“Winter, spring, summer time / I’m a real person / Rainfall, thunder, shine / I’m a real person / My name, dawg, you can find under / Real Person” —Caleborate, “Real Person”
Music exists for entertainment second.
First, music exists as our vehicle to connect with ourselves and others, and as a tool to navigate our present-day realities. There’s an unmistakable buzz when a project really hits, an uplifting and charged sensation. Really, it just means so much to be heard. For every passable, inoffensive, and generally fun album that’s nothing to write home about, our desire for depth and sincerity grows. We’ve all reached that desperation point scrolling through an endless sea of options on Spotify or TIDAL, or what have you, with overwhelming disinterest, which may be the only feeling worse than outright sadness.
The cure for disinterest? Authenticity.
Real life, for all its glamor and lack thereof, is what we’re looking for every time we press play. The albums that connect are the ones that project an image of our lives back at us, or, as Real Person and California-based rapper Caleborate tells me over the phone: “It’s like dialog or third-party confirmation. We watch movies because of that, we watch reality TV because of that, we watch YouTube because of that. The basis of our connectivity of humans is based on that: sharing experiences.”
In 2017, Caleborate (born Caleb Parker) dropped an album aptly titled Real Person. The record basked in West Coast sun and bounce—not too dissimilar from the gummy light of Chicago—bringing in the plain-stated and heavy truths of a much younger J. Cole. On first pass, you might imagine that the thesis of the album is the title: Caleborate is a real guy, doing real guy things, writing some real raps about it. But the heart of the album is far more expansive. As much as Real Person is about Caleborate, it is also about the timelessness of authenticity in hip-hop, the universal language of sincerity, and the importance of working against the tides to better know yourself.
You see, before Caleborate was a Real Person, he was trying to make it big like the rest of us. In 2016, Parker dropped 1993, a solid body of work if not a bit distant. Up against Real Person, 1993 sounds a bit disinterested and by-the-numbers, something Caleborate noticed during the recording process.
“I had dropped 1993 and I was just seeing that I made some songs with the intention of them being commercially successful,” he admits. “I was trying to make music, and that just felt weird and it was just a creative space that I was only in because I was trying to be successful. I wasn’t letting it come naturally, I was actively trying to do whatever I had to do to get into the game… Then I was like, ‘Yo, I’m just gonna make music that I love.’”
While making 1993, it sounds as if Parker was disinterested in the same way rap fans are bored when another flash-in-the-pan artist rushes out a debut record. We know the type: young artists with a viral single or video who get a massive advance they can only hope to earn out of, who drop a raucous but largely disjointed project while they’re still making headlines. This is the “new sound / new wave” Caleborate spits about on “4 Willem,” and while he doesn’t fit their mold, that’s not making him any less optimistic about his career.
“I definitely think keeping it real is [the key to] hella longevity,” he tells me. “That’s some forever type shit.” That’s the rub: as exciting as rap trends are—they’re trends for a reason, after all—they will never overtake our desire to connect with another human being, another Real Person. While it may be disheartening to see artists making music on-trend for a check, the truth is that an enduring career is much harder to come by than a one-time advance from a hungry label. Of course, Parker still gets frustrated, but not out of jealousy—in a way, he feels isolated from the hip-hop ecosystem.
“I definitely feel like if you’re abstaining from being a part of [rap trends], that’s damn near underground now,” Caleborate muses. “Right now, what people want is to be shocked. Before, I think we wanted to be shocked by talent, but now I think we want to be shocked by anything different and I don’t know why. It’s alienating because you’re one of few.”
Now, we’ve entered a Twilight Zone situation, wherein authenticity will always trump the shock factor an artist brings to the table, and yet, because the hip-hop landscape is so bloated with copycats, being authentic is shocking in itself. “I never thought of it like that but… I actually think that authenticity now is shocking,” Parker affirms. “I’ll perform ‘4 Willem,’ for young people and college students, and n****s be shook. They be expecting to see Kendrick doing that type of performance, but when it’s an upcoming artist they’re confused, maybe because they think that everyone in this wave is doing one thing.”
