Faded Signs

On Porter Ray’s ‘Watercolor,’ Time Keeps Slipping

Porter Ray. Photo by Jay Scroggins

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Porter Ray lives in the past, but he’s not stuck there. Musically, the Seattle-born-and-bred MC moves: His Sub Pop Records debut, Watercolor, released Friday, March 10, alludes to rap’s golden years in the 1990s, updating the boho hip-hop of Digable Planets and the rhythmic maze of Nas and AZ’s flow with faded beats and smoky vocals. What emerges is a Millennial rapper’s haunted mosaic—the losses, loves and longings of a young man who does not have the luxury of looking forward to an unfettered future.

“Places I’ve been, faces I’ve met, friendships I’ve had but they just couldn’t last,” he raps on “Past Life.” His fleet syllables float in and above time, belonging to each musical measure while anticipating an escape to the next. Haunted and mysterious, Porter Ray is a rap-game mummy. Watercolor is his sarcophagus.

The writing has been on the wall about this release for some time. Critics and listeners lauded Porter Ray’s slew of online mixtapes since around the time the Seahawks defeated the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVII in early 2013. From BLK GOLD (May 2013) to Fundamentals (August 2014) to Nightfall (November 2015), each release showed more promise and polish than the last, with news of Ray’s August 2014 signing with Sub Pop stoking expectations that the budding prince from the Central District, born in 1986, would mature with the proper backing of a major indie label. On Watercolor, the adamantine flows that first attracted audiences on those mixtapes have not chipped or weathered. The album adds density with dank production and guest spots from Seattle’s rap royalty: Ishmael Butler on lead single “Sacred Geometry,” THEESatisfaction on “Arithmetic,” Stasia Irons on “Lightro.”

The most memorable guest appearance on Watercolor comes from Debra Sullivan, Porter Ray’s mother—an educator and author of the 2016 book Cultivating the Genius of Black Children. “This book will develop ways to combine and implement strategies so that Black children’s learning needs are better met and supported,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. One wonders how long it took her to recognize her son’s formidable intelligence, which she praises effusively on the track “My Mother’s Words.”

Of all the vocal attacks available to a rapper, Ray’s “Rubik’s Cube flow” is among the most technically difficult to execute and taxing to keep up with, a ribbon of rhymes and rhythms that unfurl and flow like so many rivers. Originated by Rakim and Kool G Rap, the style reached Platonic perfection in the ’90s with the Nas tracks “Life’s a Bitch,” “Déjà Vu” and “Take It In Blood.” Ray makes the tongue twisters sound easy: “Things fall apart, pieces to the puzzle crumble/Young and humble tryna make it through the fucking jungle,” he raps on “Dissolving in a Daydream.”  “Huggin’ bundles, pushing poison to our brothers’ uncles.” The torrent of multi-syllabic rhymes indicates a real creative gift, crafted with years of practice and study.

Preserved on YouTube, a 2016 talk given by Ray’s mom at Hope Missionary Baptist Church shows Debra Sullivan discussing different types of learning styles—verbal, tactile, conversational, auditory, visual. As the title of Watercolor suggests, there’s something of the painter in Porter Ray. Sonic allusions to the past abound on the record: “Bulletproof Windows” has Ray, Nate Jack and Thad chasing one another in a dexterous exercise that cites Kool G Rap and Nas’ “Fast Life”; and “Navi Truck” contains a subtle sample of Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be It Was All So Simple?” But Ray’s perspective is as relatable to rap lore as it is to the visual arts.

“The sights of the city are central to the young artist’s distinctive and masterful visual vocabulary,” Emily Pothast wrote of Seattle painter Jacob Lawrence. She may as well be describing Porter Ray. Since February, Lawrence’s Migration Series has hung in the Seattle Art Museum, illustrating northern urban areas like New York, Detroit and Seattle as sanctuary cities for southern Blacks seeking refuge from the ravages of Jim Crow. In those cities, Blacks found both opportunity and frustration; freedom from old shackles, only to be beset by new barriers. Times have changed, but not nearly enough. On Watercolor, Porter Ray is mired in structural and personal hardship, dwelling on the incarceration of friends, the premature death of his father and the loss of a younger sibling to gun violence. These are images from a future that Lawrence’s Migration Series did not illustrate in the 1940s, but anticipated nonetheless.

Lawrence’s “The Builders, The Family” (1974) was used as the cover image of scholar Quintard Taylor’s The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era. Watercolor is an artifact from a contemporary afterword that Taylor never wrote, a chapter about the aspirations and disappointments of a post-Civil Rights population of Black Seattleites besieged by gentrification and drug abuse. On “East Seattle,” Ray laments a friend who was shot by the police. His delivery is swift and focused, but the song’s production, as elsewhere on Watercolor, is woozy. The surreal effect provides a kind of verbal vertigo where time passes while seeming to freeze. We are history at the same time that we’re making it.

“Tell me where you’ve been,” Ray repeats on “Dissolving in a Daydream.” Is he talking to a lover, a friend or his city? He doesn’t want us to be sure. His demand reaches out through a dusty instrumental wail that’s as at home in hip-hop as in chillwave, a latter-’00s movement in ambient music fronted by Seattle bands U.S.F. and Big Spider’s Back. “Dissolving in a Daydream” is a portrait of the artist as he wants to be remembered: in the doldrums of regret and desire. “I see her face frozen in a photograph,” Ray raps. Time keeps on slipping—but not too fast for Porter Ray to capture it.