The rapper Neema’s new album, The Cigar Room, celebrates the mahogany-lined, knock-three-times-for-entry exclusivity of its namesake—a place where celebration, decadence and hedonism collide. The setting fits well with the Kenmore native’s striver mentality: Neema Khorrami is one of this city’s hardest working hip-hop artists. When he’s not headlining a performance he’s often playing the convivial host, hyping crowds at shows that typically feature touring acts from out of town. He’s the owner of a nickname—”Mr. 10K”—that references his “street platinum” sales mark of 10,000 units moved. Neema prides himself equally on the art of the hustle and the performative aspect of MCing, a collusion of hip-hop fundamentals rarely blended to such great effect as on The Cigar Room.
The album starts with bombast. “Ten Stacks” and “Shots Fired” find Neema gripping the mic with white knuckles, rolling out his trademark double-time flow with words for underpaying promoters and underperforming rappers. Strange Music’s Krizz Kaliko—one of myriad guest appearances on the record, local and otherwise—lends a boisterous turn on “Shots Fired” that treads dangerously close to kitsch but accurately reflects Neema’s penchant for certain aged rap sensibilities like the aforementioned double-time. Fast rap was en vogue in the early ‘00s when lyrical acrobats like Twista and Busta Rhymes still made hits, but in recent years the style has gone the way of the dodo. Neema remains committed to it, however. And, as he proudly declares on “Airplanes:” “I’m 1995 Griffey,” a suitable descriptor for how proficiently he executes his chosen style.
The Cigar Room does find a contemporary aesthetic, however, thanks to producer Keyboard Kid whose rich musical textures and nocturnal sound is aimed at a wide audience. Much of the album’s second half fits commercial radio’s dark club vibe, and Neema extracts emotional depth from those late-night hours. His cigar room provides carnal satisfaction—drink, women, retribution against whack rappers hijacking styles—as highlighted on the lounging “Sonic Keyboard” (with guest turns by Grynch and Prometheus Brown) but it’s also a place for heartbreak. “Gone” is the album’s most obvious and most successful shot at pop music crossover, featuring stuttering drums, skittering electronic flourishes and smooth vocals by Wingo from Atlanta R&B outfit Jagged Edge who laments in the chorus, “Spending all my time looking for her love but I’ll never find it / ‘Cause her love is gone.” “White Dresses and Cigarettes” (featuring singer Latin Rose) concerns a complicated and ultimately doomed bout of infidelity (albeit with overwrought melodrama) which is similarly reflective and inward-looking.
With The Cigar Room, Neema describes the sequestered insularity of the physical space he’s inhabiting but goes one step further by matching it with a sentimental weariness burnished raw by too many nights spent grinding and carousing in its shadows: “Lost a couple friends, lost myself before I turned 30 / Know that I been hurtin’ working the block / Summer got me lost chasing guap, chasing it all / Pops thinking ‘Where the hell my son gone?’ / Gone six months, sun up to sun down,” he raps on “Blunts and Champagne.” His lyrics are observant and knowing but stop short of casting aspersions, evidentiary of the rapper’s struggles with addiction and the looming responsibilities of fatherhood both of which he touches on on album closer “Traffic.” For additional pathos, snippets of Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions are interspersed throughout the record, bolstering tracks like “341,” a reluctant cautionary tale about a working girl: “Catch her down at happy hour / Trying to trick a nice baller or a lawyer off that white powder… I ain’t a judge so let it be,” he eventually submits.
Neema’s Cigar Room is a democratic place: The guest list is long and inclusive, and there’s equal allowance for both flexing and vulnerable moments. At first glance, Seattle doesn’t seem like a cigar room-type of city—many of its inhabitants would rather be outdoors than in, early to bed in order to catch that dot-com money or fresh mountain powder in the morning. What is characteristic of Seattle, however, is its general willingness to absorb and process a range of life experiences and discretions despite its relative geographic isolation from other cities with perhaps greater cultural capital. Like cigar rooms—and other dimly lit places we choose to gather—it’s an imperfect territory that can often feel like the perfect place to discover one’s self.