2011 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
The musical group Odd Future speak onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Kravitz

Growing Up Queer And Black With Odd Future's Music

I.

“This is for the ni**as in the suburbs and the white kids with ni**a friends who say the n-word” – Tyler, The Creator

The first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face I was, for lack of a better phrase, "spared” the indignity of it also being in English. Language will leave you grateful for the strangest things I suppose. The year was 2012 and I was, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, at a frat party at my alma mater wearing some raggedy KD35s, a still kind-of-new pair of Levi’s with a belt patterned with some classic mixtapes that was enveloped by a voluminous white tee with the name and logo of every Negro League Baseball team which I’ve owned since eighth grade but never grew into. Outside the house with the suffocating bass, a cloudless Pennsylvania fall was maturing. Dew dusted every suburban road in Swarthmore and October was settling into the trees. In the dark, the trees are everywhere. The streetlights are far between in suburbia, so you have to be within inches to see the changes flourishing around you, the kaleidoscopic qualities of death; even now, it is almost beautiful.

The man who called me ni**er was not a stranger. Until relatively recent to that point, we had lived within feet of each other as freshman year roommates. I’m telling you this less to blunt his violence than to explain why he was standing close enough to me for me to hear him. Everything about the sound system in a party like that seems to have a bone-deep hatred for the foundations of the building. It’s not hyperbole when I say the first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face everything was already vibrating, everything was already coming apart. The man, freestyle rapping very poorly to a song that was seemingly all bass to my deeply faded best friend, rhymed my name with “Mulignon” which in Italian translates directly to “Eggplant” and colloquially, on that night, me. The transfiguration I prefer is to tell you “Everything in me became a fist” but the reality is everything in me became a lens. I flitted a quick look to my friend who seemed to have lost the line in the bass or was biting his tongue. I studied the party, I counted the white people in the basement (too many), I counted the Black (we were standing next to each other, it went quickly); I uncurled my fist. I could see every possibility for the fight I knew I could win: the jaw I knew I could break and in that same breath, looking into the dew populating his face, my own expulsion if I laid hands on him. I was and am ashamed, he had called me a ni**er and all I could think of was the consequences I would face.

I turned, said I was getting another drink but really I hustled past the partygoers; the slick and swelter of their arms pushing the names of my shirt closer to me until finally I was up the stairs and pulling open the door. I was out in the air too furious even to shiver where the wind hit me. Pushing into the dark, t-shirt clinging to me heavy with the excess of other people’s want, I stared out first towards the train tracks then a light I trained myself to imagine as Philly, I was alone staring up and into the unpunctuated night, Black and without witness. I’m not telling you this story for sympathy, but to tell you how a boy governed by consequence and shame could fall wholeheartedly and dangerously in love with its absence. I’m telling you how I first fell in love with Odd Future.

In 2012 I was the hapless manager of an equally hapless rap collective that was paid in pizza and exposure, in that order. Disowned by policy, we rolled 5, 10, 12, 15 deep across a campus that could have never imagined us. Our songs were wack but that didn’t really matter, for once everywhere I looked, we were legion. I imagined this was what it must be like to be famous and unconcerned with consequence. This was what it must be like to be in love, I was sure of it.

The real magic of Odd Future is that for some Black boys, we imagine heaven to be a place where we and we alone are the greatest danger to ourselves. Odd Future, in their best moments, loved in a syntax of sheer, reckless desire. They seemed most of the time governed by impulse that delighted in existing right at the edge of familiar logic. Many would call their work “raw” because we love lazy approximations for tenderness in America, we love the taste of the wrong word said confidently. This is less about rawness than it is a story of the perils of falling in love with being unabashedly ugly, and that’s what they were and what I wanted most.

Nobody in Odd Future was good looking. In fact, many of their lyrics seemed to be in open conflict with the idea of being attractive. They were ugly, and we were ugly, and this was how we were beautiful to one another. In the worst fall, I believed I would ever endure, my hair was often dirty, my beard scraggly and uneven in a way I can now identify as my body’s signal for a depressive episode. My clothes were also pretty wack and I was shopping size-wise for the person I was and desperately wanted to return to being, a me whose muscles were shredded but at least his sadness was quieter. But Tyler, the Creator was wearing short-sleeved shirts with hand-drawn donuts on them. Earl Sweatshirt, nearly my exact age, constantly referenced his globular forehead, rapped seamlessly of his bulbous lips as the contrast of his face as he swilled cough syrup and set fire to sheriffs’ whips. At 19, I wanted to be so ugly it made me hyperbole; unassailable, loved by my ni**as and only them.

Beauty, as we had been taught it, was for people with something to lose and there was something, is something, still in me that wants nothing so much as to not give a f**k. To weaponize not giving a f**k, to weaponize all my ugly as an act of trust that I am not alone in that ugliness. We moved like bastardizations of another man’s light, eager patrons of each other’s flaws, content to call this love. And it was love, in the Odd Future way—15 boys who knew beauty not as a look, but a looking past. We grew fluent in each other, like boys do; we grew too fluent in looking past.

II.

“I’m high and I’m Bi…wait I mean I’m straight” – Frank Ocean

I didn’t know, and I did, that I wanted to call boys beautiful in a whole other reckless way in 2012. But just as the trees of Swarthmore shrank from imagining me, so too could I not imagine who could love me that way; if I was indeed, that way. Being a teenager is mostly going to class and trying to decide what sorts of violence you are prepared to tolerate, and I was only really good at the latter. The first time I ever heard Tyler, the Creator rap I was, true to form, skipping class because I was “sick.” This wasn’t untrue, but rather than the vomit I was naming in a series of well-manicured emails that could only semi-plausibly come from somebody who had just finished vomiting, it was a sadness ricocheting from synapse to synapse—a drumbeat without a melody. There are few more pitiful lonelinesses than percussion in isolation. What I remember about listening to “Yonkers” for the first time has very little to do with the roach and everything to do with the way the Blacks and whites seemed to pulse in lock step with my temples. That, and the way Tyler said “fa**ot.”

