On “One,” JSWISS Models Self-Belief Over Cynicism

The NC-schooled, NY-based rapper continues his stellar string of jazz/experimental collaborations, this time with saxophonist/producer Marcus Strickland.

On “One,” JSWISS Models Self-Belief Over Cynicism

Just under a decade ago, UNC alum JSWISS was back from college and residing in the Big Apple, making impassioned, intellectual hip-hop (like the 2015 album Allcapsnospaces) not altogether different, at least in spirit, from the brand of rap he still serves up today. Watch the video from just last February of the native New Yorker eruditely weaving together an entire verse via the titles of more than two dozen literary works, and one immediately understands the scholarly, Talib Kweli/Brother Ali lineage from which he comes. But in an era in which the purveyors of 90’s-inspired boom-bap are many but the cases of sustained success are few, SWISS in recent years has deftly and tirelessly deviated from his earlier releases in at least one fundamental way — forgoing the straightforwardly looped beats of most indie hip-hop and instead carving a lane for himself within New York’s comparatively unrestrained jazz and experimental music scene, increasingly delivering his verses at historic venues, alongside highly esteemed figures in modern music. The ensuing recognition for SWISS has been less of the Rap-Caviar-billboard-in-Times-Square variety and more of the if-you-know-you-know sort: garnering respect and appreciation within a milieu that casual fans themselves may not know, but that their favorite artists almost certainly do.

If, for example, the “Blue Note” doesn’t immediately register as a place of historical significance in your mental database, you’ll at least recognize many names amongst the who’s-who of past performers at the jazz club: from present-day stars like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper to legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles. You may not be familiar with the trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart, but you surely have heard Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" (on which Leonhart played trumpet), Steely Dan (who Leonhart performed with across multiple albums) or the GRAMMY awards (of which Leonhart became a winner at just 17 years old). You might not know jazz acts like Nate Smith or Maurice Brown, but you know their creative collaborators: Paul Simon, De La Soul, Norah Jones, The Roots. That these are the kinds of places and people SWISS has spent the past few years performing in and alongside is a testament to the fruits that can come from consistent, committed steel-sharpening and relationship-building — opportunities up to and including your raps being deemed worthy of backing from a live string quartet

To that end, the emcee’s past few releases have been a steady procession of duo collaborations: with Leonhart (Bona Fide) and composer/saxophonist Sly5thAve (Somebody’s Gotta Do It) in 2022, and DJ Dacel (Do It Now) in 2023. On his latest single, “One,” the trend continues, this time with saxophonist and producer Marcus Strickland (who himself appeared alongside Bilal and Erykah Badu, among others, on the 2020 album, VOYAGE-19). While the song tilts back and forth between stark, droning 808s and gliding, weightless reprieves, the one constant is the jittery spasms of Strickland’s saxophone in the background — reminiscent, of course, of the feints and flourishes that brought heightened emotion and a sense of organic instability to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered. Here though, there’s something distinctly East Coast about the resulting clash of sounds, like a warm breeze on a humid New York City night. 

Matching the track’s ominous tone early on, SWISS’s outlook on our present moment isn’t the cheeriest: “Death to freedom, death to all us/ Apocalypse is comin’, what they told us,” and “What’s the synopsis, less for the workers/ more for the bosses, triple the charges/ less for the artists, more for the heartless…” But, despite his usual bent towards the power of collective action, the salvation from cynicism and darkness in this case comes, maybe predictably for a song called “One,” from the individual. In a cruel and unjust world, the power to overcome starts with the kind of self-belief that SWISS has plenty of (“I'm proud of it, know that my future is brighter than what”), and hopes that others can find in themselves too: “Look in the mirror I hope you happy with who you’ve become/ Internet tell you you’re not, I’m here to tell you you the one”). Who would disbelieve him? Words aside, the inspiring, unconventional path that he’s charted for himself over the past few years should be evidence enough. 


