Royal-Tee has always gone against the grain. "When I was younger, I had a fear of not being understood," the Charlotte rapper says. "Everybody else had Jordans and I was rocking New Balances, and I felt like, 'Why are they staring at me?' But that's what I liked."
The 30-year-old artist has charted his own course over the past five years, chipping his way into hip-hop's consciousness one track at a time. Listening to his music, you hear more than a progression — there is regression, looping back, ideas tried and failed and tried again. It becomes clear that Royal-Tee is an artist in search of himself as much as a successful career, and now it looks as though he may have finally found his milieu in the stories of everyday people.
Five years after his debut, Alumni, with its heavy use of classic R&B samples, Royal-Tee has finally released his second full-length album, Voice of Reason. It has a slicker sound and highlights the role of Charlotte's DJ Skillz — "the next great American DJ," he says. "We wanted to go back to hip-hop's roots, bring the DJ back into the mix with the MC." In fact, Skillz is given director credits in the liner notes, voice-overs on several tracks and even opens the album: "We don't need no introduction for this, homie," Skillz announces, "the people been waiting too long for this" — a nod to the numerous delays that pushed the album's release back for months.
"Every year I grow older, I feel it's my duty to put something out there for people to relate to," Royal-Tee says. "Give the people substance. But whether or not they understand it, I don't worry about it so hard," he says. "I'm sure there's someone out there who feels exactly like I do."
Royal-Tee — his real name, Adè Adisa, means "Royal Priesthood" in Yoruba — first gained notice in Charlotte at the tail-end of the city's golden era of hip-hop. From the mid-'90s until the mid-aughts, Queen City rap was part of a brash, DIY culture that found a welcome home in venues like the Moon Room, Café Café, Café Dada and Tremont Music Hall. The pulsing heart was Phat City, a bistro-by-day, terrordome-by-night performance space in pre-gentrified NoDa.
"It was our own hip-hop version of the Apollo," Royal-Tee says. "People would put you to the test at Phat City, so you had to bring your A-game. Cats would stumble their words, go blank; I saw some real horror stories. Then again, some cats would go in there and tear it down."
Phat City was an important proving ground for luminaries like Royal-Tee, Supastition and Phonte from Little Brother, but as Charlotte segued into a period of unprecedented expansion, the energy that had set local hip-hop boiling began to cool down. Clubs offering a velvet-rope experience proliferated, and by 2004 Phat City had closed its doors.
Undaunted, Royal-Tee released Alumni in 2007, a collection of songs he'd written mainly during his teens as a student at Garinger High and Northwest School of the Arts. The album intersperses his personal reflections with funny skits, instrumentals and lots of classic R&B samples. Several songs took hard aim at the lack of support among Charlotte's professional hip-hop community. The track "So-Called DJs" skewers pay-for-play DJs who gas artists up with no intention of giving local rappers airplay. And on "Sit in My Room," Royal-Tee raps, "I try to reach out to these n****s and help, but it's not a lot of unity / Especially in the city I live, it's a lot of local rappers on some Hollywood shit."
He doesn't regret those songs, but Royal-Tee says he won't be airing his pessimistic sentiments on wax again. "Am I [still angry] now? No. Of course, I feel like there's room for change. Still, musically, I can't approach my records like that anymore. I don't want to be known for the negative slant."
Voice is an entirely different animal from Alumni, which is no surprise given the long gap between releases. He avoids the sophomore slump, but Voice is less personal, less flawed — and maybe a bit less fun. A chilly yet skillful braggadocio monopolizes much of the subject matter, but the melodic "Vintage," a cover of Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid In Full," and the upbeat, motivational "Coolie High" brighten the release.
"I had my whole life to write Alumni," Royal-Tee says, adding that it was recorded in one main studio, so there's an organic progression from one song to the next. Voice, on the other hand, features seven producers, including Charlotte favorite Krazy Figz and Questlove from The Roots, and was recorded in studios from Charlotte to Atlanta to New York.
The record almost suffers from Royal-Tee's overdeveloped work ethic — something he has in spades. The rapper, who used to work third shift unstocking pallets at Walmart, is no stranger to the grind. That blood-and-sweat mentality extends to his creative process; he's called up Figz at 4 a.m. to work on songs, and can be caught performing on the road more often than chilling at the club. He doesn't mind that at all.
"I can't be in the club popping Rosè all the time. I've done that; it's not my thing," he says. "Music is therapeutic for me, a way to cope, freedom to express emotion, but it's not my day-to-day. I work in a group home with people with disabilities. That is my everyday."
The demands of the everyday nearly convinced him to hang up the rap game. "Financially, it gets rough out here. Lights gotta stay on, baby gotta eat. When you're juggling real life with dream-pursuing, it's like a tug-of-war with yourself."
What helped push Royal-Tee through the depression, ironically, was the adversity itself. "When I'm going through something, that's when I'm most passionate. I thrive off it," he says. On his next release, Reality Rap, he will be showing less Royal-Tee and more Adè. "It's very important for people to listen to your music and feel like, 'Wow, I kinda know this dude.'"
Songs like "Tears of Reality," about an aunt who opened a school following her son's murder at 16, and "Air It Out," which relays thorny conversations with his mother and pastor, mark Reality Rap with the promise of a more mature hip-hop.
"I'm realizing I make blue-collar music," the rapper says. "My criminal record is cleaner than a man buffing floors, but I've bounced from job to job and I can spit for people who can't make music."