There is an unnervingly steep escalator at the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn. If you catch yourself thinking about the incline too much, you begin to feel slightly woozy, disoriented and maybe even a little vertiginous. The windows running alongside the escalator are decorated with serenely colorful stained-glass murals, but the station itself, which acts as a transport hub facilitating the Bushwick, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighborhoods, usually feels closer to rowdy than merely bustling. It's a station that's used by the rapper Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire as an anchor for a point of his life in the song in "Chains" on his new Kismet mixtape.
The reference pops up after he's rapped one of those bewitching vignettes that seem like the artist has condensed grand swathes of time and geography into a few compact lines: "For years Mandela sat in that cell and couldn't get no justice / The bougiest of bitches be the quickest to suck dick / Southern comfort, articulate ruffian / Drunk, walking on the platform on Broadway Junction." After that, eXquire delves into a confessional about demons from his past and insecurities about fulfilling his talent in the future. Then comes a chorus about not being shackled: "You'd think we'd had enough of fuckin' chains."
When eXquire zeroes in on Broadway Junction, his words turn captivatingly personal. In a city as monolithic as New York, small references resonate especially warmly. So meeting eXquire in a Bushwick bar while a late-May rainstorm patters off the concrete pavement and mural-emblazoned warehouses outside, I ask him about the station, which is a ten block walk from his old Kingsborough Houses apartment. He says he invoked it as part of a very literal lyric, that he was coming back drunk from a party and waiting for an A train to Utica Avenue. He also wrote his verse on "Chains" while on the train. Then, with some prompting, he tells a grisly anecdote about some of the stranger characters he's seen at Broadway Junction: "I seen a naked lady one time getting on the train with her maxi-pad hanging out, with the string hanging out her vagina, begging for money. I seen this dude one time, he gets on the train bleeding, fuckin' his arm is broke and you see his bone protruding, the train's wobbly and he says, "I have AIDS," and he's stumbling. I'm like, "I don't want that AIDS blood!" That's two wild stories." With that, he lets out a blast of his endearingly cartoonish laugh.
Routing back to "Chains," I ask eXquire if he often writes his songs while on the subway. "Yeah, tapping in my phone, that's usually my little ritual," he says. "There's something about the train that just inspires music. Every song I do, If I don't like it on the train, then it's not good to me. Most of the good music I listen to, I discovered on the train: I discovered EL-P on the train, I discovered Kid Cudi on the train; all the shit that influenced me. That used to be my little therapy; I'd be late for work 'cause I'm listening to songs and I don't want to go in yet, you know what I mean?"
I suggest a few theories: It's often said music resonates more personally while on the train because you're listening through snug headphones. There's also the undulating meter of the train's wheels rattling along. "Yeah, it's headphones, it's a certain ambiance," eXquire says. "It's something." Then he pulls out his iPhone to check the name of the Outkast song he was particularly struck with on today's journey. (It was "Jazzy Belle" from ATLiens.)
There is rhythm in an artist's body of music. You can plot the mood, maturity (and sometimes mental state) of your favorite artist by revisiting the chronological path of their albums. In eXquire's case, he's now arrived at the Kismet juncture, which is characterized by 15 songs that sound like he's settled into a warmer place than he was when he released the brutal (and, to apparently my ears and no one else's, brilliant) Power & Passion EP late last year. That EP was sparse and stripped down in sound and punchy and even a little angsty in terms of lyrics, but there's a pastoral contentment to Kismet. There are still vicious songs about rapping for the unadulterated exhilaration of rapping ("Illest Niggaz Breathin'," with his cousin Goldie Glo), but there's a tenderness typified by the Curtis Mayfield-themed duo of "Cherry Raindrops" and "Vanilla Rainbows": The former opens as a song about a spiritual crush that begins with an exquisitely intimate line about biting a lip; the latter has eXquire rhyming over the same Mayfield song sampled on "Cherry Raindrops," complete with a production credit for the deceased soul man that he says he included simply because the younger generation likely don't know about him. The songs eXquire ear-marks as the "personal" ones, like the character-forming tales of his younger days in "Paper Hearts," showcase him writing from the heart but never frustratedly so.