As you might have noticed, things have been a bit slower than usual at Super Empty. Today marks our first post in just over two weeks, but weirdly, during the pause, NC and NC-affiliated releases kept coming out anyway. Here's 12 for you to enjoy:

Rapsody ft. Erykah Badu - "3:AM"

On Friday, Rapsody released the third and final(?) single for her May 17th album Please Don't Cry, the woozy, tender love song, "3:AM" featuring Erykah Badu, as well as a video of the two performing the song together in Dallas in late February. More than simply a live rendition of the track, it shows the genuine affection that Badu clearly has for Rap — further proof of why the many big-name acts she calls upon for features are usually happy to oblige.

Reuben Vincent, ft. Swavay & Chris Patrick - "Grand Cherry (Remix)"

Last week, Reuben Vincent dropped the music video for the breezy closing track on his recent General Admission EP, "Grand Cherry (Remix)," with Vincent, Chris Patrick and Swavay shooting dice and recounting their winding paths to the present moment. Patrick and Swavay are great gets for Reuben, but they also serve as a measuring stick for the Charlotte up-and-comer, as their bookending verses are the track's most memorable. Still, "Cherry" is a fun, lively listen from beginning to end.

Chenayder ft. MAVI - "Colors"

It's a testament to Charlotte emcee MAVI's cleverness and magnetism that even when he launches into a fairly predictable rhyming concept — in this case, channeling Roy G. Biv for a verse constituted entirely of references to reds, greens, blues, and so forth on singer Chenayder's "Colors" — you still can't turn away, and still will hear twists and turns of phrase you didn't expect. It's a great pairing that makes for one of the year's more infectious songs.


  • "Genre-bending" may be the artist description du jour, but in the case of Shirlette Ammons, it's undeniably accurate. The Durham emcee's new album, Spectacles, defies easy categorization — from the predictably groovy, Sylvan Esso-assisted "Delight," to the alt-rock-inclined title track, to the G. Yamazawa/Kane Smego-assisted "All The Things," which sounds delightfully like something Chance The Rapper and Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment might've released in 2015.
  • It's a fully Raleigh link-up on producer Michaelxwhite and emcee Kemp Dupri's Golden Hour EP, with a staggering, blunted sound that any fan of the Curren$y-Smoke DZA-Wiz Khalifa extended universe will love.
  • Rapper Big Pooh once said "The L the B, the J the L, is here forever..." and goddammit he was right. It's 2024, and the turn-of-the-century Justus League collective is still here — most recently in the form of Edgar Allen Floe and Cesar Comanche's new single "Kremzeek!"
  • Durham-raised, LA-based producer Solomon Fox and harpist/producer Sara Kawai have a beat tape on the way — starting with the ethereal first single, "Maitake Ceremony."
  • He might be separated from Benny Zenn by about 10,000 miles, but Raleigh rapper Tab-One nevertheless sounds right at home on the vintage boom-bap track "Livin'," his guest track on the Australian producer's new By The Slice album.
  • The third and final installment in his "Dream" Trilogy, Fayetteville rapper/producer Vinnie-Dangerous' excellent new album Dream 'Til It's Over is a weighty, expansive exploration of maturation, family and more. Plus, when it comes to the Most Bone-Chilling Voices in NC, Vinnie is right up there next to Deniro Farrar. Best tracks: "Got Me Fucked Up" ft. Saint Pat, "Do Right," "Momma's Cutlass."
  • As for Deniro, he's got a new song and video out, "Difference," featuring the Charlotte rapper preaching perseverance and living what seems to be his best life in the weight room.
  • A balm for the sickness of overly-serious rap beef that ails us, Charlotte rappers Southside Gauxst and Elevator Jay have been getting into it with an altercation of a friendlier kind of late. If you're in the mood for a diss slightly less psychologically terrorizing than Kendrick's "Meet the Grahams," you can find it in Gauxstman's "Local Joker."
  • And as if today's email didn't have enough JSWISS in it, I would be remiss in not including "Fool Stop," the soulful, jazzy single released last month by SWISS and the Brooklyn collective Yellow Couch Music. Like the aforementioned "Colors," it's an impossible one to not smile and groove to.