An Emcee and a Gentleman 

Aceyalone hits his poetic stride on the magnificent Magnificent City.

What's the difference between a poet, an emcee, and a rapper? The terms aren't always interchangeable. You wouldn't confuse Saul Williams with Lil' Wayne, for instance. Nor would you call Killa Tay an emcee, although the epithet would certainly apply to KRS-One. And it's a rare bird who encompasses all three aspects, like Aceyalone.

Since emerging in the early '90s' "Golden Age" as one-quarter of Freestyle Fellowship, Acey has proven there's more to South Central LA's hip-hop scene than gangsta rap. His highly articulate wordplay makes him one of the most skilled rappers around, his love of hip-hop culture qualifies him as an emcee, and his verbal creativity equivocates him to any spoken-word artist you could name. "It's a universal thing to me," Acey explains over the phone from Los Angeles. "It's all rhyming rhythmically, whatever. That's the technical aspect of it. Emcees and poets are doing the same thing, they're writing lyrics, they're expressing themselves."

Yes. As far as poetry is concerned, Acey is a little puzzled that sublime wordsmithery isn't more appreciated by mainstream audiences. "It's a trip," he says. "You would think poetry would be right up there in the forefront." His definition of a poet is someone who's not only "real precise with his words," but who's "trying to challenge your mind to think in a different way." On his new album, Magnificent City, Acey does exactly that. For starters, despite featuring only one producer (East Coast underground sensation RJD2), it lacks the monotony rap listeners have grown accustomed to, evoking the vinyl era with a progression of different moods, scenes, and expressions. In other words, the CD flows like an album. "That's the biggest compliment I could have right there," Acey says proudly.

While not a concept album per se, almost every song on Magnificent City is conceptual in nature. One of the highlights is "Solomon Jones," a Dylanesque tale of a barroom brawl rendered with dramatic detail and an old-timey, folkish feel. "On that one, I wanted to explore some more storytelling -- that's been missing in a lot of hip-hop lately," Acey explains, adding that he was influenced by old-school oral traditionalists like Dana Dane and Slick Rick. Somewhat less concrete and more abstract is "Mooore," inspired by "the human element. We take, we take, we take, just more and more, and more ... 'I want more, I want more money.' We never get enough. And we live in a society where it's real prevalent." Conversely, from an artistic perspective, "It's like you give your heart and soul, whatever, [then] you give more."

Sometimes, people want more than you can possibly give, a scenario Acey explores on the chorus to "Supahero": Baby I'm your star, but you looking for a superhero/Superman don't fly no more, 'cause he ain't one with the people. Later, he explains his motivations for seeking female companionship: I want to love you 'cause that's my duty/It's not your booty, it's not your beauty/You're not just a cutie, you make me whole/It's not the movies where they play the role. Anyone who's ever bitched about misogyny in rap should listen to this song, which addresses superficiality and materialism in relationships, and the desire of a conscious rapper to transcend such fakery and keep it real (literally).

Meanwhile, the song's oscillating keyboards recall the techno-funk and electro-hop of such pioneering groups as Unknown DJ, Uncle Jamm's Army, and the World Class Wreckin' Cru. For that, thank RJD2. Most hip-hop records nowadays use multiple producers, yet some of the best rap albums ever were one-rapper, one-producer affairs: Think Eric B. and Rakim, Guru and Premier, Dr. Dre and the D.O.C. With Magnificent City, a vibrant creative process ensued between Acey and RJ. At first, "A lot of the beats were skeletons," the emcee explains. "He would give me tracks, I would lay vocals on it, and he had no idea where I was going to go." In many instances, Acey's unpredictable flows became the catalyst for further musical inspiration on RJ's part. Apparently, the two mesh well; as Acey notes, RJ is "a real intricate kind of thought-out guy."

Ultimately, Aceyalone is all about the art, not the dollars. He has to be. "Throughout my career, I've never been sitting pretty," he says. "If don't work, I don't eat." He's never going to be financially successful on the level of Jay-Z or 50 Cent, but he's perfectly okay with that: "Fifty years from now, I just want people to say, 'He had integrity.'"

Actually, we can say that now.

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