Tyler, the Creator says “fa**ot” with the tenor of someone casting a curse they don’t want to believe is already spoiling somewhere in their marrow. I was a boy. I am a boy. I have heard the word because I am alive among the afraid. Tyler’s enunciation, though, was always that of a man who was rapping with a cleaver already lodged in his windpipe and he said each slur as if it were another quarter inch that the weapon could come out and we were invited to take the blade’s place. I am an American, I am always learning to justify. The distance between what someone says and what you want to believe they mean isn’t especially hard to traverse if you’re a freshman in college. If you’re just a witness to the knife it doesn’t take much to think he doesn’t mean you specifically.

It goes like this often in boyhood, unfortunately—proximity and tenderness are too often mistaken for each other. I became infatuated with Frank Ocean on the song “Super Rich Kids” in the summer of 2012 at a job where I was paid to sit in a room with my headphones on removing staples from the insurance files of long dead people. I didn’t know at first that Frank Ocean was part of Odd Future, content simply to hear someone else sing of the emptiness of rich folk that had alternately grounded or terrorized me all my life. Frank seemed to know what I knew, against all odds, that the rich have no children, only sad assets.

Looking back, it begins to make sense that someone who we could know so intimately to be in a group but not of it could produce a song like that. It was only the introduction of Earl Sweatshirt’s verse that tipped me to the reality that the two could be friends. I loved Odd Future and I loved Frank Ocean and had not known that, at least theoretically, to love one was also to love the other. Reading more about Ocean’s sexuality, I would stare at the videos for “She” and “Oldie” and wonder what was he doing around so many people who claimed to love him—and maybe even did—but spoke as if they might shank the boy he loved, too? The real question, true to form, was why was I doing the same?

The reality is that too much of boyhood is proving what you are not. When you’re Black somewhere that you’re not supposed to be more than theory, Blackness itself can become uncharacteristically rigid. Passing as straight was not as much of an active effort for me as it has been for some that I love. Really to sit and feign ignorance of my own bisexuality, to sit and listen to most of Odd Future call me out of my name was not especially difficult because I didn’t need to do much to pretend it wasn’t my name. That’s the thing about Odd Future level violence: some of it was so hyperbolic that I could neglect the crucial fact that when we imagine a violence, it brings it further into the realm of plausibility. To be around some folks in the collective as they spoke with fear about “that gay sh*t” or said “fa**ot” wasn’t as much a knife to the throat as it was a subscription service, a tax I could forget I was paying until it cost me.

After being almost implausibly different from the backdrop of the alma mater, I think we were all grateful for loyalty that demanded a different strain of assimilation from us. I am American, I am always learning how to justify. One of the many ways I wasn’t doing my job as the manager of the collective was that there wasn’t very much of an endgame outside the production of an album-length follow-up to a 2011 mixtape that was mediocre at best. I think, at some level, we were all invested in stasis. There’s an ecosystem to masculinity: what does not yet demand to be confronted can, at least theoretically, be endured. For some of the members from outside the college, as long as the album wasn’t done there was still always a place to sleep and people who found you useful and called it love. For some of us inside the college, we had a love from outside the suffocating loneliness in which we lived. We could ride with folks who looked like us and pretend we didn’t see or weren’t responsible for the violence they brought upon us and people we loved. We could pretend we were home. So long as the album was not done, nobody needed to know what I was, and I could be anyone and nobody would cast me out. Better, I thought, to be like Frank and have friends you must look past to love, who said fa**ot to pull you closer, to say “you are like us, so long as you are our ugly, we will not let you pass into the dark.”

III.

“And you don’t even have to look ‘cause we gleam obscene in the light” – Mike G
It seemed like Odd Future’s love for each other for many years was based on a simple, familiar logic: There is no greater love than to resolve never to be out-violenced in the name of those you love. This, to me, was the real magic of the video for “Oldie,” the final track on the last Odd Future mixtape. There’s an almost surreal collective innocence to the group as they wander around the set, shoving into each other with mischievous impatience to lip sync their assorted verses. It’s a simple concept on a simple beat, a collective that was already showing signs of inevitable fracture together and young, it could almost distract me from the very real effects of the violence weaving through the lyrics. Almost.

It is a privilege when a transgression can remain theoretical. It was a privilege to pretend that when Odd Future wrote extensively of the murder, rape, and dismemberment of women and queer people that they couldn’t be serious. Maybe they weren’t, but even if they weren’t, that’s not the point. The point is that Odd Future was a collective of young people for whom mental illness was a kind of superpower. When I was at the onset of my depression, depression seemed like a rarity in the Black communities I was from. To many, it still is. I felt like so many who look like me a sense of kinship with these boys who seemed, rather than choked and heavy from this unsustainable summer fevering through my brain, supercharged with their own ugly possibility. I was willing to do what I knew about beauty to stand in the Black and white of that a little longer. I looked past, and looked past, until I couldn’t. It was frighteningly easy to pretend that the deprivation of privilege that accompanied the surge of my depression precluded anyone suffering a similar season from having the power to commit the violence they described.

Surely, I justified, there was a way that this was persona, and persona alone. To a degree I was right, there is a level of persona to anything written, the space between imagination and utterance is often wide. But the imagination too is, for better or worse, a deeply personal thing. The violence of Odd Future lyrics then was not merely observed, but a sickness that, like depression, I was in conversation with and the longer I looked past, the longer I was only delaying acknowledgment the call was coming from deep inside the house. Which is to say my imagination itself was and is sick to be able to do the work of looking past, it is my ugliest thing and I am trying these days to reimagine what its health might look like.

