When you write about music, you end up with an inbox full of emails with SoundCloud links. Most of the material lacks promise, but when the stars align, I'm greeted by a project that embodies everything I love about hip-hop. This is how I came across Dirty Face Angel, the newly-released debut album from East Cleveland MC, Kipp Stone.
While Stone has methodically dropped new music for the past three years, musicality itself has flown through him since he was a child. “My dad was heavy into making music,” Stone tells me over the phone. “Music was just in me, for real.”
Yet, it was during his high school years that he realized it was music or bust, that nothing else could satisfy him as much as being a musician.
For some creatives, an all-or-nothing mentality can be a scary proposition, but Stone believes it's okay to gamble on your greatest passion. “I didn’t really care,” he insists. “I was going to [make music], or I wasn’t going to do anything at all.” Perhaps a bit wanton in his decision-making, Kipp Stone is nevertheless guided by a fearless energy.
Dirty Face Angel is that fearless energy distilled to its most potent form. Plenty of debut albums are autobiographical, but few are so dedicated to being in the trenches of memory. Without having to directly say so, the record exposes and fights through the damage done by state-imposed poverty. Stone’s writing across the album, as he explains, is his pursuit of freedom. “I didn’t wanna hold back,” he tells me. “The freedom I had to just write, I never had before. I had the time, so it just rushed out of me.”
Pressing play on the album, it's obvious that, for Stone, freedom is confessional. Stone tells me that his manager, Truth, always told him that his voice would be his secret weapon. Truth was right, but there is more to Dirty Face Angel than a perfect rap voice. The album is entirely bare, asking nothing of the listener while giving them everything.
At every turn, Stone confronts himself and temptation, and the earthy timbre of his voice captures the gravity of his struggles. These temptations, he tells me, range from “just jumping off the porch,” to pursuing a life of crime in order to support your family.
“That temptation was killing me,” Stone admits. “When I wasn’t making any money and I was just down bad, I was thinking ‘I could really just do this. I could really just start selling dope. I could really just start robbing people.’ Something always told me not to do that.”
Amidst the rich vocals and the no-holds-barred writing, a battle is taking place. Dirty Face Angel is not passively focused on dichotomies, it’s choking on them in an attempt to breathe a moral breath. But as Stone tells me, morality is binary.
“I know people that had to sell drugs, and they had two jobs, but [the jobs] weren’t enough,” Stone recalls. “I saw that for myself. On top of that, there’s a bad stigma that people get about drug dealers and gangbangers. At their core, these are really good people. The people that I’m talking to, they’re really good people. Granted, you have a couple bad people selling drugs. A lot of people, though, they’re part of the community. They’re talking to me and keeping us out of the streets and pushing us and helping us however they can. That’s really like the Dirty Face Angel perspective.”
Stone’s unique perspective comes from years of personal experience, distance, and reflection. Having lived in East Cleveland for most of his life, Stone and his friends saw everything imaginable, live and in living color, from as young as five years old. “I saw someone get shot in the head when I was five years old,” he recounts. “The first time my mom ever took me to the corner store down the street from our house, this dude walked up to me with, like, a hole in his head, and he had just been shot.”
Only after Stone returned to Cleveland after turning eighteen did the gravity of what he had grown up witnessing finally settle. His time away from Cleveland gave him the chance to distance himself from trauma and to better understand the full weight that it has placed on his tired shoulders. Once he put together what he was seeing as a child from the perspective of an adult, the music began pouring out.
In that way, each of the album’s twelve tracks is a measured retelling. The Dirty Face Angel perspective is something of a hall of mirrors, looking forward and backward, from a bird’s-eye view and with an ear to the ground. The album is not a tepid journey so much as it is a field study of what it means to come into the consciousness of your own trauma.
With Dirty Face Angel now available for the world to discover, Kipp Stone hopes that listeners get a good glimpse of himself and his city. “This is what East Cleveland sounds like, this is what it feels like,” he concludes.
“I wanna be that dude to give East Cleveland a face. I got a long way to go, but this is a solid step in the right direction.”