Who: Open-eared Atlanta rapper Rome Fortune, 22, whose latest mixtape, Beautiful Pimp II, a follow-up to last year's Beautiful Pimp (SPIN's #23 Best Hip-Hop Album of 2013), mixes stoic raps with expressive beats. Rome says that the former is "strictly mood-driven," and indeed, at 11 tracks over 29 minutes, it feels more like a single cut — or a futuristic suite — than a mere well-curated collection of songs. The first single, "I was on one, I can't lie.," for example, mixes smooth R&B vocals with Boards of Canada-like synths and halcyon record scratches. Beautiful Pimp II also features Rome's grandfather, a jazz musician, on vibraphone. With the interludes, Fortune says, "You're just seeing the music in my bloodline. And jazz is pretty much parallel to hip-hop in my eyes."
Trash Rappers: Thanks to his grandfather, Fortune's introduction to music as creative expression began early. But in high school, it was hip-hop that took over his life, inspired by the wack MCs blowing up all around him. "I saw so many people that were just fucking trash," he says. "They didn't know what they were doing and they were succeeding very heavily!" As "a test to himself," Fortune decided to pursue rapping with the utmost seriousness: "I'm really a go-with-it, not-do-anything-else person," he boasts. He hooked up with Atlanta producers like Childish Major (now known for Rocko's caterwauling 2013 street hit "U.O.E.N.O.") and C4 (known for collaborations with Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame), and developed a conversational style that could wrap itself around any kind of beat, no matter how eccentric.
Tired of Trap: "I just wanted to come out with something that was very cohesive and easily digestible, but still fresh," Fortune says. Unafraid to hold his tongue, he adds, "I'm tired of trap drums. I'm tired of everything I'm hearing, pretty much." With Beautiful Pimp, which had hints of both trap music and ratchet music, Rome says his "whole motive was to bridge a gap between trap and stepping outside of that." The goal on Beautiful Pimp II is to avoid what's expected, at every turn. He is no longer interested in bringing the mainstream to him, and describes approach thusly: "If I wanted to be angry, I'd ask for some slow-ass 808s so that I can have a space between each line so people can really get the gravity of each line." Currently, Rome is proving the "tired of trap" mantra true, working closely with spacey dance producer Blood Diamonds and gleaning influence from singer-songwriter Dev Hynes, who currently records game-changing R&B as Blood Orange: "I've been a Dev Hynes fan since Lightspeed Champion."
Laser Guns Shooting a Dolphin Underwater: Indeed, the first thing that stands out about Rome Fortune's work is his ear for beats. His rapping style is modest and deceptively simple, and it isn't until you've spent some time listening closely that his verbal dexterity really stands out. Perhaps the best comparison would be New Orleans stoner rapper Curren$y, whose laconic demeanor often downplays his talents. The intensely collaborative nature between Rome and his producers explains why voice and beat are so inextricably tied. "Most of the time I'm with the producer, and we're making it from scratch," he explains. "And I have a weird way of describing things, so I'll be like, 'Hey man, I want something that sounds like a laser gun shooting a dolphin underwater.' Luckily, the people I'm working with get exactly what the hell I am talking about." The final moments of Beautiful Pimp II's "Patience" pile trippy effects on top of watery whirls of electronics — the result really does sound like a laser gun shooting a dolphin.