What does one do when the inconceivable future becomes the consistent present? When the president’s casual speech is soaked and powered with a deeper violence than any the collective imagination of a bunch of Black teenagers, foraging for their place in violence, could conceive of? Jay-Z once said that he admired that Odd Future was the highly creative and vicious byproduct of years of systemic neglect who were now lashing out at what made them; how they are saying to America, “This is the son you made. Look at your son.” I used to like this idea a lot, tried to embody the best of it; a nation’s shame living a shameless life. For me, this seemed like it must be freedom because I was young and freedom seemed a monolithic prospect. You were free or you weren’t. Either you were the greatest threat to you or someone else was. This, of course, then the proof that in a nation dedicated to exploring every imaginable violence, where the Atlantic Slave Trade found root and queer people are murdered regularly, that there is no such thing as hyperbolic violence in America, there is merely Tuesday. I’m old enough now to know that I once wanted the worst of freedom, I tolerated violences upon myself and others in the name of being less lonely. I don’t think I’m special, just an American trying to be less so these days.

The lucky thing about being the same age as many of the members of Odd Future is that the story is, barring tragedy, not over. I’m cautiously optimistic in a world where Tyler, the Creator is openly gay but jokes about refusing to date Black men that one day we might simply be beautiful to each other. I don’t know what will happen, I can’t until I’m there. Many folks in the collective don’t talk anymore. I hope where all of us are from our various spectrums of sadness, isolation and complicity in masculinity and violence we’re moving towards the healing we needed from what we could not mend alone in each other. My depression is still, as it was at 19, an unsustainable summer and I am doing my work to divorce myself from the idea of it being a superpower. Rather, I’m listening to “Oldie” in the fall with an older man’s ear to take what I can from the best of imagination in better company, in more healing love. Beyond the window the trees are changing again. This autumn is welcome and may last all my life.

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Jay Electronica backstage at Brooklyn Bowl on May 31, 2018 in New York City.
Johnny Nunez

The Curious Case Of Jay Electronica

A year before Jay Electronica’s momentous 2010 Roc Nation signing, the hoopla surrounding his mystique was nearly deafening, but online music junkies, tastemakers and refined rap connoisseurs had already been intrigued by his persona and music for some time. His grand introduction came by way of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 2007 Myspace release spanning 15 minutes over the course of one track. As if the novelty of rapping over drum free selections from Jon Brion’s film score of the same title wasn’t startling enough, listeners found heavy cosigns from Erykah Badu and Just Blaze that stressed this arrival as that of a pivotal juggernaut.

The greatest press release a mildly buzzing rapper could ask for at the time, voicemails from Roc-A-Fella’s production mastermind and Jay Electronica’s one-time romantic interest made him seem larger than life, with a mind greater than anything we had previously been exposed to. Contextualizing him as a pure-hearted artist capable of becoming a savior figure, it felt like we were being introduced to an extraterrestrial superhuman from Marvel’s cinematic universe. Left with the impression that we were lucky to even know about him via their reflections, this rollout was an organic dash of marketing genius that set the upstart’s career in motion before Twitter and other technological resources advanced hip-hop careers.

Though Jay Electronica went over a decade without releasing a full-length body of work until his recent formal debut A Written Testimony, invested fans were fortunate enough to discover older material through unofficial compilations found on blogs and file-sharing services. Many of his earliest musical visions were demo quality recordings that appeared to be unfinished though sporadically impressive, considering his performances were accentuated by production from Detroit guru Denaun Porter on top of hand-chosen recognizable beats from the late J. Dilla. Paying clear homage to the likes of Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, Jay Elec’s command of the microphone was enough for many to believe that his novelty would manifest into something special once he settled into a groove.

With the help of his well-established benefactor Just Blaze, the two years following Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)  made Jay Electronica one of the more widely touted and anticipated emcees since Canibus a decade prior. A deep dive into his earliest music uncovers a bit of untapped potential, but much of the work was haphazard and conceptually aimless until the earth-shattering “Exhibit A.” Initially released in conjunction with Guitar Center, the song felt like an apocalyptic harbinger that validated the praise that had been heaped upon the newcomer.

Dark and futuristic in nature, familiar followers were elated as this was a fully-realized production with improved audio quality. The song’s remix featured a latter-day Mos Def who was still sharp as ever, this collaboration bringing Jay even closer to acceptance and a place at the table with rap’s elite Jedi fold.

October 27, 2009, started the fateful chain of events that elevated Jay Electronica’s myth beyond reasonable expectations. Just Blaze premiered “Exhibit C” on Shade 45 and while it wasn’t a far stretch from the producer’s trademark sound (a classic soul loop accompanied by hyperactive drum patterns i.e. Jay-Z’s “Hovi Baby” and “Show Me What You Got”), it caught instant wildfire. Released as social media was beginning to sprout wings, the song became a moment forever etched in hip-hop’s ethos, setting a new standard and perhaps unfairly redefining how he’s been received since. Looking back, this was a perfect storm moment where preparation met opportunity, as the hook free barrage of upper echelon quasi-autobiographical rhymes (complete with mentions of encouragement from Nas and Diddy) sparked a frenzy in traditionalists already aggravated by autotune and Drake’s fusing the genre with R&B.

