The language of hip-hop is loaded with pretense.
Ever since its genesis in the MC battles of the late 1970s, rap has been a competitive art form where alpha claims of skill, wealth, and toughness -- regardless of how true they are -- became the currency of the genre. While most contemporary rappers fill their rhyme books with boasts and takedowns, Minnesota's Dwynell Roland is keeping his head down even though he’s making the best music of his life.
Released Monday, The Popular Nobody is Roland’s fourth release in four years -- a time span that has seen the Brooklyn Park emcee appear alongside Twin Cities luminaries the likes of Mike the Martyr, Chance York, MaLLy, and Finding Novyon. The 23-year-old rapper has been nearly ubiquitous on local bills, recently being enlisted to play at Prof Outdoors, the Soundset after-party, and this month's Zombie Pub Crawl.
On The Popular Nobody, Roland brings two of the Twin Cities’ biggest names -- Dem Atlas and P.O.S -- into the fold. But Roland isn’t gassed up on the rub he’s been getting from his peers. If anything, it gives him a more of a reason to prove himself.
“When people are like, ‘Well, I know [so-and-so],’ I think that shit is so fuckin’ corny,” he says. “I’m like, ‘OK, but what are you doing?’ I know a lot of people. I’m friends with a lot of people. Rappers, athletes, a lot of fuckin’ people. But I don’t want nothing from no one.”
That’s why Roland chose the title for The Popular Nobody. While he knows his clout has ballooned over the past five years, he says it doesn’t make him superior to anyone. After he gets off stage, he’s an HVAC technician. When he’s working a job, it’s inconsequential that, the night before, he was running the crowd at Cabooze. It’s hard to front like a rap star when you spend 60 hours a week fixing air ducts to finance your studio time.
“Honestly, I have to be humble," he says. "At the end of the day, it matters, but it don’t matter. All this can be taken away tomorrow.”
Despite Roland's humility, The Popular Nobody opens with a reflection on the success of 2016. “This Year” rotates on the Kanye-esque refrain of “Ain’t nothin’ you can tell me this year,” leading with Roland’s one moment of audacity. But every boast is rooted in reality. He’s not rhyming about selling drugs or brandishing guns, because he never did those things. Instead, he takes a moment to give ups to himself and his crew for what they earned.
That crew is (however reluctantly) called the Rotation, and it features himself, producer Travis Gorman, Devon Reason, and Finding Novyon. Roland’s been rhyming with Novyon since eighth grade, and the two have an almost innate chemistry that’s showcased on the third track, “Dude,” where the longtime friends brag about women and their prowess on the mic. Balanced by Novyon’s cheeky punchlines and nostalgic references, Roland sounds more determined than ever.
Reason joins Novy and Roland on “Ride the Wave,” a kicked-back crew cut that finds the three chilled out and bullshitting. But it never feels alienating or contrived. Yes, there’s an excess of confidence that sometimes traverses into narcissism, but it feels more like they’re unwinding after a hard workday than trying to prove anything.
While industry rappers parrot the unearned mantra of “I’m different,” Roland and the Rotation champion the exact opposite.
“You could be doing the same shit I’m doing if you worked,” he says. “Anyone could do it if you work your ass off. I’m just in a good spot, and I’m trying to stay focused, because I know it could all be gone tomorrow.”
Though Roland admits he likes to have fun on his records, The Popular Nobody isn’t all good-timing cyphers. It's the rookie rapper’s most masterful work yet, and he knows it’s his opportunity to tell his story. Despite the heft of features, Roland’s voice is never compromised. For example, on “Whirlwind,” he calls upon Rhymesayers flagbearer apparent Dem Atlas to help him tell his origin story.
“Whirlwind” follows Roland through his youth in north Minneapolis and his determination to not turn out like the kids he grew up around who got mixed up in the hustle. Elsewhere, on “Call My Phone” -- the record’s most universally appealing cut -- Roland anguishes over an ex and resists the temptation to ring her up. Both are situations he knows many others have been in, and he uses the songs as a way of bringing his audience into his life.
“I try to make something that’s relatable,” Roland says. “I know at the end of the day, if you’re not connecting, then it’s whatever. I can make bullshit music all day. But I try to get to a point where [listeners are] just like, ‘I’ve been there.’”
Lead single “Devils" is the most encompassing song on The Popular Nobody. Taking cues from both Daveed Diggs and Mystikal, Roland moves from a growl to a syncopated tear over the course of a single bar. While “Dude” and “Ride the Wave” may show his skill in word, “Devils” is the best example of it in practice.
This year has been a coming-out party for Roland, and “Devils” is a point of punctuation for the young rhymer, but it’s far from a period. The Popular Nobody is part showcase and part mile marker. It’s a notch on the chronology of a rising MC. A signal from a launching ship.
Despite all the progress of the last year, there can’t be more than a few moments of reprieve. Roland knows that, once the work stops, he risks slipping back into anonymity. And there’s no nobility in being popular if you’re not doing anything with it.
“Yeah, all [this attention] is nice,” Roland says. “It’s cool, but motherfucker, I gotta work. No one’s gonna do it for me.”
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