Kooley High plays Kings Friday, Oct. 16, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $13–$15. Iman Omari, Quelle Chris, Green Street and Cavalier open.
Since Kooley High leading lady Rapsody began her solo crusade as the ace of 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records, her involvement with her original Raleigh crew has been, at best, spotty. During the past few years, she’s gone missing from the group’s flyers, performances and appearances, causing a stubborn minority of Kooley High fans to suggest she’s a saboteur for having abandoned emcees Charlie Smarts and Tab-One, producers Sinopsis and Foolery, and DJ Ill Digitz. Actually, there still seems to be debate within the group as to whether Rapody remains a member, but outside forces have sometimes suggested the guys cannot survive without her. Only time and rhymes will tell. For now, Kooley Highsans Rapsodyhas re-emerged four years after the release of Kooley High Presents…David Thompson with Heights, a relaxed nine-song EP far removed from the fray of group politics.
In the interim, much has changed in local hip-hop. Newcomers like Drique London, Well$ and Ace Henderson have all availed themselves of the grassroots groundwork Kooley High helped cultivate. “My town, it’s so crowded, that we out of spaces,” raps Charlie Smarts on opener “Automatic.” With that line, he returns Kooley High to square one and sets up the rest of the EP’s quick ride.
As is often the case with Kooley High, the trip can be both conceptually splintered and musically centered. On “Alone,” Smarts is concerned with isolating himself from love affairs, while Tab-One wants to isolate himself to nurture his love of penning rap lines. It’s a telling tension between the two rappers. Charlie Smarts emotes in style, while, without Rapsody, Tab-One must carry the sharp lyrical weight. When the two match wits, as they do with double-time rhyming during “Under the Sun,” who needs a third lyrical leg, anyway? “On the beat like Ringo/gringo with the lingo, bingo/everybody wanna front with the ego,” Tab-One raps, hurrying over Sinopsis’ sauntering beat. Smarts picks up the meter: “And we in this beginning to end/and my single should be up on Huffington Post/You would swear I’m Bill Murray, I bust and I’m ghost.”
As if Kooley High worried they would need more emcee ammo without Rapsody, they drafted Jamla’s Chicago spitter, Add-2, as the EP’s only rhyming guest for the hopeful “Where I’m Going.” Here, Synopsis plays with wind chime effects over driving bass, while Add-2 packs in his hometown picture of endless gun violence.
For Kooley High, that reality may be hard to relate to, but if all activism and awareness are intersectional, then Charlie Smarts’ work in the fight for a living wage for fast-food workers gives the group’s social awareness actual heft. You can hear pieces of that spirit on the blues guitar-licked “Carry On,” featuring Greensboro vocalist (and Charlie Smarts’ mother) Sandra Gell doing her best Sharon Jones. Again, Kooley High dips into the Jamla bucket for producer Eric G, who turns in a funked-down beat of his own.
Tab-One ends the song and album with a strong declaration of his crew’s staying power, getting back to the raps where Kooley High belongs: “Earnin’ tokens in this so-called game with no-bar lames/who didn’t have the heart to carve it in this lane we claim/Remain the same/Stay sane/Know what I’m sayin’?”
Indeed, sanity is what’s kept Kooley High from falling apart, even after a key member has moved on to late-night television and marquee guest verses. It’s what now takes their rap challenge to new heights.
Label: M.E.C.C.A. Records