"Go after your dream but be practical. Don’t get dressed up before you have a date for the prom.” —Phonte, DJBooth interview
To be a rap artist—the kind of job that requires the alignment of one's work and personal life—means to juggle important events and life-changing opportunities. On his single “Tabernacle,” Royce da 5’9" tells the story of meeting Eminem after a contracted performance in their shared home state of Michigan. Before gracing the stage that evening, Royce was at the hospital. His wife was in labor on the ninth floor, while his dying grandmother was fighting for her life on the fifth.
Under such circumstances, most artists would have instinctively canceled their performance, but Royce didn’t cancel. As a result of this decision, he was able to connect with a man who would become a lifelong friend and career-long partner, on the same day he held his firstborn child and lost a granny. Farewells and fresh starts have a strange, cosmic connection.
Noveliss—a fellow Detroit lyricist and one-third of rap trio Clear Soul Forces—is familiar with faith and how twisted she can be. In 2016, while performing at Youmacon, the massive, annual, four-day anime convention held in Detroit, he met rap peer, Mega Ran. The two built a kinship upon their shared interest in wrestling. When Mega was invited to perform in Japan, he extended an opportunity for Noveliss to join him.
The offer was a chance to rap in a country he’s admired, studied, and dreamed of visiting. But then, tragedy struck. “I lost my grandmother and the Japan trip overlapped with her funeral,” he says over the phone. Suddenly, Noveliss was standing at the crossroads between a new beginning and saying a final goodbye.
“I lost my Grandma and my best friend / And missed the biggest funeral in my fam / To rock a show in Japan (and it damaged me as a man),” he raps on the first verse of “5am in Shibuya,” an introspective standout from his 2018 solo album Cerebral Apex.
“The decision was a tough one to make,” Noveliss admits. “My mom and everyone encouraged me to go and not miss the opportunity. I can honestly say if I don’t go to Japan this album doesn’t happen.”
Three weeks after the August 28 release of Cerebral Apex, Noveliss tweeted: “I just quit my job. Betting on myself for once.”
Another dream decision made, but one that would not only affect his own future but the future of his fiancée and two children. When I asked Noveliss what gave him the guts to exert the plunge, the Detroit-born rapper responded without uncertainty.
“My album is out. It’s been doing really well. People are buying and supporting, so if not now, it’s never,” he says. “It was a hard decision—I’m always wary when taking chances because I have a family that depends on me—but at the same time, it wasn’t. My fiancée believes in me. My family believes in me. I had to make myself happy for once.”
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Noveliss shouldn’t be confused as a rash man. He kept a job throughout the eight years he spent rapping, releasing music, and touring as a member of Clear Soul Forces. While the group was able to build up their name and create a strong support system, Noveliss' transition from part-time group member to career solo artist is no easy feat—especially without the assistance of a major label. The separation between rapping and making a living solely off of rapping can be wide as the Grand Canyon. The distance expands when the music made isn’t within rap’s vogue zeitgeist.
Cerebral Apex is a loose concept soundtrack. The music is presented alongside a story—narrated by his fiancée based on a manga Noveliss has been writing over the last two years. It’s like following the storyline of a Final Fantasy video game but only by the audio cut-scenes. On this album, he bet his future.
"Anything I do from here on out, whether I become this huge thing or I don’t, this was the album that gave me the courage to quit my job," he explains. "Cerebral Apex will always be the most special thing I’ve ever done. The first time I ever put any of my writing outside of music and incorporated them into a project. My best friend and business partner wanted me to do an album based on the story, and I was hesitant. I didn’t know if I could do it the way I wanted. The more he pushed me to do it, it kinda happened."
Lyricism is what brought Clear Soul Forces coverage and attention. They were a group of youthful spitters who were hungry to display their abilities behind microphones. Storyline aside, Noveliss digs even deeper on his solo debut, delivering a far more personal work than what could be found on any of his prior projects. The main elements of his artistry are still present—a sagacious writer who brings together the art of storytelling, meditative reflection, and enough pop culture references to satisfy longtime fans in search of clever bars. The production is a throwback to a dustier time; the beats by Nujabes and J Dilla that carried previous projects have been replaced by a team of producers who provide a smooth palette of boom-bap knock and tranquil soul.
Noveliss has the vision to link worlds that capture unique nuances of contrasting cultures. A perfect example is the Acapella-produced “I Gave You Power,” a revamped version of Nas’ 1996 song of the same name but told from the perspective of Marvel’s Infinity Gems instead of a gun. The tribute connects one of hip-hop’s greatest tales with one of the most infamous stories in comic and movie history. Even more so than Marvel’s album cover crossover, the record is a wonderful example of the relationship between these two overlapping cultures.
The music video for the Mega Ran-assisted “B Fine” pays homage to Iron Fist and Luke Cage while “Tales of a Samurai, Pt. II,” another story-driven record, takes three famed anime samurai and depicts their characteristics through distinct imagery.
“When I was in college my favorite class was creative writing,” Noveliss says. “I had this teacher, her name was Mrs. Light. Some days we would start the day with a descriptive essay and by the end of the class, you had to read it out loud. Basically, you had to describe something so well without you saying what it was. That’s what I try to do when I write these stories. I don’t want to say what it is. I figure if I can make it dope enough, [fans] will look it up and see what I’m talking about.”
Given a comic book film adaptation is the highest-grossing movie of the year, hip-hop is the most popular genre in the world, and anime has slowly crossed into North America’s mainstream after years on the cusp of invisibility, Noveliss appears to have set out on his solo voyage at the absolute perfect time. Even against the music industry's stacked deck, the audience is there for Noveliss to win.
For years, Tech N9ne, arguably the most successful independent hip-hop artist of all-time, has repeated the same mantra: “Tech will never go mainstream, mainstream will go Tech.” The saying represents Tech's decision to never conform to the times, with the understanding (and hope) that the times will eventually fold to his will. During my conversation with Noveliss, I thought of Tech. Not because their music is in any way similar, but because of their conviction that, in the end, it will all work out. Artistic pursuit requires the unwavering belief that it's meant to be. After all, that's how dreams come true.
By Yoh, aka Yohmacon, aka @Yoh31
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