At a moment when the fervor surrounding him being spiked and hit a feverish peak, Jay Electronica’s next steps (or lack thereof) would throw his audience for a confounding loop while holding them entranced in the palm of his hand. Accustomed to a business model where record labels rush to capitalize on hot names and mold new stars out of clay, it became evident this was a one of a kind nomadic enigma who moved at his own pace. Unlike storied names such as Kid Hood, whose untimely passing came after impressing the world on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix, Jay Elec engaged the world in a tug of war between frustration and excitement making brief cameo appearances on songs or dropping a song intermittently before disappearing again. The past decade also found him in a short-lived love affair with an heiress to the UK’s upper-class Rothschild family, only adding to the culture’s confusion surrounding his mystique and every move.

Album done .

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

“...my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery”

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting from Dec 26

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Releasing in 40 days

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Salivation and hunger for a full-length Jay Electronica project would spawn eventual restlessness and doubt, with his backstory remaining largely untold short of going down intricate internet rabbit holes and taking context clues from his music. Attention to detail uncovers his roots in New Orleans, residencies including Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and his steadfast devotion as a practicing follower under Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam, but the question remained: Would we ever be introduced to his fully fleshed-out visions, grounding philosophies and principles the way legends like Nas and Jay Z so expertly did with Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt? To everyone’s surprise, last month Jay Electronica exited seclusion to inform Twitter that an album had in fact been completed, this revelation even met with a bit of well-deserved skepticism.

In the short time since A Written Testimony world premiered on Instagram and Youtube via a studio session and its subsequent release to digital streaming platforms, the long-awaited release has already been met with passionate debate akin to “Ether” vs. “The Takeover” or any other topic rap passionates devote energy to. Stylistically a bridge between the influences of Five Percenter legends such as Rakim and New Orleans hometown heroes not limited to Soulja Slim, it would serve well to remember that Jay Electronica has rendered himself a magician, as his initial 2007 greetings displayed a fascination with the film The Prestige. By this logic, one could assume he initially set out to be an idea, a concept or a spectacle designed to inspire and exist outside of the conventional confines of the music industry.

With mixed reviews of his debut in mind, we’re left with new questions to consider: Did the initial hype and excitement amount to smoke and mirrors? With him still having Just Blaze’s public support, why is the album mostly made up of underdeveloped self-produced beats? Is Jay Electronica a hot business commodity and an investment for Roc Nation or is there an actual kinship with Jay-Z who guest stars throughout the effort?

Without question, Jay Electronica is one of the more complex personas we’ve come across in ages. There’s a noteworthy delivery and a sharp knack for writing in his newest verses, but the extended hesitation to develop into a polished act and deliver output suggests he may have never wanted this level of attention, to begin with. Though he remains shrouded in mystery, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be watching his next act – that is, if he ever chooses to resurface in the public eye.

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Tremaine Edwards / @kardiakfilms

The Allegory Of Ryan Montgomery

The hook to Royce da 5’9”’s “Hard,” from his 2016 album Layers, has to be talked about. It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone into the current thought process that undergirds his current output. But, before that’s done, the song itself has to be taken into context. It’s pure superhero music—triumphant horn blasts and defiant autobiographical rhyme bursts with a quasi spoken-word opening verse. It’s a stylistic extension of what he had been doing for years—breaking rap bars into uneven run-on pieces with entangled and elongated metaphors and complicated punchlines that are impossible to get on the first (or fourth) listen. In the beginning, he’s back in grade school, speaking to a teacher in what’s probably a monologue courtesy of l’esprit de l’escalier. “Look around you: Do I look like anything like the rest of your class?” he asks. “Can’t you see that I’m special? I don’t act like these f***in’ crumbsnatchers. I don’t even breathe like ‘em’. I was born with my lungs collapsin’.”

It’s not pure braggadocio—on Trust The Shooter, the mixtape he released before Layers, he shared that he was born at “four-pound, dark purple, couldn’t even breathe on my own/ Shakin’ baby in the incubator, breathing machine for my lung.” He then obliquely spoke on dysfunctional families, drug addiction, a broken medical insurance system, major label disasters, the prison industrial complex, idol worship, and ADHD treatment—all within the first minute of the first song. “I learned everything I need to know at day one in the hospital.”

It was the introduction to an artistic explosion and growth spurt that may be unprecedented in the annals of hip-hop. Sure, there’s maybe another artist who has evolved in the ways that Royce has over the past half-decade—going from rapping about rapping to rapping about the ills of the world and exposing the raw nerves of his life—but it’s hard to think of one. And it’s hard to think of anyone who has the poetical focus of a member of a group as rhyme-driven as Slaughterhouse, who literally and lyrically hangs with Eminem, who doesn’t care about marketplace success so much that he constantly talks about his commercial achievements and shortcomings at almost every turn.

He begins the second verse of "Hard" bombastically: "My finest hour is here/This what I see in my prayers/ This is me, though I'm facin' all of my fears/ Making all my enemies look in the mirror/ And see the face to the Jordan meme of the Jordan face with all of the tears…" and he goes on, dropping intertwined bars about his skillset, a brush with divorce, what may or may not be physical or sexual assault on "your whore," and how the song was inspired by watching Hamilton on Broadway (a slight flex in of itself). So it almost makes sense when he breaks out into a Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque semi-song:

I said f***in’ the baddest bi**hes around wasn’t hard as I thought/ Man, what the f**k was I thinkin’? (get money)/Jewelry and cars/ Achievin’ the highest level of success ain’t as hard as I thought (top of the world)/ What the f**k was I thinkin’?/ I was drunk or I was lost/ My people said it would be hard/ My teacher said it would be hard/ What the f**k was she thinking’?/ Why did I listen to y’all?

