There's an elegant symmetry to "Lost Boy," a new Toki Wright song. The title figure is a young Toki for two verses. Later, he becomes a kid he met while visiting a classroom at Harrison Education Center. In an accent that reminds you that north Minneapolis has a drawl, Wright raps about his father leaving, then about himself roaming "under street lights in dark alleyways with the strays, though he knows that curiosity kills." Finally, he turns to the boy disappearing into his hoodie, who doesn't like fake, lying rappers, "doesn't understand these guys that get on and perform, that never had a friend die in they arms." [jump]
Conscious rap, which Wright mentions elsewhere on Pangaea, his debut album with Big Cats, would be a misnomer for this music. More like subconscious. Wright seems to be speaking from inside your skull, telling stories with the rolling assurance of Slick Rick, but also looking around. His choruses are like mantras for thoughts he can't shake. "Now you know he all disturbed," he raps of the student, "twist the baby dreads on his head just to calm his nerves. Said, 'Fuck the world, fuck the law, fuck you all.' Gave the boy my number but he never called."
"This kid could have been me in so many ways," Wright says, sipping Chai tea recently at the Avenue Eatery on West Broadway. A few blocks away, he says, he narrowly missed a spray of bullets meant for someone else at a bus stop, back before he grew his own locks. But he ran right back to catch the bus anyway, not wanting to wait another hour. "I had so many opportunities to be so out of whack as a kid."
His album title, Pangaea, refers to the supercontinent that broke apart to create our present-day landmasses. But Wright's new songs allude to a more personal fragmentation. "They say that no man is an island," he raps on the title track, "but if you were ever stranded, how you manage to be smiling?"
With a fervent fan base, a longtime association with Rhymesayers, and parallel careers as a college professor, community organizer, and Insight News columnist, Wright has the sadness of a person who keeps busy for a reason. He has the same ironic, resigned glint he showed at the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop festivals he organized, where he seemingly held various scenes together on strength of good humor alone. (In his memoir, Zach Combs credits Toki with saving local hip- hop from a "split.")[page]
His stressors are real, and may be for him to share with fans. But one setback is public: Wright's previous version of the album went up in flames three years ago with the house of his business partner, Reggie Reg. (Both Wright and Prof shot videos in the ruins.) A fresh start was required, and Big Cats tells me he's glad he never heard the original. The new songs reflect the ambient, reggae, and unclassifiable music Wright spins on Soul Tools Radio, Saturdays on KFAI-FM. Pangaea's vapory head of chilled piano and minimal yet twitchy beats could segue between FKA Twigs and DJ Shadow. (Encouraged by techno DJ DVS1, Wright also creates house music under the alias Mamadu.)
It may be enough to say that, while performing "Heal" (featuring P.O.S. for his singing voice), Wright found tears in his eyes as he rapped, "All the answers that I once had became questions that I now have." Yet he never expresses a wish to forget. Working with kids in Sierra Leone last year, he was struck by one boy who rapped, "Shout to my n----- Toki, I'm from Sierra Leone where we never go shopping," and considers that loss might be relative.
Pangaea offers no answers except practical ones. To writers covering local rap, "Gatekeepers" says, "you never spent a day on Broadway, I think it's flawed how you could ignore where the culture started off." Wright is proud that the song sparked commentary after he performed it at the CD release party of Caroline Smith, another collaborator. "It was part of the match that lit the fire of a lot of conversations that we've had in the city in the last year," he says.
Touring with Atmosphere and playing Soundset this year with the album lineup of Big Cats, singer-keyboardist Eric Mayson, and icy vocalist Lydia Liza, Wright emerged as a rare rapper who does not need to shout to be heard. And he seems happy with the company.
"You've got a 19-year-old that sounds like a 60-year-old soul singer [Liza], and this guy that plays every instrument [Mayson]," he says. "It reminds me of being at school and certain kids not wanting to play with me, and me going to find the group of weirdos. It's like a second childhood. I can do whatever I want."
TOKI WRIGHT AND BIG CATS play an album-release party with P.O.S. and DJ Willie Shu Friday, September 26, at Icehouse, 612.276.6523; and an all-ages album- release party with Greg Grease and Voice of Culture drummers Sunday, September 28, at Intermedia Arts, 612.871.4444. Presale tickets available through tokiwrightandbigcats.com.