Defacto: Talent Isn’t Everything | April 4; Self-released

It is not often that I invite a musician into my home for an interview—in fact until this moment, I’ve never invited a musician into my home for an interview. But take into account chaotic work schedules, a new baby, and a talented but carless rapper—whose latest project isn’t even available on streaming platforms—and an in-person listening experience begins to make sense.

Tuesday was taco night. While preparing dinner, my partner Maliq (who is a producer), Defacto, and I caught up. I didn’t want to jump too deep into his latest project, Talent Isn’t Everything, which was released on April 4, just yet—multitasking with a 10-month-old is like an Olympic sport. Instead, Defacto and Maliq reminisced about collaborating on Defacto’s 2017 project Burgundy Skylines, and in between bites of chicken tacos, we broadly discussed the marketing and content creation to support the new album’s release.

Having a dynamic, well-executed album rollout is no easy feat. But Defacto—whose real name is Raheem Royal and whose rap name is Defacto Thezpian—has been releasing music since 2011. It’s evident that experience has taught him a thing or two.

The Durham musician is also a trained actor who successfully merges his love for theater and rapping. His rap name reflects this, and Talent Isn’t Everything was also first announced in a sketch comedy-style video on March 4 (a feature of the video: Schnozell Kerrington, a Defacto character, who is a hater from Durham). The album rollout also includes a minidocumentary, a podcast, and exclusive access to the album, which is priced at $20 on Defacto’s personal Shopify site.

It’s a marketing move that subverts the unwritten expectations for independent artists, who are often expected to distribute their projects on as many streaming platforms as possible in order to drive up momentum. This is why platforms like Distrokid and TuneCore have attracted more than 600,000 users.

Defacto, though, took a page out of West Coast rapper Nipsey Hussle’s book: In 2013, the then unsigned Hussle, sold his Crenshaw mixtape for $1,000 per copy, and within 24 hours he’d sold 1,000 copies.

Despite its lower price point, this scarcity model that Defacto has replicated has proven beneficial. In addition to identifying his core supporters, in less than a month he has sold almost 100 copies. With six musical projects and a number of singles under his belt, well organized on Bandcamp and available across streaming platforms, this is the first time self-distribution has helped him identify his audience—and set him apart.“Everybody is doing the same thing putting their stuff on streaming services,” he explains. “All that shit gets lost in a storm because listeners can say, ‘I’m not gonna put as much emphasis on this album because I know I can always come back to it—I got Spotify.’ People are just undervaluing how valuable ownership is, all across the board.”

The album artwork for Talent Isn’t Everything also deftly showcases Defacto’s producing talents. Its summery cover depicts him as two separate talents: Defacto the rapper, who is relaxing in the pool, and Raheem Royal the producer, who is hanging out by the pool’s edge holding an Akai MPK Mini.

“I started producing out of necessity,” Defacto says. “I felt like I wasn’t getting back what I really needed, whether it be interaction or actual production from people. So I made a decision in June of 2020 to produce the entire album even though I never produced anything before. I told myself that I would take my first beats and put them out.”

The decision to separate his creative identities—rapper, novice producer—is a wise one as it gives listeners an opportunity to both resonate with Defacto the rapper and meet Raheem Royal the producer. When I listened to the project, the production immediately felt familiar. For a first-timer, Raheem Royal positions himself as a student of Kanye: he uses samples from the 1970s, sampled loops with vocals, works in unanticipated beat flips, and takes sonic risks like using his voice as an instrument.

The overall production is impressive, though Royal does miss out on an opportunity to discover his personal sonic aesthetic. There are, after all, some moments that only Kanye can get away with. On the track “Kunkeeda,” for instance, the sampled loop in the first minute competes with Defacto’s rapping, and as a result, what can be understood as beautiful chaos could also be read as simply chaos. Still, by the time the beat flips, listeners have an opportunity to appreciate the shift. The same chaotic sampled loop is also present on “Christmas Baby.”

Where the production especially excels is capturing the essence of each track. The sonic structure enables each track about love and heartache to literally feel like they’re about love and heartache. And on each track where Defacto addresses the complicated relationships within his family, listeners, too, can feel his vulnerability.

Prior to this project, Defacto had already established himself as a talented rapper. What Talent Isn’t Everything allows him to do is show listeners how broad his range is.

He makes no attempts to execute his lyrics in a rapid manner on every track, nor is his lyrical content solely about relationships. This time around the rapper/actor focuses on vivid storytelling and vents about irreparable friendships, contentious relationships with his parents, and the importance of valuing the elders in his family—and he accomplishes this with great company.

Although two of the features, Cam James and ScienZe, are not native to North Carolina, the album is a well-curated demo that highlights North Carolina’s top talent, including Lil Bob Doe, Zone, Johnny Unite Us, Maestra, and Mique from Young Bull. All of the rappers featured are rapping, and the vocals provided by Mique and longtime collaborator Maestra on “Heartfelt” are equally soulful, silky, and textured.

As Defacto and I wrapped up the interview, I realized my home was an appropriate space to talk about the album, given its implicitly intimate, domestic feel. With his deep vulnerability, Defacto invites us into his home and heart—if, that is, listeners continue to decide that $20 is a worthy investment. My hope is that they will and that his ambition, in turn, will also motivate other artists to bet on themselves—and move away from streaming platforms.

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