***

The obligatory Infinity Saga analogy says that Royce is Thanos between movies; the one who acquired all the Stones—wealth (he brags about designer jeans and driving an Aston Martin), marketplace recognition (his Bad Meets Evil project with Eminem went gold and debuted a number one on the Billboard 200 a decade ago), peer respect (he's quickly replacing Black Thought as the "most underrated" rapper in spaces where those discussions take place), and whatever the other three Stones would be in this analogy. But somewhere offscreen, he realized that such things only served as temptation and he destroyed them. It's a neat analogy, but not perfect. We don’t know if Royce ever achieved what he wanted—he equates himself with Leonardo DiCaprio ("all they have on me is the awards") in a way that suggests he wouldn't mind winning a Grammy. What we know is he came close enough to those things to not want them. And, even though he compares himself to the Mad Titan on "Upside Down" from his latest album, The Allegory ("to the genre, I'm Thanos"), he’s actually Vision.

Despite his claims, Royce isn't the one who has the conviction to destroy half the universe; he's the one who used the Mind Stone properly, in ways that Marshall Ultron never imagined; the one who surpassed Dr. Dre Stark and Paul Banner’s expectations. His last two studio albums—2018's Book of Ryan and the recently released The Allegory–are all about building connections and showcasing emotional vulnerability in a way that someone as stoic as Thanos only revealed when alone with his daughter.

***

All "they" got on Royce is the awards, but if there were blind justice in this world, he would have been nominated for one for Book of Ryan. It's an album that spiritually began on a song that isn't on the album. "Tabernacle," the first song on Layers and nestled in the middle of Trust The Shooter, is the song. It's the one you play for people who don't get Royce, the one you play for people who don't listen to hip-hop because they think rap doesn't have depth, the one you listen to when you need to be inspired by the meaning of the chaos of your own life story. There's really no way to encapsulate the song without listening to it.

"Tabernacle" is the Sankofa song; the one where Royce looks back to move forward. And Book of Ryan is an astounding album-length look back at Ryan Montgomery and the Montgomery family. Full of domestic violence, humor, drugs, love, and dark and light moments in equal measure, it's a black Black comedy that is a coming to terms story masquerading as a coming of age tale. It's as if Lemonade, 4:44, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE were put into the blender of one mind and shredded by rap skills and spoken narrative. And, for good measure, there are a few songs that are about nothing but rhyming. One of them features Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous and feels like something that was erroneously leftover from a DJ's compilation; the other, "Caterpillar," featuring Eminem, could be construed as a callout against Kendrick Lamar ("remember when you praisin' the butterfly, don't you ever disrespect the f**kin' caterpillar"). "Caterpillar" isn't a dis—Royce too regularly praises Kendrick for such a thing to be taken seriously. He's also too direct in his conflict (he goes straight at Yealowolf's neck for a not fully-disclosed reason). But he's also so cut-throat that reading lines like,"Guess what I'ma never do?/ Show so much respect to you/ That I feel like we friends so now we no longer competitors/ That could be the death of you" is the kind of camaraderie as bloodsport the game needs. (But don't think too much about it. Royce's following lines—"Never let someone who's not as smart as you gas you up and tell you something that you never knew/Always stay professional"—feels like a preemptive subconscious strike against people who read too much in between the lines of rap lines.)

For the most part, Royce uses Book of Ryan to eschew well-worn rap roads and travels to the past to talk about his dad's addiction, his brother's incarceration, family outings, and his eccentric elders. The album also goes inward to talk about depression, alcoholism, and recovery. And Royce goes back to his old neighborhood to talk about his love affair with a lucky basketball signed by Isiah Thomas and buying snacks at a local store. He also talks to his son about his fears—the greatest being his shortcomings as a father and passing on his alcoholic tendencies: "You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/ And I’m the sickest of them all." It's hard to quantify things like "heart," and talking about them in regards to music is so subjective. But Book of Ryan is full of heart. There's really no better way to say it.

***

Royce wore a rhinestone du-rag so you don't have to. He tells you to Google it, as he does a few things on The Allegory. He's not willing to break down things for the listener all the time, but he presents the donning of the headpiece as a symbol of the sacrifices he made following commercial success early on in his career. And it makes sense. The first time I heard of Royce was while working in the Source offices from Riggs Morales, who was one of Eminem's first industry advocates (and would go on work at Paul Rosenberg's Goliath Artists amongst other industry positions). At the time, Source co-founder Jonathan Shecter was no longer with the magazine, but was running a small label called Game Recordings that released vinyl records with sexy girls on the cover. It was a bit ahead of the curve—since then, selling things hamburgers and beers via women in bikinis has become mainstream, but back then Riggs had a 12" of Bad Meets Evil that he was exceptionally fond of. Riggs had good taste in music and assured that the two emcees were amongst the best he'd ever heard. I never listened to it, but I kept it in mind.

At the time Royce released his debut, Rock City in 2002, I remembered that this was the kid Riggs was championing and listened. I was unimpressed. The lyrics were good, but the music and message felt too indistinct and trendy. And dude was running around with a rhinestone du-rag. This is why, now on "Upside Down," Royce announces: "Whoever think I'm here to make some corny-ass radio Viacom jingle got my whole diatribe tangled."

He's no longer making music for mass consumption. He's no longer after those stones.

***

A few things have to be said about The Allegory. Firstly—and this can't be understated—it's entirely produced by Royce, who wasn't making beats two years ago when he made Book of Ryan. It's important because while these aren't "superproducer"-level tracks, they're incredibly accomplished album cuts. The sounds aren't one-note, the arrangements aren't regular, and he often makes space for singers to come in on hooks and mini-verses. Moreover, it doesn't come off as an insular, navel-gazing vanity project. It's an album that stands on its own as a collection of music, stripping funk, warning basslines, sprinkling keys, and interpolating Dana Dane with a reserve that surpasses his position as a novitiate.

