all-time.
Though we don’t know how much it was altered under Cole’s tutelage (if at all), West1996 Pt. II was finally released last year to critical praise, and Lute’s past few months have been spent touring in support of the larger acts on the label’s roster, including J.I.D and EarthGang, establishing him as undoubtedly one of the must-watch acts in NC. A recent appearance on Phonte’s stellar No News Is Good News album, at the end of the chest-beating track “So Help Me God,” doesn’t hurt either.
And while Farrar and Lute have gotten the lion’s share of national visibility, a next tier of impressive Charlotte artists have continued to develop and hone their craft. Reuben Vincent, signed to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records as just a teenager, released his debut project, Myers Park, last year. Hoping to book him for an appearance on the Super Empty Show, I started poking around his social media in hopes of connecting, when I stumbled upon a slight scheduling hurdle that should have been obvious: he’s still in high school. As far as rappers old enough to vote, Elevator Jay’s spacey, Outkast-inflected 2017 album, Ain’t Nothin’ Finer, continued to zero in on his unique sound. A new song and video, released this week, plays with cadence and diction in delightfully quirky ways, with the phrase “What you know about it?” rendered as one single, unbroken thought: “Whatchanoboutit?”
Then there’s Cyanca, whose moving Isle Of Queens EP was quietly released last year, following the passing of her mother. This month, she followed it with a music video for the track, “New Phone, Who Dis?” and the results were absolutely stunning.
A multi-instrumentalist and former church choir singer, Cyanca is more cut from the cloth of SZA and Ari Lennox than rappers like Cole, Rapsody or Lute, but her sound and style are unquestionably hip-hop. As the album's title suggests, her focus is refreshingly shifted away from the male-centric concerns that typically dominate the genre.
“I experienced a lot of turmoil and heartbreak which led me to write a lot of my songs,” she wrote via email. “Also observing women around me who were going through a similar trend, led me to create an EP dedicated to women and the importance of self-love.”
She may not have the same attention yet as some of her aforementioned QC contemporaries, but the mutual respect is already present. In the “New Phone” video, Lute plays the role of a painter, ultimately stealing all of the protagonist’s money. The cameo comes on the heels of Elevator Jay making a similar appearance in the Lute video for “Still Slummin’”.
“Charlotte is loaded with raw talent,” she says. “A lot of curators are realizing how important it is for us all to work together.”
What does it all mean? For the rest of us spread around the Carolinas, it means reckoning with the fact that Charlotte isn’t just the banking city we’ve grown accustomed to bashing because of asinine opinion columns like this one, but also the leading hotbed of hip-hop in the state. Perhaps more importantly, it means that the spirit of collaboration that the Triangle and other regions often like to lay claim to has, it turns out, no jurisdiction. Where there are great artists with a desire to be a part of something larger than themselves, there will always be a positive, collaborative culture, buzzing with creative energy.
Whether in the form of Elevator Jay, Deniro Farrar, Cyanca, Lute, Frais, our friend Dave Butler, or countless others, Charlotte’s got a lot of that.
Angelo Mota - "Better Than Breakfast"
With Chapel Hill-via-Charlotte rapper WELL$ in the midst of a lengthy hiatus, the plans of North Carolina rap label Immaculate Taste — longtime curators, event promoters and general stewards of hip-hop culture in the Triangle — now center on their buzzing MC/producer from New Jersey, Angelo Mota.
Mota is at home over dreamy, subdued production where his vocal delivery can cleverly stretch and contract to fill the space, and “Better Than Breakfast” is exactly that. It might not be destined for the half million Spotify streams of his Michael Christmas-assisted 2016 track, “All Over You,” but with placement already on the highly popular Mellow Bars playlist, it’s well on its way.
If the song does start to rack up serious numbers, don’t be surprised. Considering that last year Mota debuted his single “Internet” on Ebro Darden’s Beats 1 radio show, these high-exposure marketing rollouts are starting to seem like second nature.
Steezie - "Sublime"
Early Big K.R.I.T. mixtapes. The mesmerizing short film “As I Am.” Across artists and across mediums, there’s something about a sonic landscape of distant twangs and eerie moans that evokes the old South like no other. Whether it was the intent of Raleigh emcee/producer Steezie or not, on his new song “Sublime,” it’s all I can hear. It’s not until a trumpet chimes in at the end of the song (a distinctly 20th century instrument) that I am catapulted thoroughly back to the present, or at least something resembling it.
Steezie doesn’t let his production do all the work — over the lazy but alluring instrumental, he performs an almost checked-out rendering of the trap delivery that is the cadence du jour in 2018 (rapping semi-quickly during only three beats of a measure, allowing a pocket reserved for ad-libs like “yeah!”), riding a thin line between charismatic and comatose. Usually this rap style is a mere complement to a main course of superficial, “Future Type Beat” production. Here, contemporary raps come alongside a beat with the sound of a historical relic.
The result is a refreshing blend of new and old. “Sublime” is a soundtrack as well-suited for driving to Chipotle as it is for slowly rafting down the Mississippi, even if you’re just slightly more likely to do the former.
Editor’s Note: If you want more of Steezie, he just produced a song for ZenSoFly and Dream Rayne called "Introvert."
Young Bull - “We Up” (video)
For one of the most impressive, precocious acts to come out of Durham in recent years, Young Bull’s videos, while solid, have still left strayed more safe and routine than the bad’s independent, unique sound. Enter director Saleem Reshamwala, who just last year was awarded a Hip-Hop Film Festival award for Best Music Video on G Yamazawa’s “North Cack” video, shot as one single take.
Working alongside creatives Gabe Eng-Goetz, Mandy Padgett and others, Saleem & Co. constructed an outdoor living room for the shoot, and had actors and the members of Young Bull perform the entirety of the video in reverse (including rapping to a reversed version of the song). Played in its intended direction, with paint flying back into canisters and fish bowls refilling with once-spilled water, “We Up” contains all the revelry and merriment of a wild party, but begins in total destruction and concludes with a relaxed photoshoot on the couch. Really, it’s the best kind of party one can have — at the end, there’s nothing to clean up. We up indeed.
Frais - Shameless
Frais’ recent SoundCloud loosie, “Shameless,” didn’t make it into the opening segment of this piece not for any structural or intentional reason, but because it was already too long. I’m sorry. I apologize because no conversation about Charlotte hip-hop would be complete without at least mentioning 006SET, a hip-hop collective that skews to the more repetitive, vibe-heavy end of today’s spectrum. “Shameless” is an unbridled ode to living life on one’s own terms, with no shame, and certainly no aversion to auto tune. It’s a fun and infectious bop of a song, perfect for the warm summer months to come.
For more topics on hip-hop within North Carolina and beyond, and in-depth interviews with hip-hop artists and creators (designers, videographers, photographers, etc.) worth knowing, check out our new podcast, the Super Empty Show. Our latest episode, with Durham native and L.A. resident G Yamazawa, is now live.