That type of pigeonholing is dangerous, but not impossible to navigate. Chicago’s Juice WRLD takes his SoundCloud rapper moniker in stride, attesting that while he is a product of the platform, he wishes music fans could broaden their definition of a "SoundCloud" artist. Conversely, Florida rapper Sylvan LaCue sensed a changing tide earlier in his career, as he revealed to DJBooth in mid-July that once the aggressive new wave began to gain some buzz—think Denzel Curry and Robb Bank$—he moved out of the city.
“I left South Florida in 2013 as a rapper. I was going by QuEST. I thought I was doing good, but I knew a new wave was coming. This isn’t necessarily my realm, and I don’t know how to exist in that. So I’m gonna go somewhere, see if I can get it popping, and then come back. In that instant, it was about me.” —Sylvan LaCue
LaCue’s approach invariably worked, with his recent album Apologies in Advance and Florida-inspired mixtape Florida Man both playing off as emotionally engaging and sincere efforts. With Florida Man, in particular, LaCue rapped over almost exclusively Florida-based industry beats, which is nothing if not a show of good faith to his roots. LaCue has cultivated an equally engaged following, and by throwing his artistic weight back to the very city he was worried wouldn’t welcome him, he’s proving that authenticity doesn’t have a definite sound.
Too often, when we discuss sincerity in hip-hop, the conversation devolves into a binary of old and new. The supposition is that new waves of hip-hop cannot possibly be authentic or possess the range for fans to connect with. But as Caleborate attests, there is nothing wrong with a good and accessible pop track and some industry polish. So long as the artist is living their truth, the music will never grow tiresome.
“I think some of that shit is good! I think there were some good artists that came out of that whole rush, but there were a lot of bad artists that were used to push forward a narrative… They just gorged that culture of music and really cannibalized it. For example, Future was a great artist to come out of that. His style and his sound and his vision, it was very progressive. Him, Young Thug, same thing. But there’s some people who just completely copied and emulated Thug, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, just completely ripped that off and ran with it as well. In my opinion, as a listener, that’s when it started to become gluttonous. I don’t need three of these artists that are all trying to make the same songs. I really just need the one that’s really good at it that invented the style.”
There is a market for the style of music Caleborate alludes to, partly because the industry is going to milk it until every trap river runs dry, but also because Thug, Uzi, Future, and even the oft-maligned Lil Pump are living their base truths. “I fuck with Lil Pump; I don’t fuck with people who copy Lil Pump,” Cal says. “He’s wild, he’s living his best life, and his music is not terrible. It’s great for what he does and what he wants to say… It’s authentic to the life that he wants to live. His music is sincere to him. Living carefree, that’s his truth.”
“I feel like everybody has to acknowledge that there’s things in his music that you could fuck with or not fuck with, but in terms of saying that’s not real music…” Caleborate continues, “Nah. There’s n****s talking about shooting n****s and coke in their music, and that shit is real to them, too. As long as shit’s sincere, I feel like it’s fire.”
While people are flocking to hot new sounds like candy, we have to realize that at the core of that zeal is an overwhelming passion for the real, when it’s glamorous and when it’s 10 degrees removed from our daily lives. The key to a lasting rap career—and by proxy, a strong relationship with your fans—is a firm grasp on your personal reality. “I think [authentic music] provides a sense of comfort within your own life,” Cal explains. “It helps make your experience on earth feel shared, which is nice. So when you’re offering a real perspective, it’s just even more impactful.”
Then comes the question: “How could anyone connect with Lil Pump rapping about cocaine on a boat and chains if they’re working a 9-to-5 with nary a chain to their name?” To that point, Caleborate brings up a simple but emphatic truth: “Connecting with people in any way, you know, if you connect with someone over the type of sandwich you like to eat, that’s cool.” Meaning, the relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be emotionally complex or one-to-one with your personal hardships. Catharsis is catharsis, regardless of the source.
As rap trends come and go, as people plot on the implosion of trap music and the return of "the real," it’s important to remember that “the real” never went anywhere—it simply evolved like anything else in our dynamic world. That said, it has become increasingly more difficult to spot genuine intention in music, but Caleborate seems to have a solid grasp on scoping out sincerity.
“Whatever you’re talking about, whatever your life is, if people could just see it on you, then it’s your truth.” he muses. “You could see me in the streets, see me at my family’s house: real person. See me grocery shopping: real person. I’m the type of person where I feel like I live a lit life, but I’m not gonna let my lit life stop me from being a human being.”
Amen to that, and long live Real People.