MaLLy lives up to his potential on new album
The past 12 months have been good to MaLLy. At this time last year, the then-relatively unknown rapper gave a no-holds-barred set at Rhymesayers' fourth Soundset festival. Ever since, MaLLy has emerged among Minnesota's most promising young MCs. With the release of The Last Great... and his return to Soundset, this time as a host, 2012 could prove bigger. In all of this, MaLLy, the rapper, and Malik Watkins, the man, have remained enigmas.
"Being an artist has really helped me be able to express things, to open up books and close certain chapters in my life," he says, opening his hands out in front of him. He sits at one of the high-tops at the Depot in downtown Minneapolis, his brow furrowed thoughtfully as he speaks. "I'm glad to be able to do it through music, to do something people enjoy, but for me it's much bigger than a song; it's me telling you at this particular time who I am as a person."
Who MaLLy is now — polite, gracious, good humored — has long been a work in progress. Even compared to the monthly recordings he dropped last year, his full-length collaboration with producer the Sundance Kid, The Last Great..., sounds more fully formed, more like the work of someone comfortable in his own skin. In fact, growing up the only child of a single mother helped shape a lot of who he is today — and he admits that, for a good part of his childhood, he felt angry. "I wasn't a tough dude, but that's what I saw in videos. That was my idea of a man," he remembers. With an absentee father, he says, he looked up to rappers like Tupac — people he admits now weren't exactly good role models. "I carried myself a certain way so people don't take advantage of me. You still have that chip on your shoulder because there's a missing piece — like, 'If Dad ain't going to raise me, I'll raise my fucking self.'"
Matters weren't helped any by MaLLy's experiences attending Minnehaha Academy, where he was one of few black students. Despite receiving straight A's, he had a hard time fitting in. "You don't know anybody, you don't connect with anybody. There's no faculty or staff to go to with your issues." He pauses, thinking back, then gives a shrug. "Eventually, I realized I needed to create my own identity, be who I am, and not be afraid to stick out."
Those frustrations are easy to hear in MaLLy's early recordings. Listen to The Letter, the first mixtape he put out back in 2007, and you hear a foul-mouthed, shit-talking kid with plenty of enthusiasm but not much self-awareness or polish. MaLLy has matured greatly since then without losing that sharp edge, even if he tries to downplay it. "People hear my music before they've met met me, and they'll be like, 'I thought your music was good, but I thought you would be the biggest asshole in the world,'" he laughs heartily, clapping his hands together in amusement.
In truth, it's the tension between his combative demeanor and his humility that holds MaLLy's music together. The Last Great... opens with the "none-fucks-given" "Swallowing the Reign," a song that throws down the gauntlet on his mic skills. But while "Shine" comes off at first as a raucous boast, it's also the manifesto of a rapper who knows he has to continually push himself to be relevant. From there, the MC proves that he's learned how to take his own experiences and place them into a larger context, such as on "Unplugged," where Brother Ali helps tackle issues of race, gender, and identity head-on.
Yet in the closing songs, MaLLy turns his focus back inward, and it's here that The Last Great... hits some of its heaviest material. "My Lord, I've been dealt this hand," he sings on "My Lord," "A man is what I'm trying to be/I'm still a boy, living off the ways of the land/Still growing, and that's fine with me." It's an appropriate note to end on, too, because MaLLy seems intent on keeping his feet on the ground above all else. Music may be his passion, but it's still just a part of his life.
"What do I want my story to be in hip hop? I want to be an MC, but I also want to be a friend, someone you can confide in, a mentor, a positive image," he insists. That's the reason, for instance, that he mentors students in his free time, trying to return the favor for all the opportunities he's had himself."I always wanted to feel like, when I met my favorite rapper, I could still feel like I can talk to them, that they're not removed. The Last Great... is being a regular person. It's another way of being there when the smoke clears."
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