At the front of a packed crowd inside Five Star, an Asian restaurant in Raleigh by evening and a longtime haven for DJs and rappers by late night, a young woman consoles an older woman who's standing near the speakers, crying. The elder is Roberta Ricks, the mother of Morris Wayne Ricks II, who's bounding around the stage, rapping. The oldest of her two boys, he records as King Mez, and right now he's roaring through "The Light," an eyewitness account of the domestic violence he encountered as a kid.
Mez details the time he found his mother's torn-out hair on the kitchen floor. He nearly picked up a gun and took matters into his own hands: "I was feeling like a conquistador/ because that Glock 9, homie, I was ready to explore."
"It was hurting me," Mez had said several hours earlier, sitting calmly in a Mediterranean restaurant across from N.C. State University. "Sometimes it feels funny listening—like you're made of glass and people are looking at you and they can see everything inside you. But it was necessary."
The day before, the Washington Wizards nabbed Raleigh native John Wall with the NBA draft's No. 1 pick. Mez and Wall grew up near one another in separate Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods—sort of the ground zero of Mez's raps, though he hasn't lived there since he was 13—and played frequent pick-up basketball games together. For Mez, Wall is something of a lodestar, a talented kid who succeeded from the same streets. Mez wants next.
"I feel like a king. I'm still underground and trying to make my way out, but I have the potential to be one of them," said Mez with a cool that borders on stoic. "I feel like I will be one of the elite around here, but at the same time I like to undermine myself. Humility reigns supreme."
Or rapping does, and, as that goes, Mez seems nearly ready for the crown. With a patient, deep delivery, he's not an emcee obsessed with chucking out a superfluous amount of cheesy punch lines and hyperbolic self-decrees. Instead, he's a young, humble orator who has already figured out how to use the tricks of the rhyme trade as clutch-time rhetorical tools. He has self-control that seems to hinge on both self-confidence and self-respect.
"He can rap better than I can. I don't say that about people," says Durham emcee Thee Tom Hardy, who adds a guest verse on King Mez's "Nowhere to Go," a chronicle of aimless driving excursions around the Triangle. "He's got a gift at rhyming and at performing where you listen and know he's got a big future."
Mez is a different kind of North Carolina emcee. If you've heard many of the state's resident rappers, you've likely noticed the standard culture of violence endemic to a lot of lowbrow hip-hop. "North Cock-It-Back," after all, is a native rap motto. Mez, only 20, seems to have already lived long enough to know better.
"If you have a voice, you have a responsibility," he said. "I hate it when rappers make people feel alienated. I make music to make listeners feel big."
The Paraplegics, Mez's stunning second mixtape and his first with Asheville native and upcoming Raleigh producer Commissioner Gordon, is a work of uplifting commentary about people's dependence on objects and affectations to make them look and feel better. That reliance creates paralysis, insists Mez. It might seem heavy for a 20-year-old emcee trying to make entertaining music, but he attributes a lot of this no-nonsense mentality to being raised around what he calls a "spectrum of people" in the Raleigh neighborhood Chastain.
"I really loved Chastain. That's where I learned that I was different. That's where my conscious kicked in," he says rather boastfully, as if quantum leaping to the instant where he felt that gust of enlightenment. "There were friends selling drugs and people that came through shooting a couple of times. Some of that stuff I was just not going to deal with. It's not me."
Mez was born in Fort Campbell, a military base along the Tennesse and Kentucky state line. He says his parents, both soldiers in the U.S. Army, equipped him with discipline and tradition, but—rappers themselves—they didn't limit his interest in hip-hop. These days, only his mother wants anything to do with Mez's musical growth. "My dad doesn't really listen to my music or like talking about it," he says. But Mez recalls happier days at cookouts, when his father introduced him to outspoken hip-hop. It quickly became part of his lifestyle.
"I remember my first day on the way to elementary school, listening to [The Notorious B.I.G.'s] 'Ten Crack Commandments.' My dad didn't really mind that we listened to crazy lyrics," he says. "That's one of my most vivid memories. I had on the Barney book bag and a Fila sweatsuit, walking into class singing that song."
The Paraplegics is Mez's most unapologetically personal work to date. His first mixtape, last year's LLTK (Long Live the King), was about proving his microphone skills to battle rap-hungry anticipators.
"I just wanted to prove to people that I was good at rapping. I just recorded over some industry beats," he said. "I didn't know anything about blogs, Internet buzz. Luckily some of those songs were featured on some real big websites."
That mixtape laid important groundwork for the more discerning and intimate Paraplegics. Thanks to a random MySpace friendship, Mez first collaborated with 24-year-old producer Commissioner Gordon, or Sam Pilard. Having just returned to North Carolina from music engineering school in Seattle, Pilard was in the early stages of a project with hip-hop legend Big Daddy Kane when Mez came home to Raleigh after finishing his sophomore year at N.C. A&T in Greensboro. The two began work on The Paraplegics, even using a rejected Big Daddy Kane beat—the flute-laced backbone to the war-ready manifesto "Move"—for the album.
The result's chief strength, then, is the exciting birth of two hip-hop rookies into a scene struggling to find a new identity that's neither anchored to 9th Wonder's boom-bap nor the state's Bible Belt bounce. Rather, it's an attempt to meld insightful lyricism with orchestral, asphalt funk, independent of everything in its vicinity. Maybe this collaboration proves to be a one-off, but it feels a lot like a starting point.
"One of the most important things about rapping is the sound of the emcee's voice," Pilard says about Mez's scratchy, bass-filled enunciation. "You have to have a warm sound. Rap comes pretty natural with Mez. He has a certain ease—very advanced and mature."
Before he releases his debut solo album, Mez will finish two more collaborative projects—first with Kooley High producer Sinopsis and then with DJ Prince. "I don't really want to release my first official album and have it be overlooked. That would really hurt my feelings," says Mez, chuckling slightly as if to suggest he's exaggerating or joking. But it's apparent that he's serious about avoiding publicity and performance pitfalls.
Onstage at Five Star, Mez mixes the veteran work ethic of an old soul with youthful enthusiasm. He bounces around as if permanently affixed to a pogo stick, cheering on Commissioner Gordon as he works in some of his new beats from his drum machine.
Afterward, Mez stands outside on the sidewalk, sporting a bright new pair of Ken Griffey Jr. sneakers, thanking everyone for coming to the show.
"I got an encore ready, if they start yelling for one," he'd said at dinner. "I got some songs in the cut. If y'all want more, I got you."