Minneapolis rapper MaLLy has made a career out of discussing the contrasts of where he's lived and where he's ended up, and the experience of navigating in between.
"People called me Superman and Batman I don't know how many fucking times. It's crazy," says the man born Malik Watkins. "It's like learning how to turn the light switch on and off. You gotta be a certain way here, but you carry bits and pieces sometimes to both sides of the fence. It's like a dual life, almost."
Dual identities have come up in past efforts, but MaLLy's latest full-length, The Colors of Black, comes with a more assured sense of self than he's revealed on any project thus far.
MaLLy's proven himself as a highly personal rapper, but on 2012's The Last Great with producer the Sundance Kid, the beats inspired a new bounce underneath. "The Last Great, that was a really celebratory moment, like, hey, the light's kind of on me right now," says MaLLy. "This could potentially be like the last great time in my life."
But he's switched gears production-wise on his latest pair of projects by recruiting DJ Last Word, who has been MaLLy's live DJ since 2011. "When [The Last Great] was done, there really wasn't a transition. Sundance had some other stuff he wanted to do at that time so MaLLy and I just picked up where they left off," says Last Word.
Last November the pair dropped the Strange Rhythm EP. "It just started evolving," says MaLLy. "The Colors of Black is very dark, but it's shaded in [a] sense... I wanted to connect with people on a deeper level. I think it's a very personal, heartfelt project; every song hits home for me."
Walking the line together between a deadly serious tone and an uninhibited demeanor, MaLLy and Last Word developed a distinctive sound influenced by their onstage chemistry. Last Word's off-kilter production plays like the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi film or an 8-bit arcade game at times, but also boasts a hefty dose of the club-ready stomp he's known for from Get Cryphy shows.
"I'm a big fan of starting with the beat in its most basic format, and then adding all the bells and whistles that it needs," says Last Word of his production. "I like to think I make songs. I'm very hands on, and I don't just let the beat go after I make it... I get just as much as a final say on the song as the person performing on it."
The production boasts a number of collaborators, including keys from Heiruspecs' DeVon Gray, Michelle Kennedy's string arrangements, a pair of tracks featuring vocals from K. Raydio, and guitar from Alpha Consumer's Jeremy Ylvisaker. The extra attention to detail enriches the beats, and is perfect for MaLLy's rapping, a no-holds-barred experiential form anchored by his attention to charismatic flow and clever rhyme schemes.
"City of Fear," which made it onto Chuck D's weekly top 10 list on New York's WBAI, is a prime example of the lines MaLLy walks in his songs. Featuring tight and propulsive rhymes, the lyrics also stand among the most starkly real, with a double-time chorus concerning police brutality ("Fuck a lieutenant... /They shoot niggas/Never care to really ask who did it").
In "Two Worlds" he juxtaposes life at an expensive private school with his home in the inner city where he'd see friends going to jail, selling drugs, and having familial struggles. "It was depressing to lead a double life," he admits. "You get some people who understand it... when you come home they still respect you, [but] some people... took it a certain way. [A friend] thought I was turning my back on him. That was a really tough thing."
MaLLy reflects all shades of himself effectively on The Colors of Black, tackling weighty subject matter but enjoying himself at the same time. "Machine Gun" is MaLLy's opportunity to goof around, bragging about girls and a big ego before stating, "This whole damn verse, I lied about all of it," and the heartfelt "Millions" is an honest slow-burn love song.
"Beyond the surface, there's so many different things, like a collage of many different pieces," MaLLy says. Lead single "Hold My Tongue," originally intended as a posse cut, features the only guest verses on the album, Slug and Rapper Hooks, who in a way represent the two sides of MaLLy's coin. MaLLy carries the torch for Slug's open-book introspective approach, but often shows signs of Hooks's slick-talk swagger.
"I wanted [with] this album [for you] to be able to digest it easier than some other material that I've done. There's that balance. Songs become more memorable that way," he says. "Those flows and verses are in tune with the message."