Triangle hip-hop has trouble with stars. Sure, J. Cole had roots in area rap before he became a celebrity, and 9th Wonder has produced songs for some of hip-hop's biggest names. But the Triangle has yet to produce someone with mainstay, mainstream potential—a great rapper with an ear for hits and an eye for status.
It's easy to blame commercial radio, but most of this region's rap has been made of, by and for niches, not fit nor intended for wider consumption. But now, two separate Raleigh emcees, Bobby James and Wally Left, seem suitable for breaking that unseen barrier in very different ways. They could be—in time and with the right luck—rappers whose names your parents or children or aunts remember.
Since the online-only release of James' The Ugly Duckling album last year, he's wondered why his Main Event Army has yet to receive the attention he believes it's earned. Most every up-and-coming rapper tends to bemoan underexposure, but James' case actually deserves some attention. The album's single, "Scrubs," borrows from the TLC single of the similar name, ties its chorus to Destiny Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills" and then dips into a mellow and melodic rap tale that offers the approachability of J. Cole and Drake. It's built to be likable, a reoccurring feeling throughout The Ugly Duckling. James appropriates the Kreayshawn hit "Gucci Gucci" during "Devil Wears Prada" but uses it to harangue brand-name worship, a choice that dovetails well with the ascendance of Lorde. "Bobby know he can't afford it/Givenchy and Tom Ford it," he goes. "Alexander Wang/I can't explain/But it's so important/Why we watch what our idols buy/Imitate and then idolize/Imitate and them itemize/Fresh to death/'Til our demise."
Such strings of references reappear on "Bad Girl Gone Good," the Kanye West-inspired "Judgement Day" and "Genesis," where James explores both Jesus and the Grim Reaper. He's an audacious rapper, too, letting loose on opener, "Bobby Boucher." But he balances his spitfire ability and tendency with a seemingly intutive understanding of songs built for commercial stardom. He does that better than any of his other area rap counterparts, including up-and-coming emcee Wally Left.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Local nebulae."