A year ago, MTV announced that Seattle native Solomon "Raz" Simone was the first rapper signed (via a partnership with his Black Umbrella venture) to 300 Entertainment, the Atlantic-distributed "new content" company founded by three big-time hiphop CEOs: Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz, and Kevin Liles. (Also, 300 has since added to its roster the hit-making ATL breakouts Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Migos, among others.) Raz put out his Cognitive Dissonance: Part 1 for free download soon after; its opening track, "They'll Speak," is still one of the most gripping tracks I've heard from a Seattle artist of any genre.
Raz had for some time demonstrated a knack for forgoing talk in favor of walk, grinding steadily alongside his fellow Black Umbrella–holder Sam Lachow, touring the country and gaining momentum organically, and connecting with rapt fans via his trademark transparency, a scarred sincerity every bit as breathy and earnest (not to mention sober) as Capitol Hill native-done-good Macklemore—but bred five minutes east on the blocks of the CD. His man-of-the-people moves—he typically prefers performing in the middle of his crowd—feel calculated, maybe, but not contrived. June through August saw the MC embark on a 52-city tour, opening for Strange Music's Rittz, deepening his impact among the indie-rap crowd thirsty for best-kept-secret stars on the rise.
Last summer, Raz started selling "golden tickets" online—admission for his first hometown headlining gig, at that time presumably still unbooked. That show finally happens this week—at Neumos on Thursday, January 29—much to the delight of his fervent followers, who are part of what Raz calls "The Village." Fans who register at therealvillage.com receive an e-mail with Raz's personal phone number and are encouraged to text him. While that sounds like hell on an AT&T bill, not to mention my own personal hell, it's clearly working for him—just another brick in the wall of Team Raz's savvy "one fan a day" empire-building.
Back in September, Raz started premiering his latest album, Cognitive Dissonance: Part 2, a track per week, on his SoundCloud, culminating on January 28, when the whole release becomes available for download. Darker, wearier, and slicker than his first outing, Dissonance: Part 2 finds Raz sounding fed up and preacher-serious at all times—"I got so many things to be angered 'bout." It's far from the turn-up, far more about the turn-inward and the unflinching kind of self-work they say that success requires. Raz's literally poetic take on dark, emotive rap straddles the sanctified and the street in true bluesman/soul-singer style. His gravelly gravitas is, as usual, aided and abetted by live instrumentation, including taiko bombast and those ever-present strings, giving him his patented movie-score heft and making his monologues as discomfiting as the last stretch of Requiem for a Dream. Strings haven't made a Seattle vocalist sound so isolated since Lori Goldston's cello work on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York.
Last word: Check out the Black Music Summit 2015 ("A Motown in Seattle?") going down at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on Saturday, January 31, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Presented by Umoja P.E.A.C.E. Center, the panels include "State of Black Music in Seattle," "Making Money in Today's Music Biz," and "Using Music to Activate Neighborhoods."