“We all think that we’re fish in this ocean that is God. But the way I look at it, we’re all individual drops of water in that ocean. We’re both merely nothing and absolutely everything, at the same time.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, and Correy Parks is across from me on a park bench, talking about God. One week away from his most ambitious release yet, the sprawling and complex Road Less Traveled EP (out March 25th), Parks is energized, introspective, and talking through 100 ideas a minute. “I’m not really into religion,” Parks says, taking a rare moment to pause while we watch a family play on an old slide. “But I guess I’m spiritual. I guess I believe a lot in the idea of duality. Even the most terrible things can serve something good. I’m never just one thing. No one is.”
Columbus is a city defined by what it isn’t, which means it spends a lot of its time in search of an identity. Capital city in a flyover state; Midwestern city that isn’t Chicago; city that sleeps close enough to Chicago for it to wake up jealous. If you are from here and still love it, like I do, like Correy Parks does, everything done is in defense of the city’s existence. Columbus, today, spends money to push marginalized people further into the margins, to the edge of the city. Low-income housing projects are gutted and turned into hotels, poor neighborhoods become suburbs overnight, local shops can’t afford their rent, chain stores move in. Columbus is eager to be grander than it is, a small and endearing child trying on its big brother’s clothes and tripping on the oversize pants. In this era, Columbus needs musicians who are relentlessly dedicated to holding the city close. Musicians who reflect the layered difficulties of a rapidly changing city and are able to see parts of themselves in it.
I meet Correy Parks a few blocks away from the area where we both spent parts of our childhood. The Greenbrier housing project, torn down years ago, once towered over the east side of the city, a dark and looming shadow. Nicknamed “Uzi Alley” by Columbus police in the early 1980s, due to the escalation of drug and gang wars during that time, the Greenbrier neighborhood was mostly black and extremely poor. But, as these things go, it was only partially as dangerous as its reputation would suggest. “When you’re a kid and you live in the ‘hood, you don’t really know or understand that you’re in the ‘hood,” Parks says. “I saw things, of course. But I didn’t know to determine them as 'bad' or 'good.' I didn’t attach my identity to the neighborhood I was from, so it was easy for me to separate myself from the more negative aspects of it.”
Sitting outside of Broadleigh Elementary, a suburban school Parks attended, we consider how often, in Columbus, nice neighborhoods like the one we’re in now turn into neighborhoods like the one we grew up in. I ask Parks if his obsession with duality started here, when he left the projects and went to a nice elementary school mere blocks away. “I had to be wary walking to school in the morning, but when I got here, I could be a nerd. I could get into Harry Potter, and get into stuff that other people on the block weren’t into. I was staying inside and reading all night. I felt like I was living in two worlds.”
Correy Parks’s music, like the artist himself, is never only one thing. The story of how Parks, a self-described recovering introvert, was pushed into taking a risk with music is a familiar tale of epiphany through grief. “My sister passed away,” he explains. “She had lupus, and so she was sick a lot. But she was also a really talented singer. That was her dream, she wanted to sing. After she died, I started to feel like I was wasting my time. I knew I had to take advantage of the life I had. So I went and did that first project.”
2014’s locally acclaimed Lock and Key EP arrived almost out of nowhere, making the city stand up and take notice. It laid the groundwork for the aesthetic that Parks is still fitting into: introspective lyrics, balancing Parks’s need for emotional and spiritual comfort with his overwhelming desire to become something more, something greater. It's all laid over production that sounds and feels like Ohio — sparse and open underneath, layered carefully with surprising and colorful bursts of sound. Perhaps most appealing is Parks’s delivery. In talking with him, I realize that he raps the same way he speaks: like someone who has a million ideas coming to him, eager for escape, looking for any ears willing to listen.
Columbus has long embraced its underground rappers. Blueprint, Copywrite, the late (great) Camu Tao, superproducer J. Rawls in its first wave; rapper/producer SupaNatra, art school MC P. Blackk and group Fly.Union, among others, in its second wave. Dueling emotions have surrounded many of these artists: The desire for them to blow up, to put Columbus “on the map,” the way we’ve seen someone like Drake do for Toronto, pushes against a desire for them to never get too big, so that they always remain ours. Fly.Union, dormant since 2014, have flown closest to the sun, with their 2011 debut album TGTC (The Greater Than Club) gaining co-signs everywhere from XXL to LeBron James. Shortly after, though, the group fell silent, some of the members taking on solo endeavors.
