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Ex-Gophers hoops star Mac Irv uses rap to fight for change

Mac Irv wants to make you a believer.

Mac Irv wants to make you a believer.

When you're six-foot-two with a wingspan to match, you come with a big shadow.

Lawrence McKenzie averaged 11 points per game in 2008 as a senior for the University of Minnesota men's basketball team, scoring an all-time record of 79 three-pointers. He'd been a basketball legend in Minnesota before ever joining the Gophers.

To this day, he's tied with Jarvis Johnson as the only Minnesota high schoolers to win four consecutive state championships, which he accomplished at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis from 1999-2003. It's a reputation McKenzie's not been able to shake, even though he hasn't played competitive basketball in half a decade.

In 2011, McKenzie released his debut mixtape, Certified Magnet, under the moniker Mac Irv. It'd been only months since he retired from the NBA Developmental League because of a hip injury, and no one quite knew what to make of the point guard-turned-rapper they were used to seeing on the court at Williams Arena.

"People have seen me play basketball at such a high level, so they have this image in their head," Irv says ahead of his gig Friday opening for Prof at 7th St. Entry. "They've never seen someone take all that work they did as an athlete and put it into music."

Irv's story made him something of a local media darling, as critics glommed onto the feel-good arc. His debut single, "Hometown," blew up alongside the Local Boy Done Good headlines. But beneath the fluff, there was a resentment brewing in Irv's native north Minneapolis.

"At first, I felt like it was a gift and a curse," Irv says. "People wanted to hear me, but I think they wanted to laugh at me, honestly. It turned into an automatic excuse for everybody. They were like, 'He's good, but he only got this because he was playing basketball.'"

Irv, 30, has always been a misfit on the North Side. Unlike many of his neighbors, he grew up with a father. He stayed away from the gang violence that typified his neighborhood, funneling all his energy into basketball. That dedication eventually landed him a full scholarship to play at the U. After a stint playing pro ball in Macedonia, Irv returned home calling himself a rapper. North Siders called bullshit.

"I get a lot of flak, but I try to push through that because I feel like I'm different," he says. "The drug cases and the gang violence and the murders, I know things that happen like that. Two of the people that I grew up with closely, that I call my younger brothers, were murdered. I was there, but I wasn't in there. I saw it from an outside point of view. That's what my music represents."

In the four short years he's been rapping, Irv has progressed immensely. Where Certified Magnet saw him imitating popular rap tropes — he poses on the album's cover wearing Jordans and smoking a blunt — he quickly progressed into a more introspective style.

2012's Inner Thoughts found Irv plumbing the depths of his ability as an artist, an exploration that percolated into self-actualization on last year's landmark LP Sincerely, Mac Irv. On Sincerely, Irv rhymes lucidly over laid-back, piano-heavy beats — a landscape that was cooked up to deliver a more grounded, confessional feel.

"The biggest thing I notice is that he's not trying to sound like anybody," says Willie Wonka, Irv's go-to producer on both Certified Magnet and Sincerely, Mac Irv. "He seems really comfortable with himself. Nobody sounds like Mac, so I want to make some music for him that was his own sound."

The maturation of Mac Irv was accelerated by his role as a father. Irv has three daughters, and his relationship with them, along with a recently broken-off engagement, led him to examine his message more than ever.

"I be growing three, four years at a time," he says. "Me being this age, I'm still just figuring things out, but I know what I want to represent, and I know who I want to be, and I know I want my kids to be proud of me."

He also wants to restore hope and pride in his neighborhood.

North Minneapolis is a powder keg that exploded last November with the police killing of Jamar Clark and the subsequent string of protests led by Black Lives Matter. Those events brought national consciousness to the racial disparity in the area. Due out this spring, Irv's new album, Misfit: 55411, will help tell that story in song.

"I'm trying to bring hope to those who are from where I'm from," Irv says. "But if I'm able to reach people from the other side, who aren't from my neighborhood, I want to explain to them why this is going on so they can understand that it's fucked up."

The title of Irv's forthcoming LP is a nod to his position as an outsider from the North Side. He's turned that misfit mentality into source of empowerment, and he intends to use his privilege to impact his hometown in a positive way.

"I met a kid before, and he was telling me, 'I ain't got no dad, I ain't got no choice but to be out here in these streets,'" Irv says. "This kid ended up getting murdered two years after. It threw me back. I was like, 'What more could I have said?' And there was a lot more I could've said."

Irv has taken to calling himself "Hometown Hero" as he tries to carry his message beyond the borders of Minnesota. He might not be the spokesperson the North Side would've elected, but he's got the storytelling ability and wherewithal to inspire anyone else who's at odds with their birthplace.

"If you can't relate to me, you can't relate to me," he says. "But I know there's somebody out there that can, and that's who I do the music for."

It's a drive gleaned from his days on the court. As someone who's been making headlines since he was 16, Irv says the backlash is nothing new. He's making the best music of his career, and it's fueled by doubters. If you're still not taking him seriously because of his Big Ten days, you're missing out one of the Twin Cities' most realized talents.

"If you're from Minneapolis and you know who Lawrence McKenzie is, it's easy to use [basketball] as a way to discredit his music," Wonka says. "But he's fought hard to continually make quality product, and you can't really deny quality no matter who's making it."

Mac Irv
With: Prof, Mike Mictlan, DJ Fundo.
When: 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 19.
Where: 7th St. Entry. 
Tickets: Sold out; more info here.