“Momma I got dreams, but dreams don't keep the lights on” —Phonte
“If my manager insults me again, I will be assaulting him," is an opening line that always stuck with me because Kanye’s angst was familiar. His words sounded like mine, like so many people I know. It’s a relatable idea: being offended by a superior at work and having the threat build up in your gut, but the words only leave the mouth long after managers and supervisors are no longer in earshot.
The way Kanye spoke of having a job on “Spaceship” is what makes the song timeless. He gave the irate employee who believed his talents would take him places the job couldn’t fathom a voice. As a Gap employee, Kanye knew it was temporary—a pit stop before arriving at his dream destination. Maybe that’s why only a sole verse is dedicated to that part of his life on College Dropout. The spaceship arrived, an escape was executed, and inspiration came from his new world.
But what about all the workers who are still waiting for their spaceships to arrive? The guys and gals who need more than a verse from 2005 to help them through their foul bosses and awful graveyard shifts. Kanye hasn’t been that voice since his debut, and even though rap has since been sprinkled with blue-collar anthems, it’s rare to find an artist who perfectly articulates the struggle of surviving in life as a working man or woman with a want to pursue creative passions full-time.
We live in an age where stunting has become more than a habit. It's now a social media prerequisite, especially when it comes to young rappers who aspire to be larger than life. Their past work may inspire a lyric, maybe an interview reference, but so many would rather focus on their bright future than their sordid past.
Lute is an exception. On his newly-released project, West 1996, Pt. 2, the Charlotte, North Carolina rapper signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label delivers an entire project about life before rap became a viable career.
Before signing his life-changing deal, Lute had come to terms with West 1996, Pt. 2 serving as his final project. The decision was inspired by the birth of his daughter and the understanding that the role of a providing father was more important than the pursuit of rap dreams. The uncertainty that follows a career in music isn’t the safest foundation to raise a child upon. After all, she couldn’t eat dreams, or passion, or clout—she needed food and he needed money.
For five years, Lute worked and recorded, carefully crafting the long-awaited follow-up to his 2012 mixtape West 1996. Sure, he was buzzing locally, building up a following for being a new and notable Southern lyricist, but a big break was never guaranteed.
You can hear it in Lute's music, how each song encapsulates what life was like in that moment―living, writing, and working in Charlotte with no expectations for a successful rap career. There’s no rap glitter or industry glamor, no big features—J. Cole’s only vocal contribution is some backing vocals on “Still Slummin'.” Lute is strictly a Southern man living his Southern life and all that spills through when you're waiting for a spaceship that may not ever arrive.
Lute’s spaceship did come, though. The day before the original release date for West 1996, Pt. 2, he received a phone call from J. Cole with a request: don't release the project. Soon thereafter, Lute signed a contract with Dreamville. Instead of making wholesale changes to the music in an attempt to offer listeners something more fitting of how his life has changed, West 1996, Pt. 2 underwent a minor cosmetic procedure—a small tweak here, a small tweak there—allowing the spirit of a dreamer who had yet fulfilled his dream to remain.
The first voice we hear on West 1996, Pt. 2 isn't Lute, but rather a job supervisor who called the rapper and asked him to arrive to work earlier than scheduled. When you hate your job, the last thing you desire is arriving early. The call serves as a tone-setter for the entire album. Lute's situation is far from pleasant, but because of his daughter, all he can do is grit his teeth and head to work.
On the album intro, “Morning Shift," Lute delivers his mission statement: “Fuck this rap facade lets talk about real life.” For 35 minutes, Lute doesn’t waste a single bar while depicting the realities of a man trying to make it in music and provide for his family.
Lute doesn't attempt to wow with a flashy flow or daring deliveries, it’s all about painting the picture. He perfectly captures dreaming big on “Git Up,” and I love the pure poetry that is “Ford’s Prayer.” You feel the pressure of being under and not the glory of being above, the difference between maintaining and wanting more out of life. Lute has a style and attitude toward life that could easily make him the missing member of Little Brother; in a perfect world, we'd hear Lute featuring Phonte and Big Pooh over a 9th Wonder soul loop.
There’s a purity to Lute’s lyricism. No illusions or fantasies—every lyric is to be believed. On “Premonition,” the line “Seen a family get evicted had me reminiscing, yet I’m bitching about life” captures how connected the rapper is to the world around him. There’s no celebrity jadedness, just a man living in an environment where real people live and die. Lute doesn’t lean too far from the vantage point of an everyday man, but it’s done with depth. Without a life full of luxury, the true gems that cause the album to shine are how he’s able to put everything into a refreshing perspective. “I got way more blessings than enemies” is the kind of outlook that perfectly encompasses what Lute is bringing to rap.
The beauty of West 1996, Pt. 2 is that it's the story of an artist who didn’t leave home. Some of my favorite J. Cole songs are records about The Ville, about home, but Cole left in pursuit of making it as a rapper instead of living within Fayetteville as a grown adult. With Lute, life is unfolding while he’s in the environment that's been home since birth. It’s great to hear him interpret his cousin's confidence-boosting reassurance on “Still Slummin,” to feel the anxiety of his surroundings on “Home,” and internalizing people don’t understand his position on “Crabs in a Barrel.” He’s able to articulate how it feels to be somewhere rappers don’t ordinarily sprout, how the road wasn't paved for him. Charlotte isn’t like Atlanta, or L.A, or New York where new rappers blossom every other day.
West 1996, Pt. 2 is a familiar setting but it's delivered through new eyes. The production is slow and soft, yet full of soul; Southern yet far from the sound of modern rap. The approach feels like entering a small town that feels isolated, from the pace of big cities.
Lute’s long-awaited sophomore mixtape contains a warm, Southern coziness that feels like home and is unique to him. It may not be the sound of Charlotte, but it’s the sound of Lute’s specific surroundings. It sweeps listeners away and places you somewhere that feels isolated, existing in a world outside of hip-hop’s popular norm. The project takes you to a place that rap rarely visits. Lute showcases the front doors, the backroads, and the everyday jobs that are often missing in today's rap music.
West 1996, Pt. 2 is the working class rapper mixtape with a happy ending. Dreamville discovered another Southern everyday man, but even though he's building a story with some of the attributes that made Cole easy to root for, Lute isn't a Cole clone.
Lute is a patient dreamer, a father, and a lyricist who believed, and that belief will allow him to be a voice for so many who are still dreaming, believing, and aspiring to see their dreams come true.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Tha Dreamer, aka @Yoh31