Sol’s Growing Pains

On his debut album, an artist toggles between youth and maturity.

The scuffle that prompted 20-year-old Seattle lyricist Sol to abruptly stop rapping during his performance at Chop Suey two weeks ago initially seemed mysterious to many inside the venue. It was his debut CD release party--and he was opening for local hip-hop luminaries like Spaceman and Grayskul--so Sol (born Sol Moravia-Rosenberg) was determined not to let a small fight escalate.The Fremont native says he noticed the mini-melee on the floor because "people stopped paying attention to me," and immediately cut his performance in order to restore calm. What resulted was a rather awkward interlude. He reminded the crowd that "it's about love" and ordered them to chill before settling on a plan of attack: encouraging those in the crowd to chant with him "Fuck that shit!"Because those three words are the linguistic equivalent of a javelin to the eye, and because most of us didn't have a clear view of what was happening on the floor, Sol's heated admonitions felt like a poorly executed attempt to incite a riot.Blame it on his youthful excitability.Though it was an odd way to sow peace, Sol achieved his goal: The brawl stopped before people in the back even noticed it.His reaction was somewhat understandable, given his age..."I just started barking at people," says Sol. "And it suddenly became uncool to fight."If you're only familiar with Sol via his recently released debut disc, The Ride, then his well-intentioned but clumsy move that night may have surprised you. On his album, the University of Washington sophomore (double-majoring in American ethnic studies and communications) raps more like a tenured professor. Politics, racial identity, the state of hip-hop, and literature, plus aggressive battle raps, all crop up in varying degrees on The Ride, which feels like an adult piece of work. It's clear at times that having a knack for words comes easy to Sol—the mixed-race son of a Haitian mother and a Russian-Jewish father, both teachers now living in California.Over sandwiches at Flowers Bar & Restaurant in the U District, Sol—looking every bit the college student with his hipster glasses, scruffy beard, and sprinkle of acne—explains that he started writing the album at 18 and finished just before his 20th birthday. Executive-produced by himself, Isaac Meek, and Captain Midnite, and recorded at Meek's Undercaste studio, the disc's title refers to the journey Sol took during its recording, as well as to the voyage he leads listeners on through the album's 16 tracks."This album definitely represents me as a young adult," Sol continues. But he added that since "it was written during the Bush days," it's often reflective of that administration and the America it shaped.The Ride's opening track, "Solstice," a nod to his former moniker, embodies these influences. One of Sol's gifts is his ability to succinctly ride a beat rather than fight it, a distinction many young MCs have trouble making. Over bouncy, jazzy production courtesy of Los Angeles (by way of Seattle)–based producer Sebino, Sol allows the arrangement to dictate the timing of his flow, hitting his consonants hard and his rhymes harder: "Life is fucked up but it's important that we live it/True love is hard to find, important that we give it/Most rap is whack but it's important that they spit it—why?/It's still music, Africa's Diaspora is in it."This litany of simple aphorisms prepares listeners for more complex fare, particularly the fierce "Heart of Ice." Assuming the role of Bigger Thomas, the antihero of Richard Wright's classic novel Native Son, Sol angrily denounces prejudice and its toxic effects on the individual. Midnite's production (he produced 10 of the album's tracks) lends an epic, symphonic quality to a far-reaching track that begins with Sol declaring, "I am what you made me, dawg." It's a reference to Bigger's transformation from chauffeur to killer because of his disposable status as a black man."I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of opportunities, but as far as being an MC and being young and being multiethnic, I've definitely been discriminated against," Sol says. Still, he added, "When I decided to write the song, I was not writing completely about myself. There are definitely people in my life who have been Bigger Thomas."Such a mature, intellectualized account of his music might lead one to believe Sol has an old soul. On one level this is true: He speaks with authority on a multitude of topics, from hip-hop history (present in songs like the stoner groove "Spliff" and the catchy but serious "Road Is Rough") to the meaning of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (which also inspired "Heart of Ice").But at his Chop Suey performance, Sol showed how tangled the intersecting vectors of youthful exuberance and hubris can get. He often came off as too anxious and excited, a stark contrast to the in-control MC heard on his recorded material. That he broke off in the middle of the title track—an organized, piano-laced explication of tough times—only further highlights the difference between Sol on stage and Sol in the studio."I made the album as a young adult—I guess I'm still a young adult now," he says. But, he adds, "I don't feel that it takes something away from it. I'm not trying to be the young cat. 'Oh, he's a young cat, that's a young album.'"I already have a good idea of what I'm trying to do," he continues. "The integrity of what I have behind my music is a complete package. I'm gonna bring you an issue; it might be something simple, or it might be something complicated. It's the journey I went through on the first album. And I'm never gonna make a first album again."

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