“All of those people influenced me,” Parks says, as we talk about the legacy of Columbus hip-hop and where he fits in. “Fly.Union made it feasible that we can get attention in Columbus. They showed me that you can get love outside of the city and other artists will fuck with you because the music is good. [Fly.Union rapper/producer] Jay Swifa was the first person I told when I decided I was gonna rap. He showed me love, he made sure people showed me love. That set the tone.”
All of Parks’s releases to this point have used the theme of travel to discuss escaping to a higher, clearer place. In 2015, he delivered the four-track Layover EP and the surprise four-track #LostLuggage. He closed the year by releasing an eight-minute visual short for the song “Alone Again,” in which Parks stands against the Columbus skyline and raps “Look at how they present us as materialistic sinners / And I’m still trynna figure out what sin is.”
If 2015 was the year of Correy Parks slowly packing his belongings and preparing for flight, 2016 is the year he ascends upward, into a sky with no clouds in sight.
The Road Less Traveled, produced entirely by Dev Draper, begins with Parks ruminating on the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” in a one-minute intro that rewrites the poem, reflecting on Parks’s desire to stand out without losing himself in the process. The eight-song EP is deeply self-aware without being heavy-handed or boring: In one interlude, Parks lightheartedly pokes fun at the Chance the Rapper comparisons that have come up frequently in his young career. The Road Less Traveled lasts less than 30 minutes, but it feels like a long set of hours in a spring morning after a particularly hard winter. It's not without its imperfections, but it's the kind of thing that demands you to look at the world with fresh eyes, after everything that kept you inside has melted away.
It is still colder than it looks in Columbus. Here, at the first sign of spring, people put away their winter clothes and try to will the weather back to warmth. Survival often begins and ends with a hope for something that may never come, but that is what keeps the city alive. Parks and I, still glued to our real estate on an elementary park bench, are both in lighter jackets than we should be, given the wind that cuts through our thin layers and forces me to shiver, surely a sign that I’ve been away from the city for too long. Parks is unmoved, preaching, even if he doesn’t realize it. “You can’t define me. I know people say that about themselves a lot, but you can’t box me in,” he says, picking up steam with each word. “I’m here to show people that you can be you. You can rap about anything and it’s all good. Ohio, more than anywhere else, is a place that values someone real. I’m still learning to be as real as I can be. I’m trying to embrace vulnerability. We’re all going through shit. We’re all trying to figure this shit out. I’m trying to figure it out with everyone else, you know?”
Instead of offering prayers, Correy Parks offers a path to happiness, always present in his music. Joy is his primary selling point, the thing he’s so excited about spreading that he can, at times, come off like someone trying to sell you on a pyramid scheme. “I want people to be happy,” he says, beaming as he speaks. “OK, sure. I want abundance. I want a nice life. I want to be able to take care of my family. But I ultimately want people to be happy. I want people to have the knowledge that they can be happy. I don’t just want that for the Midwest. I want the world to know that.” He pauses slightly. “You know, my family is in Korea, and they have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They’re literally killing themselves because of the pressure to fit into this mold of what we define as limited success. I get to rap. I get to do something I love. That’s success. There isn’t just one way to find it. No one is going to find it like I found it. That’s what I want to share.”
What drives Correy Parks may seem corny to someone who spends no time with his music. His vision, though, is greater than daily inspirational tear-off calendar quotes. It’s a sustainable catalogue, one that pushes music in Columbus forward. As our time together ends, after the wind kicks up from slightly uncomfortable to practically biting and we’ve talked about shared neighborhood memories and mutual friends, I ask him what he’s trying to do for this city that we both love.
He thinks on this for a while before speaking more confidently than he had the entire afternoon. “We have the chance to dictate what our artistic culture is. We don’t need to piece together the cultures of other cities anymore. We can build our own. And I feel like I have to be the leader of that. I can feel it. I know it. I can humble myself and say that it’s bigger than me, but I’m also trying to bring everyone with me. I have the talent, I have the ability. I’m trying to open as many doors as possible.”
As we walked away from each other, I realized that for all the time we spent talking about faith and spirituality and belief, the thing that Correy Parks believes in most is himself. This is the Columbus, Ohio, in him. We make our own names and put them in lights. We believe ourselves capable of impossible things, because if we don’t, there’s no telling when someone outside of our city will. For Correy Parks, the time for belief is now. The church doors are wide open, and the pews are full.