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Review: Marco Pavé, 'Welcome To Grc Lnd'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Marco Pavé, <em>Welcome To Grc Lnd.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Marco Pavé, Welcome To Grc Lnd.

Every Southern city suffers from schizophrenia. It's an enduring symptom of the post-civil rights charade we still play around race relations in America. But Memphis, mane ... now that's a whole different story. For nearly 50 years, the blues capital on the bank of the Mississippi has been carrying the weight of MLK's murder on its shoulders. If you've ever visited, like I used to every few summers for family reunions in my youth, you can sense that unresolved pain in your second cousin's eyes, feel it closing in on you like the humidity, even hear it in the homegrown hip-hop bubbling from the ground up.

Marco Pavé is no visitor. He's so Memphis, in fact, his roots date back a few generations. (Before that his people emigrated from Mississippi, the motherland of sorts for black Memphians.) Yet his neck of the woods is not part of the designated tourist traps; this ain't Graceland, and Elvis doesn't live here. That much is clear from his debut LP, Welcome to Grc Lnd. The title is purposely vowel-less "because the Grace is broken," as Pavé told contributingMTV News columnist Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Nevertheless, Pavé fills in the gaps with 17 do-or-die tracks of outcast narratives from the flipside.

At 24, he's already been rapping half his life, but his sage worldview makes him sound twice his age. "Bring me a coffin," he raps on "Never Stop It," "cause they won't accept that I am so fluorescent / they place us in darkness; I still see ancestors." Welcome to the land of dreams deferred, where the road of opportunity passes through but the off ramps are few and far between. Even the crunk foundation the city laid for Southern rap in the late '90s got exported to Atlanta minus the originators. But if the local rap lineage revolves around 8Ball & MJG's pimpscapades, Three 6 Mafia's haunted tales from the hood, and Yo Gotti's kingpin past, it's all borne of the same inequity that fuels Pavé's protest music.

A local community organizer, Pavé anchors his album with interludes featuring fellow activists who recount being arrested during a planned Black Lives Matter-relatedprotest at Graceland last year that was shut down by officers in riot gear. "Treatin' me like I'm subhuman or superhuman, but I'm just average," Pavé fires back on album standout "Let Me Go." "I'm so spastic; I can't focus; we been drowning; ain't no ocean." And like a storefront-church choir bleeding out into the street, the chorus echoes back, "They want that thang to trap my soul. I want that thang to let me go."

From the school-to-prison pipeline to defaulted college loans, Pavé's social critique is rooted in the everyday struggle. But the recipe for overcoming is less old negro spiritual than real n***** grit-and-grind. If Memphis is looking for the next incarnation of its musical identity, this is it. Welcome to Grc Lnd.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.