It’s a strange day when a rapper frets over what piano-pop goofball Ben Folds thinks of his music. But that’s exactly what happened after Novel (born Alonzo Mario Stevenson) recorded himself rapping over Folds’ plaintive 2001 ballad “The Luckiest.” “I was worried he’d say, ‘You fucked my shit up!’ ” says Novel, 27. “But Ben loved it. He even suggested we do the track live, with him playing on it.”
The result, “I Am” — an uplifting track featuring Talib Kweli and Atlanta MC Spree Wilson — became thesingle off of Novel’s recent EP, I Am… Future Black President, a preview of his debut album, Audiobiography(Rowdy/Capitol), due out in June.
Despite an impressive musical pedigree — former Motown songwriter-producer Mickey Stevenson is his dad and soul legend Solomon Burke is his grandfather — Novel says he wasn’t born “with a silver spoon in my mouth.” He grew up with his mother, sometimes staying in shelters because they didn’t have any money. A friend in Philly nicknamed him Novel because he always carried a notebook. After he ran away at 14, his mom sent him to L.A. to live with his father, who helped him land a deal with MCA Records. “I had a lot of anger,” Novel says, “but I started writing it out of my system.” He recorded his first album, The Word, in 2002, only to have it shelved.
He spent the next years penning and producing songs for artists like Alicia Keys. “I was depressed when I realized The Word wasn’t coming out,” he says, “but I went on to learn so much as a producer, and Audiobiography is a much better record.” The album and EP should satisfy rap fans who miss the narratives of early Ice Cube and the philosophical quality of A Tribe Called Quest. He sounds both street and schooled, spitting rhymes like “I’m the blade of the knife / That slaughtered the lamb / For greater sacrifice / The son of Abraham.”
“The main thing I learned was from my father,” Novel says. “When he was at Motown, their thing was to make an album so good a kid had to spend his last $10 on it. If I do that, I’ll feel like I’ve really done my job.”