By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
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By Nathan Smith
Two hours in and A-Game's already recorded four songs. As long as he keeps this tempo for the next nine hours, he'll finish the mixtape by the end of the night, and Hottest in tha City 2 will be ready for its release party on July 30. He's hustling because he could only scrap together enough funds for these ten hours of studio time. So he's back in the booth, headphones over his navy blue Cardinals fitted, which seems to never leave his head.
"I'm the rookie of the year, don't call me Blake Griffin please/But I'm on the road, blowing up — TNT/And ballin' hard in yo' arena my show should be on TNT, BET, MTV/ gon' have to play the kid eventually..."
And there's that mesmerizing flow, smooth and confident, rolling over the beat with Southern twang and West Coast chill. That's the flow that gained a following when he opened for J. Cole in April. The flow that turned heads at S.L.U.M. Fest in June. The flow that made listeners start wondering whether this skinny kid with the prom-king charisma and grade-school grin could become a new face of St. Louis hip-hop.
A-Game has reached that stage of his career just before the tipping point. He released his first two mixtapes in the past twelve months, emerging as one of the most talented rappers in St. Louis. But he's still an unsigned unknown, who can barely afford a few hours of studio time.
But in those few hours... damn. He nails his verse in a couple of takes, exits the booth and listens to the finished product. As "Rookie of the Year" plays, he nods his head, bounces on his toes then pumps his fists. This is the lead track for the mixtape, and it's a splash of ice water to the ears — three-plus minutes of syrupy winding flows that linger on some syllables and jump into double-time on others, weaving unpredictably among rhyme tempos, before climaxing with drum-roll-staccato speed. It's an impressive display of aural diversity. And it's a long way from where he was a year ago: a Westminster College junior named Anthoney Ellis who couldn't draw more than a dozen people to his first mixtape release party.
A year before that, he'd grown disillusioned with school and dropped out after his freshman year. So in the fall of 2009 he worked graveyard shifts at Target, stocking shelves in the night and writing verses in the day. He'd been rapping since he was eleven but hadn't taken it seriously before. But without school, what else did he have? So he sharpened his writing and polished his rhymes until the sun set and he had to get ready for work. Then his car broke down. Then he lost his job.
"That period of time sucked shit," he says. "I felt like I had just hit rock bottom."
And now here he is in the booth, recording the lines that — who knows? — might take him to the top. On the other side of the soundproof glass, the studio is packed with people, the familiar faces of the Frat, which is what his crew is called. There's Sterling and Korey and Kelvin and Tres and Ross and John.
"Have you done 'Tha Munchie Song' yet?" asks Korey.
"Nah, not yet," says A-Game, from the booth.
"Cool, cool," says Korey, with a wide grin.
"Tha Munchie Song" illustrates A-Game's creativity as an artist. Over a beat sampled from the theme song of The Office, he spits lines about what happens after you smoke weed. One of the mixtape's strengths is that song topics are narrowed into details and focused ideas.
On "Black Man's Plight," A-Game starts off musing on racism then veers into black self-empowerment as a solution to urban blight, rapping, "Got the nerve to call a muthafucka racist/As if blacks ain't killin' all the black people in the nation." Instead of hooks, A-Game dots his two verses with speeches from Tupac and Cornell West. He further displays his capacity and willingness to delve into social consciousness on "I Did It for My City," where he says, "What you know about the St. Louis blues?/Looking at the news, family all crying 'cause he ain't make 22/Shot with a .22 by a twenty-year-old/And police can't give no reason for his head to be blown."
He balances intellectualism with radio-ready wit and swag, molding disciplined writing into commercially viable tunes. For instance, on "A Year Later," A-Game reflects upon how he's proving wrong all those who doubted him: "Is it cool to have an ego?/Or if I come out confident will you treat me like T.O./Or do me like LeBron when I decide to leave home/'cause it's the only way I know to get the ring we all want."
Beyond lyrical versatility, A-Game displays vocal versatility throughout the mixtape. On "Honestly Speaking" and "Damn Homie," he changes pace mid-verse and intermittently links bars together with long-winded flows. On "G Shit," which might be the illest track on the tape, A-Game rides a sinister drum-string-synth beat with slow and forceful lines.
And, perhaps most memorably, on "High Fly and 2Fresh," A-Game opens with six aesthetically brilliant bars where he bounces rhyming syllables off a succession of upbeats before exploding into a full pair of bars on the beat drop, in a display of verbal dexterity so jarring and pleasant it's hard not to immediately rewind the track. It was A-Game's biggest risk on the mixtape, and it suggests that somewhere beneath the gifts that produced these very good songs, lie abilities he has yet to explore.
Seven hours into the session, and A-Game is keeping pace. He's in the booth, recording "My Nigga," a dedication to people who helped him get within arm's length of his dream.
The first verse is about his brother and growing up poor in north St. Louis and dodging all those obstacles of urban poverty that picked off so many young men around them. The second verse is about his father and how he taught him to be a man and how he forgives him for leaving. Then he gets into the third verse:
"Let me tell you how I got here, though/Me, Korey and Sterl started this a year ago..."
A year ago, A-Game had climbed out of rock bottom by returning to school, which is when Sterling and Korey pushed him to record a mixtape. Because A-Game was broke, Sterling and Korey put together some savings and bought him studio time. He released Hottest in tha City. Then he started performing; sometimes he got paid to do a set, sometimes he just jumped on an open mic. Each time he networked, shaking hands and handing out his mixtape and phone number. More shows. More fans. More connections.
In March, he released Tha Coolezt Lozer, and a month later he opened for J. Cole in Columbia in front of 2,000 people. More fans. More connections. More shows. He signed with a manager, and, since spring semester ended, he's been shuttling between St. Louis and Southern California, where he couch hops and performs. He opened for Noreaga in LA earlier this summer. In June, he hosted one of the S.L.U.M. Fest stages, cracking jokes and performing between the scheduled acts. He was named one of the festival's "Freshman Class."
"Still broke as a mother, but I'm living comfortably/I thank all of y'all/'cause you were around when it way ugly."
A-Game's out of the booth and listening to the final product. He's leaning on a swivel chair as the song winds down.
"So when I get this money, we gon' live large, 'cause y'all my niggas, y'all my niggas."
He pulls the brim of his fitted over his eyebrows. The achievements and failures and fears and dreams of the past twelve months, of the past twenty years, rush through his mind. That's why tears are dripping down his face...
And that's why his smile is so big ten days later, when he looks out from the stage and sees more than 100 people packing the Dog House, dancing to his music, celebrating the release of Hottest in tha City 2.
After performing several songs, he strolls to a dark corner of the bar and picks up a Creative Recreation shoebox filled with 200 burnt CDs. Then he goes around and hands out his mixtape.