On November 7, super-producer 9th Wonder flooded social media with a surprise announcement: He had signed Durham’s Swank and King Draft to the dream-team roster of his Raleigh-based label, Jamla Records, which would drop the sequel to their first collaborative album, TwoFive to Jersey, at midnight.
The announcement came in the form of a teaser video that previewed “69 TwoFive 2 Jersey: The Sequel. The video’s aesthetic matches the song’s gritty narrative. Swank and King Draft meet in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, sporting ski masks and trading bars, their hunger and unity evident.
From the production to the lyrical content, the eleven-track surprise album is perfectly crafted, and it would never have happened if two multi-talented MCs who came up as solo acts hadn’t found their separate paths crossing at Jamla.
Still, if you’re a close follower of Triangle hip-hop, it was one of those surprises that seemed inevitable. Over the past several years, Swank and King Draft have both released individual projects, headlined shows, performed at Durham’s Beats n Bars Festival, and gained national attention as finalists in BET’s rebooted “Freestyle Friday” competition.
Their affiliation with Jamla also began individually. In 2014, while he was enrolled in 9th Wonder’s hip-hop course at North Carolina Central University, King Draft released his first album. The rollout impressed his professor so much that 9th asked for a copy and, according to Draft, dubbed it one best demos he’d ever heard.
Swank, the visionary behind the artwork for Rapsody’s critically acclaimed second album, Eve, came around in a creative role about a year later. He also co-directed the remarkable video for her single “Nina,” which pays homage to the multiple layers of the beauty of Blackness.
“I never wanted to be a superstar.”
The two first found themselves paired while working with 9th, each landing placements on his Zion III beat tape and his compilation 9th Wonder Presents: Jamla Is the Squad II, both released last year.
Sitting on a couch at Carolina Soul Records in downtown Durham, Swank and King Draft are visibly excited yet humble about the signing. The number of vinyl records on display that feature tracks 9th Wonder produced underlines the significance of the moment, which feels more like fate than coincidence. The new signees admire each vinyl in awe. They both entered their relationship with Jamla with no set expectations.
“It was just more of, they’re providing me with the opportunity, so I’m going to come in and work,” Swank says. “Whatever they needed from me, I was always open and willing to shoot whatever, whenever. It was just a blessing for it to end up the way that it did.”
Though Swank and King Draft had been building their careers individually, the idea of them becoming a group was a running joke on the Jamla team. The positive response to their pairing on Zion III led to their joint album-length debut in May, TwoFive to Jersey. (The title was a nod to their hometowns, Littleton, North Carolina and Plainfield, New Jersey.) Though not an official Jamla release, the album featured production and support from the Jamla squad.
The Sequel is far more cohesive in sound and content. The album has a nostalgic feel, but the vibe remains up-to-date as King Draft and Swank address issues relatable to Black men in their twenties. Without coming off as preachy, they bare their internal thoughts, rapping about the everyday struggles of growing up in small towns, navigating monogamy and relationships, choosing a path free of violence, and redefining what it means to be a man. In an era when hip-hop hasn’t shied away from spewing degrading lyrical content about Black women, these HBCU graduates celebrate their beauty.
The incredible production is led by The Soul Council, Jamla’s team of in-house producers. It positions King Draft and Swank as hip-hop classicists at heart, setting them apart from today’s mumble rappers. The new Jamla signees rap rap, gimmick-free, and they complement each other lyrically and sonically. It’s easy to compare their cadence and delivery to Little Brother, but the acknowledgment of any similarities to the hip-hop veterans is only a nod that the budding duo is heading in the right direction to one day be included in a list of iconic hip-hop pairings.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” King Draft says. “I think Phonte is one of the best rappers.”
Hip-hop has a history of building dream teams, from Bad Boy, Roc-a-Fella, and Young Money to the contemporary sounds of Dreamville and TDE. With every star-studded team, though, there comes the risk of someone being overlooked. Luckily, King Draft and Swank are students of the culture who care deeply about hip-hop’s lineage and, more important, understand the significance of longevity in an industry full of trends and shifting sounds.
“I never wanted to be a superstar,” King Draft says.
“I think the same way. I never came in looking to be Jay-Z or Kendrick Lamar,” Swank adds.
Instead, their goal is to be as skilled as the greats while following the career trajectories of the likes of Dom Kennedy, Wiz Khalifa, and Curren$y—those who found their lane, identified their fan base, and capitalized on it. One of the most impressive feats of the album is how it allows space for everyone to be a superstar, from the producers to the guests to Swank and King Draft themselves.
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