Three years ago, the local scene put its chips on D.Black as the next big thing, the next Sir Mix-A-Lot (in terms of fame), Seattle's answer to Biggie and Jay-Z. There was good reason to believe this would be so. He came from hiphop royalty (both his parents were rappers in prominent crews in the early '80s), he was raised in the Central District (the then-epicenter of local hiphop), and he was well connected and regarded. His debut album, The Cause & Effect, had everything a rapper needs to reach the top of the charts. There was lots of anger, heavy doses of street realism, and tunes that were designed to meet all of the standards of pop hiphop: "Get Loose" (a dance anthem), "About Mine" (a hood anthem), and "Nobody" (a VIP anthem built on soothing 808 cowbells that recalled the black elegance moment in pop music). D.Black did everything by the book, but the world beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest did not respond.
Three years later, D.Black has returned with an album, Ali'Yah, that is the day to The Cause & Effect's night. Whereas the old record had national ambitions, the new record is aimed at the local. The first looked outside; the new one looks inside. The first was mostly about crass materialism; the new one is mostly about the soul. The first had the hypercapitalism of Jay-Z as its inspiration; the new one is inspired by the mysticisms of Common. Even the two titles express a clear rupture: The Cause & Effect is empirical; Ali'Yah is paradisiacal.
"I just got older," explains D.Black over the phone from his place in Skyway. He is preparing to fly to San Francisco on business for Sportn' Life, the label he co-owns with DeVon Manier and the most important black-owned independent label in Seattle. "During the process of making Cause & Effect, I was 17 and 18. Now I'm 22 and will be 23 in no time. But what is happening now is I was able to pick up more responsibilities. I'm married now. I have a daughter. That was really huge. And also there was a kind of music I was listening to. I was listening to Common and Lauryn Hill's old record. And this is my favorite kind of music. So I started connecting with music that came from the inner being."
Not only are the differences striking, but ultimately, Ali'Yah is a better record. What it has that D.Black's first record lacks is focus. Primarily produced by Vitamin D, Jake One, and B.Brown, Ali'Yah does not contain a variety of tracks with a variety of motives—one that should produce a hit, one that should maintain or reinforce street credibility, one that's just right for the club. Instead, it is unified by D.Black's singular concern with the substance/meaning of his life—a life that is in the mode of hiphop and made up of very close relationships with his friends, family, and community.
"The first record was a release," explains D.Black. "The release of growing up in an environment... But with this record, I wanted to show what was going on in the mind of D.Black. The first record was a crying out to the community. This one is outside and crying into the community. From outside, you can see things, look and see the inconsistencies, the spots, the blemishes. In the first record, I was not outside but in the midst. So that's why you can't tell if the first record is glorifying or hating where it's at. It's like you do what you do, but you do what you do because you love it and you can't help but to love it."
The reason why D.Black feels he is on the outside looking in has much to do with the unexpected fact that he's now following and organizing his life around the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism. "I'm a weird case," says D.Black. "I'm not a Christian and I'm not Jewish. So usually what people call a person like me, or the thing that I do, is Messianic Judaism. I have turned to the God of Israel and the Jewish people. I was raised a Sunni Muslim, and I converted to Christianity at 14. I had my up and down moments. But when I moved out of my parents' place and started living with my lady, I started studying Christianity backwards. I started going back to the root. Where did all of it come from? Why is it like this? You know the church knows Jesus was Jewish. But they do not know he was extremely Jewish."
D.Black now spends a good deal of his time studying the Torah. Nevertheless, Ali'Yah is not at all preachy or about spreading his beliefs. It's not like a Christian rap record (dc Talk and what have you). He is not in the business of converting nonbelievers. The album, which contains no curse words, gang boasting, or misogynistic declarations, is above all about hiphop, the difficulties of the art and the effort/work it takes to become a good artist—"My joy, my pain, my life/My beats, my words, my mic," raps D.Black on "Let It Go." There are tracks that have a religious feeling, such as "Alter Call," which is produced and performed by local jazz pianist Darrius Willrich, and "I Believe," which features Spaceman and Choklate, but nothing in these tracks informs the listener that the rapper is big into sacred Jewish texts.
There is some bad news. It's this: D.Black's deepening commitment to the ideas of the Torah is slowly but surely turning him away from his rap career and toward one that is devoted to his spiritual development. In the beginning, in the midst of things; for now, outside looking into things; in the future, gone like the wind. We have already lost Thee Satisfaction to San Francisco, it would be sad for Seattle to lose such a talented and fascinating rapper to the spiritual capital of the Western world, Jerusalem. I hope he stays in the game.
Comment on this story at thestranger.com