GainesFM sits, the iris of his left eye clouded red. Rivulets dribble down his lip from a gash on his nose, flesh swollen and yellowed with the iron of blood. Beneath the carnage, he smiles goofily, showing two gold teeth, his barely there moustache stretching between the uplifted corners of his mouth.
The image is, of course, staged — a hyper-real promo piece created by photographer Robert Henry and special effects makeup artist Nyasia Arredondo — but every pixel feels authentic. That’s why the shot was chosen as the cover of the Crystal, Minnesota-based MC’s new EP, Smile. On Smile, GainesFM exudes skinny-fisted, gritty resilience. Over nine tracks of visceral bombast, he raps like the type of dude who would take a sharp elbow to the eye socket, only to walk out of the mosh pit grinning like Ed Norton in Fight Club.
“No matter what comes at you, you gotta keep moving, that was my energy,” GainesFM says of the EP. “You can’t let anything disturb your happiness. It’s the process of going through shit and, at the end, being somewhat happy and having this triumphant ride off.”
If you look at the last year of GainesFM’s career, it’d be easy to assume he’s a brash upstart catching on quick. In early 2016, he dropped a cutting LP titled Reanimation. Come March, he found himself opening for 20-year-old Atlanta phenom Playboi Carti in Minneapolis. By December, he was hosting shows in St. Paul for Father, another Atlanta powerhouse. It all seemed lightning-fast, but in reality, this was the breakout GainesFM has been pushing for since 2009.
2013 was supposed to be the year he went from bedroom track-cutter to national name. That’s when GainesFM, then 23, collaborated on a single with eventual superstar Chance the Rapper. The song, “We Are,” shows a much more lyrically driven GainesFM cutting an earnest, optimistic verse.
But it didn’t quite work out, and GainesFM didn’t find the exposure he was gunning for. The fruitless half-decade of hustle seethed in him, developing into a huge chip on his shoulder. When Reanimation came along, he was ready to dispense with pretense and commit to his dark, vindictive nature.
On Reanimation, GainesFM released his tension on songs like “Negative Energy” and “Zombie” — high-energy dismissals that pushed his me-against-all-these-motherfuckers mentality into mantra-driven bangers. Smile goes even darker, with GainesFM receding deeper into his disdain.
“The darkness has always been a part of the music I’ve done in some way,” he says ahead of the EP’s release party Sunday at the 7th St. Entry. “It’s just natural for me.”
Darkness is what drew photographer/director Robert Henry to GainesFM. Henry acts as the in-house aesthetician for GainesFM’s Freeminds Entertainment production company, and he frequently employs grainy, arthouse film to capture the brooding, volatile energy he senses. When Henry was searching for an image to encapsulate GainesFM’s artistic growth on Smile, he knew showing his partner with a busted-up grill and an undeterred twinkle would say just as much as the music.
“Knowing all the shit he’s been through to get to where he’s at, I see it as a perfect representation,” Henry says. “This kid’s been beat up and kicked to the curb a billion times, and he’s still out here making music.”
GainesFM grew up as the mixed-race son of a drug addict. He was raised in a negative environment, so negativity became his default language.
“At this point in my life, you name it, I’ve been through it,” GainesFM says. “I’ve had to deal with my stepmom almost dying. I’ve had to deal with a nearly successful suicide attempt from my actual mother where, if I didn’t kick in the bathroom door, she’d be dead. My best friend Jake [died] shortly after I started Freeminds. But with this album, I’m moving away from bitching about my problems. I wanna focus on finding happiness. Or trying, anyway.”
Beyond the sheer irony of making an antipathic record named Smile, that idea of determination is key to the subtext of GainesFM’s message. It’s not merely about smiling through pain or for smiling’s own sake — it’s also about smiling in the face of your doubters.
“The music game is ugly,” GainesFM says with a sneer. “It’s easy to feel underappreciated or under-acknowledged. I’ve been doing this a long-ass time. I’ve worked my ass off and put so much into this that I don’t care who says what about me anymore.”
Having a chip on your shoulder is practically a birthright in the flyover states, especially for hungry artists. That’s why Smile is led by “MN Lit,” a crowd-pleasing anthem where GainesFM and perennial homie Finding Novyon assert their home state with the ferocious repetition of “Minnesota, bitch!”
“TIIIIIIIIIIP actually had a lot of influence on that song,” GainesFM says, referring to the ubiquitous local DJ who speaks on the opening of the track. “We were at a B.o.B. concert, and we were standing at the bar, and he did some ATL chant, and we were like, ‘We need something like this for Minnesota.’”
By shitting on the competition as a means of putting on Minnesota, “MN Lit” hits on a major theme of Smile. Throughout the record, GainesFM uses negativity as a back door for achieving positivity; he constantly defines himself against the trifling of other rappers. Through these callouts, he builds himself up to the point where he can achieve in spite of — and in turn because of — the obstacles he overcame.
That sentiment crystallizes in the chorus of “Love Me 4 Me,” a sagely and resolute whir of, “I love me for me, I love me for me / So should you / I made you believe, I made you believe / Now I’m free.”
“You’d think I’m coming at another rapper, but a lot of times, I’m talking shit about myself,” he says. “The thoughts that I have, I’m projecting them as a person, something I can point at. But it’s me.”
“Love Me 4 Me” is the one moment on Smile that lifts the caustic veil and lets listeners in on an unspoken truth in the hip-hop industry: The haters called out on the track are fictions. Self-determinism is difficult, so rappers like GainesFM invent a villain, projecting their own insecurities into an external force to rally against.
Seven years of relative obscurity made GainesFM his own biggest skeptic. And only on “Love Me 4 Me” is he able to overcome and reveal a sincere smile.
“I wanted to tell people, ‘You gotta love yourself,’” he says. “I gotta tell myself that, too. Me singing it and repeating it, it sinks in. I’m not gonna put myself down anymore. I’m gonna be free from self-judgment.”
With: CRAM, Devon Reason, Travis Gorman, V.I.C.E. Boys, DJ Smoove
When: 8 p.m. Sun., Jan. 22
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $5; more info here