Tacoma’s Rockwell Powers is an MC who knows how to posture in a different way than most rappers. In a genre where ninety percent of lyrical content is based on finding creative ways to self-aggrandize, and astute critical analysis of artists is fundamentally rooted in their ability to convince listeners of an often false legend, an MC who finds comfortable space in admission of uncertainty is a rare and welcome participant in the game.
Kids in the Back 2, the second full-length offering from South Sound duo Rockwell Powers and producer Ill Pill, is a fierce sixteen track declaration of independence. One of the biggest steps toward true self-realization is the ability to admit the existence of the unknown; Rockwell spends a lot of time doing just that on tracks like the soulful “Life” (featuring Sol) and Jazz-inflected “Doubt” (featuring live instrumentation from the MC’s side project, 10th & Commerce). Powers raises substantive questions about love, religion, art, and life’s purpose. To his poetic credit, for such heavy-handed subject matter his raps rarely sound preach-y or holier-than-thou, a testament to lyrics that have an explorative, conversational tone.
While this is an MC clearly feeling his way through life’s uncertainties, it’s not to suggest dude lacks confidence in his music. On the contrary, of all the things in his life, microphone prowess seems to be the one he has most figured out. “I Got This” is straight-up battle rap, an assertion of dopeness with grand percussion and horn licks suitable for nobility. Rockwell keeps his flow steady and even, for the most part, but he sounds more emotive than in the past. Likewise, Ill Pill’s well-conceived production is further advanced than on the duo’s first album, 2009’s Kids in the Back. While that LP emphasized more traditional straight-forward boom-bap, KITB 2’s compositions feature greater complexity in both rhythm and melody. The thick, expertly sampled thump of “These Songs” and the industrial beauty of “Head Up” are highlights of 2011 Pacific Northwest hip-hop.
Experienced listeners of rap music know that aggression and amiability in lyrics are not mutually exclusive. The best artists allow those dualities, and others, to be revealed without pretense or apology — those MC’s are by far the most believable because, in the end, we’re all rooted together in a human condition composed of opposite natures and experiences. Kids in the Back 2 is an album that allows more room for exploring all of that. Some in hip-hop might call that a weakness. The irony is that those who would call it such, don’t understand what it takes to be strong.