In the summer of 2009, Atlanta MC Rock Most released his solo debut, For Lovers Only (F.L.O.). It was a solid tongue-twister cut from a swath of backpacker beats and rhymes underscored by the urgency in his voice. But whether he knew it or not, his dedication to form undermined the fact that he had much more to say than the conventions of the genre allowed.
"For Lovers Only was about my love for hip-hop," Powell says. "I needed to make that album, get it out of my system and move on to something with a little more depth."
With his second offering, Rise & Shine, Rock Most, aka Rodney Powell, 37, expands his repertoire with a fun but mature sound and vision. The title is a reminder that in order to shine as an artist one has to rise through the ranks and above the stereotypes of indie rap. Inspired in part by a tragic wake-up call, the follow-up to Rock Most's debut also doubles as his own cue to remain conscious of his words and actions while pushing himself, and the genre, forward.
As a former lyricist for Atlanta's woefully overlooked underground hip-hop trio, MSEIZE (pronounced emcees) for more than a decade, Powell's pedigree casts him as a godfather within the local scene. Easing into the first verse of "Who's Coming With Me," he seals the deal, declaring, "This is my second go around, they say my sophomore release/but I've been doing this since Rakim was saying 'peace.'" By spelling it out here he lays the groundwork for an album that gains strength from his experiences and carries a deceptively simple title that holds meaning on multiple levels.
All of this makes him out to sound like a heavy-duty head-trip, but in person his laid-back posture and warm laugh reveal he's anything but a tormented spirit. "I don't want to come across as some kind of preachy, more-righteous-than-you kind of dude, but I'm a grown man and I act accordingly," Powell explains while sipping an Arden's Garden smoothie on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Little Five Points.
The variety of beats throughout the album, most of which Powell produced, form a patchwork of styles covering an audible timeline that has unfolded over the years.
After parting ways with his MSEIZE group mates Supreme Words and DJ Fudge, Powell meandered into a solo career. But after one traumatic night last February, things changed. During an attempted robbery at gunpoint, his attacker faltered long enough for Powell to draw his own gun and kill his assailant in self-defense. To this day he's hesitant to broadcast the incident — something that a lesser MC might be more likely to exploit for potential gain. But Rock Most is too real for that.
"I was scared. He said he was going to kill me," Powell recalls. "I spent the night in jail afterward, not knowing if I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. They kept saying it would be alright, but they had to wait until morning so the DA could approve my release. When I got out I went straight to the studio. The sun was out and that's when I came up with that title, Rise & Shine. Birds were chirping and I had focus. I thought, 'You obviously are supposed to be here. Whatever it takes, do this better than anything you've done before.'"
The transformation that culminates on Rise & Shine is a profound sense of self-reliance and inspiration. The album's first single, "Rock With Me" (featuring Tru.Ski the Transmitter), carries a subdued '90s backpacker aesthetic, cerebral textures and a modern sheen that defies the clichés of both underground and mainstream rap.
"Pass 'Em By," "Move" (featuring Boog Brown) and the title track (featuring Cherry Royale) blend old-school soul and hip-hop with rhymes that are pragmatic without sacrificing a sense of humor. Powell possesses serious skills, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. "I'm a dynamic dude and I'm certainly not going to come from one angle all the time, because I don't want to hear that [either]. Sometimes I like to laugh, and sometimes when I go out I don't want to hear a hip-hop song all night long. That's just part of being a real person."
Powell's call-it-like-I-see-it delivery resonates on such songs as "Pass 'Em By" and "Whatever." Meanwhile, "Guilty Pleasure" tells the tale of a stripper who has mastered her craft and worked twice as hard to become the best and baddest in the club. By the end of the song she's reaping the rewards of hard work. In the context of the album, it feels like a fairly straightforward allegory for Powell's own rise, but working a pole ain't the same as rocking a mic. "A strip club and the underground hip-hop scene are two totally different things," he says, "but struggling as an independent artist, that's what the album is all about."
Listen to Rock Most - "Pass 'Em By" featuring Jahah
Listen to Rock Most - "Rise & Shine" featuring Cherry Royale