The idea of working out what makes eXquire tick and what he's about and what he should be about is something that today we end up good-naturedly dubbing the Huzzah Effect. The theory is well-written about by now: eXquire recorded a song called "Huzzah" that, on the surface, was about excess liquor consumption and included the chorus line "drunk driving on a Wednesday." He performed it at open mic spots for a couple of years to muted reaction; then in early 2011 a video for the song began to go viral on YouTube. A remix was cut with what was seen as the cutting-edge of the New York City rap scene (Das Racist, EL-P, Despot) and Detroit's music press prince Danny Brown, who was riding his own crest of hype at the time. Since then, eXquire has released a few mixtapes and an EP, none of which contain songs that are anything like "Huzzah," but people still expect him to record "Huzzah Part Two" or act like the rapper they saw in a YouTube video for "Huzzah." eXquire seems less irked than weary about the Huzzah Effect by now, but rightly points out (not for the first time), "I don't even think people know what the fuck I rap about. So for me, people say I rap about liquor but I probably have one song about liquor in my whole catalog. Most of my songs are probably about women or being sad or being mad, mostly some emotional shit. They want to make cliched boundaries for me."
I ask eXquire what he thinks those cliched boundaries are, what the box that people want to put him in is like. He says, "I don't know my box. My box is weird for me. I think some people get it, some people don't, so my quest now is to put everybody in the same place whether you like it or you don't. I just need you to be on the page. You can hate it, but I need you on the page. I get, "Oh, that sounds like the '90s." I hate that type of music. I grew up on it, that shit is boring to me."
If anything, Kismet sounds like the project that's come closest yet to capturing eXquire's natural voice. His manager and spiritual adviser Ugi calls it "the eXquire starter kit, the new blueprint." Part of the mixtape's appeal is the production which, other than "Chains" being hooked around a two-year-old Georgia Anne Muldrow beat-tape (with her blessings), comes from murky and unchartered areas of the Internet. Dan Freeman, Constrobuz, and Star King are not the usual buzzed about names that pepper mixtape credit listings -- and certainly not the names you'd expect a rapper signed to a major label to work with. Constrobuz, who produced the brooding sort-of-lead-single "Noble Drew Ali" along with two other tracks, comes from North Carolina and boasts a lowly 153 Twitter followers. eXquire says he found him back in the MySpace days after he sent him a beat. He's never met Constrobuz but thinks he looks like "a white kid that wears glasses, like Harry Potter." (He adds that Constrobuz has an open invite to come up to New York to produce on his debut studio album for Universal, and can "do all of it if that's how I feel," but he keeps turning him down, possibly, he suspects, at the bequest of his girlfriend.) He came across Dan Freeman, who produced the emotive "Paper Hearts," while perusing Bandcamp. I joke that at this point it sounds like he literally sits around all day traveling down a Bandcamp wormhole in search of beats. He says he sort of does: "If I'm on the toilet, on my laptop, I'll do that shit. Or I'll check my little email and see if there's any goodies in there. I listen to beats every Thursday. Thursday is toilet beats day."
Many rappers insist they only rhyme over beats that totally fit the tenor of their lyrics, but most times that's bunkum. The cachet of having a big name producer on a song's credit is too strong a lure for most to resist, regardless of whether the beats and rhymes mesh. When eXquire claims it though, he comes off as sincere: "I like working with people who nobody knows rather than having that star-studded, "Oh, he did some shit with Pharrell!" I ain't into that. I mean, I'd do some shit with Pharrell, but I like to cultivate my own sound. I did that earlier, now it's about my own sound." Kismet backs up his decision. The producers he's surrounded himself with have helped teased out a record that, as he puts it, "spiritually moves me." He also promises that another mixtape will follow in a few months (it's 70% complete) as he's comfortably settled into a purple patch of creativity. Kismet suggests eXquire thrives on being a relative fish out of water in the rap world, an artist who prospers by being further away from the trends of the day, someone who clashes with the popular milieu.
I tell eXquire that people seem to want him to be weird. "What is weird though? What's anything?" he retorts. "I mean, we're all out here speaking English but we're all talking a different language at the end of the day. Like if I brought you to my projects no one would understand the fuck you're saying but you'd be speaking English to them; so like, not even like phonetically, but with dialect and your viewpoint. So for me, I'm blessed enough to be able to have different viewpoints when I write records. I've traveled and I've seen shit and I interpret life differently. There are all these weird stereotypical things about me but no facts 'cause nobody listens to the records. I think that's what Kismet was about for me, just giving everybody a reference point." Then, as if suspecting he may have disoriented some with his spiel, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire adds, "This is what I'm about and it's not hard to like it 'cause I'm a fuckin' genius, you know what I mean?"