The rhymes are often amazing and every guest appearance by a rapper is spectacular. Griselda's Benny the Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn show up individually, as does fellow Slaughterhouse alum, KXNG Crooked. T.I and Cyhi da Prince gang up on "Black Savages." His brother and longtime collaborator Kid Vishis shows up, as does Grafh. Oddly enough, Eminem shows up on an interlude to make the most cohesive observation of race on the album, which is both confusing and not.

It's not confusing, because—through beefs and dis records and death and reconciliation—Eminem and Royce have emerged as an amazing mixed-race bromance. And, with his past few records, Royce's transparency about his upcoming explains his bond with Em in ways that are pretty opaque until now. They're not just rappers who came up together, they're products of tumultuous families, addicts who have leaned on one another, men who found sobriety, artists who genuinely use the recording booth as therapeutic havens. In the past, Royce spoke and rapped drunkenly on record; now he's making hour-long meditations on society and has motivational hustler Derrick Grace running through flash quizzes with Grace's daughter in between songs—distinguishing bullet calibers and reciting Black empowerment lessons.

It's confusing because The Allegory presents itself as Royce's "woke" project. In the beginning, he compares it to Homer's Illiad and Plato's Allegory of the Cave—two references that guarantee that this is not a project that will make itself known plainly or with ease. It's part To Pimp A Butterfly and part DAMN. And, like those projects, as much as it seeks to be progressive in terms of race, it remains shockingly regressive on sexual politics. On the opening of “Upside Down,” Royce begins: “Why the gay ni**as tryna f**k the straight ni**as that's tryna f**k the gay bi**hes that look just like the straight ni**as?/ Why the straight ni**as that the gay bi**hes tryna look just like the gay ni**as?” It’s a confusing bit of nothing—something that Royce routinely does with such verve that how it sounds trumps what it means. But, it’s troubling and manages to wave away the realities of multiple gender identities unnecessarily. Though it marries to the title of the song, it’s divorced from the rest of his verse and there’s no exploration of what he means beyond thought-twisting. While The Allegory is great on many levels, it's definitely misogynistic and often transphobic and homophobic on others. Royce still seems to be cheating on his wife and saying so publicly—or at least willing to allude to infidelity for a punchline. He's still under the spells of capitalism and bars violence. He outs himself as an anti-vaxxer. In short, it's a mess.

It's a mess, but it's a beautiful one because it's honest. "Pendulum" alone is disturbing in its dismissal of women. Royce confesses that he's "too narcissistic to be lickin' carpet, too artistic to nut/ This a catharsis" before going on to add that "my side chick is still burnin', now my dick is scorchin'/ Talkin' bout 'I think I'm pregnant; I'm not with abortion'/ Any child that slides out you is an instant orphan." The song's hook doesn't add any clarity: "We gon' rob the rich and leave them with the f**kin' bill." It's a thinking person's album that becomes uncomfortable if you think about it too intensely. And that’s a shame.

But The Allegory is also an album that speaks on growing old in rap, living and dying in Black America, the importance of owning your masters as a recording artists, and contains an apology to Royce's father for bringing up his dad's past without talking to him about it first. Yet, what the "allegory" is isn't quite clear. And it may be too meta and too lazy to say that that's the point. What's clear is that Ryan Montgomery, after 20 years as a professional rapper, is making the best music of his career and expanding his arsenal in profound ways. And that's going to have to be enough. He's learned that f**king the baddest bi**hes around and achieving the highest levels of success aren't as hard as he thought. He's still learning. If he continues to release music—or follow on his plans to "screenwriter a movie or write a play"—the caterpillar may do things with the Mind Stone that Thanos never imagined.

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Rocafella

How Beanie Sigel's 'The Truth' Album Led The Charge For Philly Street Rap

When listing the most pivotal and popular artists in the history of gangsta rap, many of the names mentioned will have ties to New York or California: N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Kool G Rap, Ice-T, and others. Artists from Philadelphia - the home of rap legend Schoolly D, who many credit with helping pioneer and popularize the sub-genre - were often an afterthought in these conversations, particularly during the '90s, when the city's dearth of rap talent on the national stage paled in comparison to that of other major markets across the country. Following the success of the hit singles "P.S.K." and "Gucci Time," Schoolly D's style would shift towards sociopolitical rap during the late '80s and by the turn of the decade, was considered past his prime. Cool C and Steady B had a hot streak during the '80s, but faded into obscurity shortly before being convicted for their roles in the murder of a Philadelphia Police officer during a botched bank robbery. And for all of their commercial success and groundbreaking accomplishments, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were often maligned for their lack of street cred, both on wax and off, and released their last album as a unit in 1993. Sure, The Roots, Jamal, Bahamadia and others made noise during the mid '90s, but lacked the mainstream appeal or staying power to truly put the city on their back, leaving the City of Brotherly Love without a rap artist with the lyrical chops, credibility and platform to possibly be mentioned alongside those aforementioned names for the better part of the '90s.

This would change during the late '90s when a crop of new talent emerged out of Philadelphia, the most touted prospect being Beanie Sigel, an artist who embodied the gritty aesthetic and culture of the city, all the while possessing skills comparable to the most lauded wordsmiths of all-time. Born and raised in Philly, Sigel, the product of a broken home, took to the streets at an early age, dropping out of school and quickly building a reputation as a brute hustler and stick-up kid. Charged with aggravated assault as early as age 13, Sigel had numerous run-ins with the law, most notably in 1994, when he, along with a neighbor, were accused of shooting an off-duty police officer during a physical altercation. However, those charges were ultimately dropped, leaving Sigel a free man and adding to his legend in his South Philly stomping grounds. That close call did little to deter Sigel from continuing his criminal lifestyle, as he became even more entrenched in the streets in the subsequent years. But in 1998, Sigel – a longtime fan of acts like EPMD, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane who had developed a gift for rhyming himself – stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime after linking with a local Philly rapper named Murder Mil, who inspired him to take his craft a bit more seriously. "It was just something I knew how to do," Sigel recalls. "I met a cat named Murder Mil and he actually made me want to start writing, we actually battled and I felt, at that time, that he had got over on me. He won that battle and I ain't like that."

