Just like musicians who keep returning to songs about getting money or being under-rated, it's easy for writers to fall into easy patterns when writing about those rappers. We look for established story lines, set patterns, and cram artists into those story lines accordingly. I'll admit it, like a lot of writers I can fall back on cliches and tropes. For example, the artist who comes from an eclectic background and therefore grows up makes genre-bending music. Really, how often is that true? I mean really really true? Does the fact that you grew up listening to hip-hop with your friends but your parents played country music in the house really make you that different? Now that I think about it, it seems like that actually describes most people. Who grows up in a perfectly homogeneous environment?
It took talking to Bardo to realize that I've probably been too loose in assigning the "eclectic background" story line to artists because it was easier to put them into an already built box than build a new box, or maybe even a brand new circle, or rhombus, and I realized it because Bardo really, truly, actually is different.
I didn't know much about Bardo's life beyond what I could glean from his music and the relatively little that's already been written about him, which is why when we spoke and I asked how he ended up in Chicago after being born in Atlanta, he could only laugh. His father played professional and semi-professional basketball, and the constantly changing nature of the game pulled his family into a revolving door of homes that stretched from Atlanta to Texas to Italy and then back to the U.S. He's lived in more places than he can even really remember; the longest stretch in one place as a kid was four years in Japan, where as a Black kid from America he couldn't help but constantly stand out.
When you're young that kind of unshakable outsider status is a burden, but fast forward a few years and suddenly it seems like perfectly fertile to grow a truly...you guessed it...eclectic artist. As Bardo said when we spoke, "Moving around, switching schools, when I was little I hated it. As soon as you get established, you have your group of friends, it's time to get up and go again. But after a while I started to see it as a positive. You gotta adapt, it made me malleable. One of my favorite quotes, something I try to live by, is adapt and adjust. That's what life is."
Again though, it'd be easy to draw a direct line from years spent overseas, soaking in myriad different sounds through cultural osmosis, to a versatile song like "Do Them Thangs," but that's the pre-written story, not Bardo's real life. In truth he resisted the impulse to let much of his diverse background seep into his music. His dad was a hip-hop fan who kept a non-stop rotation of A Tribe Called Quest songs in the air - Bardo recalls being "in the back of his Corolla at 2-years-old, listening to 'Check the Rhime' and 'Excursion,'" and that early hip-hop education morphed into an all-consuming love for rap that lead to in-depth listening sessions of Game and Ludacris, Nas and Blu.
Slowly but surely that fandom turned into early attempts at rapping, he remembers his very first attempts at rhyming coming over Juelz Santana instrumentals, and even more slowly but surely he found himself part of the group Allied Forces alongside his friend Antonio Roble. Allied Forces' music may not have been pure, traditional boom bap, but even as recently as their last project, 2012's Game Tape, the sound was pretty thoroughly hip-hop. But as Game Tape began to recede into the rearview Bardo was also just beginning to realize how valuable his differences could be. After all those years moving, always being the new kid in school, he had understandably just wanted on some level to fit in, to be like everyone else, but that impulse was also keeping him from staying entirely true to himself and his story, from becoming the artist he could. As he said, "The music [with Allied Forces] was good, but there was something else, something missing, and it was eating at me. I felt like I could do more, but I didn't know how."
So he went on a musical hiatus and spent the next two years and change going back, digging back into the soul and R&B, having his mind blown open by albums like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange and Amy Winehouse's Back to Black. Those albums made him feel like he needed to move towards more of an analog, live instrument sound and he set off chasing that sound, but even then there were speed bumps, trials and errors, but along with his drummer, engineer, and co-producer James Treichler, he landed on a sound that he felt like really represented him, a sound that started to reveal just how cultural and sonic influences he had grown up around.
As he said, "It was just...finding out about myself too. Creating the music I have now, I took a step back and focused on what was really important to me, the person I am when I'm just with myself, who I am as an artist and a person." And so now here we are. Like previous Top Prospects Muzi or Anderson .Paak, Bardo is not a "new" artist in the sense that he's only now just beginning to make music, but this iteration, this chapter in his life and his career are so new, the possibilities for his future so open, that you get that same vibe, that same sense that you're witnessing an artist creating something original and exciting in real time. And that's why Bardo is a Top Prospect, because he's got an album on the way and I truly don't know what that album will sound like because what does it sound like when someone who grew up listening to A Tribe Called Quest in Japan makes music that openly embraces his adaptability? I don't know, but I do know that it will sound different. Really, truly, actually different.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer/video+radio+podcast host. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]