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To paraphrase Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, conscious rappers are all alike, but every thug is thuggish in his own way. In other words, thoughtful MCs all sound the same, whereas gangstas come in many shapes and forms. Or at least that's how San Francisco's L'Roneous Da'Versifier sees the current mentality of the hip hop industry. Even so, the 32-year-old rapper refuses to play by anyone else's rules. Over the past decade, he's gained a reputation for his brains and positive lyrics; now, with a string of releases coming out, he's hoping to show the world he's got a unique vocal style as well.
Actually, it's taken L'Roneous some effort earning recognition for his brains. During an interview at his record- and book-strewn Western Addition apartment, the brawny rapper recalls his days at Encinal High School in Alameda. "There were a lot of preconceived notions about us," he says of the group of black students in his predominantly white school. "We were the athletes. Of course, I was an athlete, too, but I also wanted to be considered a guy who was very educated." It wasn't that he was trying to straddle two communities, he says, as much as attempting to prove he could excel in unanticipated areas.
Similarly, L'Roneous has consistently embraced lyrical prowess, an aspect of hip hop that generally receives less focus. This has led to criticism that he ignores some of hip hop's basic necessities. Rapping is not just a skill but a bundle of skills -- like patting one's head and rubbing one's belly while riding a unicycle and burping the alphabet. L'Roneous admits that, during his early '90s years with San Francisco crew Last to Serve, he paid more attention to lyrical content than to rap's other elements, such as rhythm and tone.
"We used to practice all those things -- inflection, cadence, all that -- rapping with a band," he says. "But the whole thing was, either you are going to say something or you're going to be a style champ. Like, you can have the best style ever, but if you're not saying anything, it doesn't mean anything."
But his lyrical goals led him to a new, crowd-pleasing vocal delivery anyway. "Eventually I realized that saying something all the time is a style," he says. "Especially trying to say something different every song -- you know, not rhyming "mind' and "time' every track you create. So constantly using different words and building on it all, it bounces off each other. It becomes a style."
Still, record executives remained gun-shy about signing gat-free rappers. So L'Roneous was forced to release Imaginarium, his 1998 collaboration with San Francisco's DJ Zeph, on tiny Ocean Floor Records, a label that offered him little promotional support. While Imaginariumgarnered fans and critical acclaim via the Internet, L'Roneous remained virtually unknown in the Bay Area.
That oversight is about to change in a hurry. Emeryville crew Anticon is helping rerelease Imaginarium, and L'Ron has two new collaborations out: Dreamweavers with DJ Elusive and The Director's Cuts, an EP with DJ Wisdom of the KUSF-FM show Beatsauce. With the imminent arrival of a second full-length, Purposefully Powerful, L'Roneous should be in the public eye for months. (Also, DJ Zeph is flirting with the idea of releasing an instrumental version of Imaginarium, to follow up his well-received eponymous solo debut, now on shelves.)
Even with this wealth of new, often uptempo material, the mellow Imaginariumstands out as the perfect showcase for L'Roneous' socially minded wordplay. On "Implosion," his chain reaction of rhymes sets off a deeper credo: "I itemize vital ties/ And write rhymes that light the lies/ And define my confines/ So blind minds can feel the heat." On the short opener "Castaway the Stowaways," L'Ron paints old-school hip hop as a "little wooden vessel" that's now swollen to yacht-size, full of "fakers ... sneaking in." On "No Limitations" L'Ron and guest MC Gennessee of the Noble House Crew rise to each other's lyrical challenges, hucking rhymes as crisp as croutons. And on the aptly titled "L'chemy" L'Ron blends narrative and wordplay at dizzying speed, while still allowing Zeph to pour in trumpet-laden interludes. (The latter song is the album's best shot at a gold single, as New York's DJ Bobbito gave it airplay and put it on a mix tape.)
On these and other tracks, L'Roneous' lyrics both stretch the listener's mind and meld intractably with Zeph's beats. But on a few songs, like the insightful racial history narratives "The R.A.I.N.S." and "In the C.O.R.N.," the beats are less married to the words than an excuse for them. After listening to Imaginarium, skeptics might still respond, "Yes, he's clever and deep -- but can he consistently rock the mike?" In other words, four years after his solo debut, does L'Roneous finally qualify as a style champ?
Certainly, his vocal delivery has evolved into a more beat-based, crowd-friendly flow. Unlike on Imaginarium, which revolves around long verses, much of the new material is chorus-related. "I noticed that when I was doing live shows," L'Roneous says. "You want fans to sing your chorus, and you're like, "Oh, there's no chorus in there. There's no choruses on the whole album. I forgot.' So the live shows are influencing my work."
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