From there, Sigel and Murda Mil sparked a partnership, taking on various rappers on the local battle circuit, most notably Philly's Most Wanted, one of the hottest duos in the city who were on the cusp of signing a major label record deal at the time. Trading off bars over Destiny Child's "No, No No (Remix)" instrumental, Murda Mil and Sigel fared favorably against their counterparts, with Sigel stealing the show with an onslaught of couplets. The performance caught Philly's Most Wanted member Boo-Bonic's attention, who convinced his management team to allow Sigel to accompany Philly's Most Wanted to a meeting with Roc-A-Fella Records in New York City. Sigel, still skeptical of taking a full dive into the music world, was initially reluctant to take the trip, even considering attending an illegal dogfight instead. "I had a few rhymes that I had 'cause where I was from, what we was doing, that rap thing was out the window," he explains. "That was something I had to do on my own time. We was doing what we was doing so it wasn't cool to be a rapper. We was clowning people who was trying to rap at that time, we was getting money. We was dressing like rappers and we had things that the rappers had." However, he ultimately decided to take Boo-Bonic and his manager, Sadiq, up on their offer, making the trek up I-95 to Manhattan for a night that would forever change the trajectory of his life.

By 1998, Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke had taken Roc-A-Fella Records from an independent label into a potential industry powerhouse, with a distribution deal with Def Jam, along with Jay-Z's platinum-certified sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, positioning the Roc as the next seismic movement on the east coast. While commercially successful, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 received mixed reviews for its glossy production and contrived radio-friendly singles, leaving many pondering whether Jay-Z had let the Cristal and Moet go to his head, to the point he'd lost touch with his roots as a battle-tested lyrical wizard. In spite of housing Hov's protege, Memphis Bleek, and R&B acts Rell and Christión, Roc-A-Fella had yet to become the army it is now known as, with the label's brain trust still in search of a prize prospect to add to the roster. Keying in on Philadelphia as a breeding ground to poach new talent from, the Roc heavily considered Philly's Most Wanted as the free-agent acquisitions that would help take the label over the top. But, as fate would have it, their interest would shift towards a relative unknown named Beanie Sigel, who remembers his first encounter with Roc-A-Fella fondly. "Jay was actually working on, I believe, the Hard Knock Life [album]," Beans shares. "'Cause he was doing a song with Too Short, ‘It Was All Good Just A Week Ago.’ I remember Too Short being in the studio with Jay. So we in the lobby of the studio and Dame Dash was out there talking, he had Philly's Most Wanted with some other cats that was in there that was rapping. And Dame sparked up a little confrontation about Philly rappers and New York rappers and, 'I hope they this, that and the third.'"

Dash's thinly-veiled slights and jabs at the away team resulted in an impromptu cipher, with Philly's Most Wanted and other Roc-A-Fella hopefuls going toe-to-toe with one another while Beans played the back. However, when one rapper began to get a bit too animated for Sigel's liking, he inserted himself into the fray, putting forth a showing that left the indefatigable Dash at a rare loss for words. "He was getting too aggressive so I started rapping," Beans says of his decision to step up to the plate. "So when I started rapping, Dame was like, 'See, I told you.' He thought I was from New York, and I had to correct him. ‘Man, I'm from Philly.' So he was like, 'Yo, you from Philly?' So he went and got "Biggs," Kareem [Burke], he brought him out like, 'Yo, you gotta hear this kid.' He was like, 'Yo, spit that rap,' and I wouldn't rap no more. I'm like, 'Nah, I ain't here for that.' I wound up rapping for him, they start flipping out. They went in the joint and pulled Jay out the booth like, 'No, you gotta come out now.'" Slaughtering the "A Week Ago" instrumental for nearly 20 minutes, Sigel's extended rhyme spill was so impressive that Jay-Z, Dash and Burke quickly brokered a record deal with The Broad Street Bully in the subsequent weeks, making him the first bonafide rap free agent to be inducted as a member of the Roc-A-Fella family.

From there, it didn't take long for Sigel to make an impression on the rap world, making his debut on Philly rap band The Roots' 1998 single "Adrenaline," which saw the neophyte anchoring the track with an epic stanza to close the proceedings. Next on the docket was a string of buzzworthy showings to close out the year, including appearances on "Reservoir Dogs," a stacked posse cut from Jay-Zs Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life album featuring The LOX and Sauce Money, and "Crew Love," a cut from the Belly soundtrack featuring Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek. However, 1999 would see Sigel truly put his name in contention for rap's Rookie of the Year, earning over a dozen credits alongside the likes of Foxy Brown ("4-5-6"), Blackstreet ("I Got What You On"), Puff Daddy ("Journey Through the Life"), Eve ("Philly Philly"), Sisqó ("Unleash the Dragon"), and The Notorious B.I.G., Black Rob, Ice Cube ("If I Should Die Before I Wake"). He also provided reinforcement alongside his Roc-A-Fella labelmates, joining Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek on "More Money, More Cash, More Hoes (Remix)," Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Amil on "For My Thugs," as well as a pair of appearances on Vol. 3.... Life & Times of S. Carter, the most prominent being "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)." Released as the lead single, the Rockwilder produced cut peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and thrust Sigel into the spotlight, with many fans clamoring for the firebrand's debut solo studio album.

