Raz Simone narrates Seattle’s unconscious.
Solomon “Raz” Simone, square-jawed, with lank and sinew, like a young boxer with reach, unlocks his new office space. A black bandana encircles his Raiders cap; gold rings leave only his thumbs free.
The office for his entertainment company Black Umbrella sprawls three rooms on the base of Queen Anne’s west slope. A black couch, an empty conference table and a few cardboard boxes sit on its green carpet. Like Simone and his company, the office is in a state of transition.
In March, Black Umbrella released Simone’s first LP, Cognitive Dissonance, in partnership with 300 Entertainment, the latest venture of Lyor Cohen, a music-industry titan, onetime manager of Run-D.M.C. and former CEO of Warner Music Group. 300 is shifting the industry’s bloated model toward digital efficiency using social media data, and Simone is its first signee. It’s a unique partnership that gives Simone full artistic and business control.
Cognitive Dissonance sounds like Seattle because it sounds like nowhere else. The production, handled by Simone and a small team, is movie-trailer boom-bap, a conglomeration of thick synths, subservient drums, widescreen strings and live instrumentation. The album exists outside of rap’s feedback loop—it must, because Simone pays little attention to hip-hop at large.
“I am not a hip-hop head,” he says, “but I am hip-hop.” Simone, who didn’t hear Tupac until eighth grade, views rap primarily as the vessel for his writing. “I don’t look at hip-hop as a martial art, like I need to learn from our predecessors,” he says. “If there’s some hip-hop council that wants to do a review and say that I’m revoked or whatever, then fuck ’em. This is me.”
The 24-year-old is a thoroughbred Seattleite, raised by his mother in West Seattle, White Center, the north end and the Central District. When he speaks, his voice carries an amalgamation of black, white, Christian and street dialects, the result of exposure to a wide variety of communities. “I know people that have never left the block they grew up on,” he says. “So I’m glad I had that experience.”
When he was 17, Simone got his girlfriend pregnant. He exhausted himself working multiple jobs, going to school and taking college classes through the Running Start program. “I was like, this isn’t working,” he says. “No one cares that I have a child coming into the world.” So he began selling drugs. For months he kept the pregnancy and his street life hidden from his mother, a time he describes as his darkest.
As an outlet, Simone wrote poetry until he realized he was writing raps. He fronted a fledgling punk-rap band, Razpy & the Vigilantes, for several years. In 2010, his first solo songs surfaced on YouTube—one of which was a video shot by Central District rapper/producer Sam Lachow. The two later collaborated on the popular 2012 EP 5 Good Reasons. In early 2013 Simone put out his first solo EP, Solomon Samuel Simone. Both EPs showcased Simone’s sneering sincerity and gut-punching couplets: I’m glad I had an absent father, not an angry dad/Being a bastard child never made me mad, he raps on “These Kids Throw Rocks.” He spent the rest of 2013 beating a gun charge in New York and finishing Cognitive Dissonance.
As an MC, Simone is more architect than craftsman. The vision takes precedent. If he has to squeeze bars to make them fit, he will. His voice, which can sound like weathered gravel or shiny silt, stretches and tightens, grunts and gasps, in service of his narrative. These vocal contortions abut polished and digestible hooks.
His lyrics are equal parts microscope and telescope, a flurry of converging tensions. On “Natural Resources,” he champions love of self: We’re no longer niggas, we’re gods now/We’re no longer black, we’re gold from here on out. On “Swim Away” he casts aspersions at his counterparts, snarling, If they could they would let somebody else walk in their feet. He wields complex compassion on “8 Rangs,” declaring that he’ll buy a house for every mom and my whores on the strip, but later warns his son’s mother that he might put rings where your cheek is at.
“They’ll Speak” is Simone’s veritable mission statement. He constructs a panoramic paranoia in which addicts flatter dealers for handouts, starving men wear gold teeth and men make “life decisions off no sleep.” By the time he remembers his dreams for “a big house, big wedding, big ring,” we’ve forgotten these things exist.
Simone narrates Seattle’s unconscious, the unheard stories of its black community. He makes the music he never heard growing up in a city that favors sunnier rap sounds. “Seattle is an extreme as far as the gentrification and the muting of people,” he says. “There’s a disconnect. A lot of people in different neighborhoods don’t go out to events. There’s nothing there for them.”
But Simone’s concerns with representation extend further than music. The city’s murder rate, while relatively low, is concentrated in the poorer black communities. “Chances are that if someone dies in Seattle, we know them, so it means more because it’s targeted toward us,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because how do you tackle that? How do you get people behind that? It’s not affecting enough people to really do anything, and it gets more and more narrowed down each day.”
On Cognitive Dissonance, Simone aims to complicate Seattle’s self-identity. His themes are universal but informed by a distinctly local experience. So far people are listening. The Huffington Post premiered the shadowy video for “They’ll Speak” and NPR debuted Cognitive Dissonance in early March. Simone played a couple of showcases at South by Southwest last month and will play Sasquatch! this summer.
As Seattle’s accelerating urban transformation shakes up the geographies of people and recasts neighborhood landscapes, Simone’s voice gains in relevance and power. His story is the city’s story. It’s one we need to hear.
Photo by Chona Kasinger