Released on February 29, 2000, The Truth was the first Roc-A-Fella release of the new millennium and looked to position Sigel as the next street orator to place his imprint on the rap game. With comparisons to the likes of The Notorious B.I.G. putting even more pressure on Sigel, the first single from The Truth was as much of an opportunity to make a statement to affirm the hype behind his name as it was to gain traction on radio and the Billboard charts, which the album's title track accomplished on both fronts. Produced by Kanye West, who earned his first credit on a Roc-A-Fella project via this record, "The Truth" instantly grabbed listeners' attention upon its release in early 2000, many of whom were captivated by the scorching instrumental, which samples "Chicago" by Graham Nash. But the true crux of the track was Sigel's imposing presence, with the newcomer brazenly warning "I hope you got an extra mic and a fireproof booth/'Cause you know I'm known to melt a wire or two" on the opening bars, making it clear that the lyrical exploits were going to be aplenty. Reaching No. 23 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, "The Truth" presented Sigel as the last of a dying breed, an artist with the street credentials and skills to become the next legendary emcee to emerge out of the east coast.

Setting the tone with that introductory number, the Philly rep teams up with Memphis Bleek on "Who Want What," building on the innate chemistry the pair displayed on previous collaborative efforts like "My Hood to Your Hood," from Bleek's own 1999 solo debut, Coming of Age. According to Just Blaze, who produced the track, the song was his first placement within the Roc-A-Fella camp and was one of the more beloved selections from the album. “I had the beat already done and gave it to Hip Hop (aka Kyambo Joshua), who was the A&R for Rocafella at the time," Blaze remembers. "They heard the record and they just went in, did it, and mixed it. I didn’t know as many people liked that record as they did until I was out one night and I heard it [playing out of] five cars driving past." Volleying four-bar couplets before passing off the mic to one another, Bleek and Beans put forth a war-ready salvo, announcing themselves as the future of the label, with Bleek snarling, "You bout ta witness a dynasty like no other/Who flow like Bleek, think, no other/Who rhyme like Sigel, dog, no other/It's Roc-a-Fella twins desert eagle no other," as Sigel assumes the role of enforcer while assuring Jay-Z that they're more than qualified to carry the torch. Speaking of Sigel's over boss, Hov appears on three songs on The Truth, the first being the Bink!-produced standout "Raw & Uncut," which captures Sigel comparing their synergy to that of Micheal Jordan and Scottie Pippen. "Playa," an uptempo anthem for the clubs, also includes a feature from Jay-Z, who joins former Roc first lady Amil and Sigel as the trio holds court over jittery production by T-Mix.

In addition to contributions from Roc-A-Fella's core nucleus, The Truth also includes a guest spot from fellow Philly native Eve, who tackles the hook on the uplifting, feel-good single "Remember Them Days," but perhaps the most enduring meeting of the minds on the album comes via "Mac And Brad," which pairs the Broad Street Bully with southern rap legend Scarface. Produced by J5, this offering finds the kindred spirits and purveyors of the morbid broadcasting their cruel intentions, sans a hook, planting the seed for future collaborations between Scarface and the Roc, as well as a long-rumored joint-album that failed to materialize. While Sigel's various costars turn in admirable performances, The Truth's most brilliant moments come when its host flies solo, with highlights like the Buckwild-produced "What a Thug About" confirming his ability to thrive on his own strength without the added reinforcements. On "What Your Life Like," Mac paints a visceral picture of life behind the wall that has been hailed as one of the more authentic and jarring descriptions of prison to ever be laid on wax, before voicing his undying allegiance to his most trusted comrades on "Ride 4 My," a Bink!-produced number powered by a sample lifted from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. However, the apex of Sigel's mastery behind the mic is displayed on "Die," an intense composition that finds him pondering the various ways he could come face-to-face with his demise. Rhyming "When you live by the sword, you die by the sword/I'll probably die in the vocal booth spittin' out raw/Die on stage, rippin' down tours/Die from AIDS, trickin' out-a-town whores," Sigel puts the trappings of fame with the realities of his checkered past and illicit lifestyle into context, resulting in a sobering tune that finds its author closing the proceedings out on an evocative note.

Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 155,000 copies sold in its first week, The Truth was considered a commercial and critical success, with a number of critics praising Beanie Sigel's performance throughout the album and the realism of his lyrical content. In addition to Sigel's own singles, The Truth was also bolstered by "Anything," a solo selection by Jay-Z tacked on the end of the album. The song, which peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, features a sample of Lionel Bart's "I'll Do Anything," was a blatant attempt at recapturing the magic of his breakout 1998 single "Hard Knock Life," which Hov admitted himself in an interview years later. Reaching gold certification, The Truth not only solidified Beanie Sigel as a rising star in rap, but gave Roc-A-Fella as a viable movement with a talented stable beyond its leader that was fully capable of holding down the fort. Later that same year, Sigel was prominently featured on Jay-Z fifth studio album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, further entrenching him as one of the premier spitters out of the east coast and the most respected rapper out of the streets of Philly. He would also go on to become the leader and frontman of State Property, a crew of Philadelphia rappers that helped rejuvenate and revive interest in the cities rap scene on a national scale. In a career that includes multiple classic bodies of work, The Truth remains the moment that the rap world got introduced to The Broad Street Bully, whose only intent was to put on for his hometown. "That's just me being able to let my home know that I knew how to rap," he says of his mindstate while recording his debut. "They ain't know who I was 'cause I wasn't out on the scene like that, so when I did The Truth, I always knew how to rap. It was just a collection of little raps I would play with when I was in the mix."

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