North Carolina hip-hop has an identity problem. Ever since Petey Pablo had us twisting our shirts round our hands and spinning them like a helicopter as he rapped about raising up and puttin' it down for all the little bitty overlooked hick towns, the state has produced an impressive array of hip-hop talent. There's J. Cole, of course, as well as respected lyricists such as Rapsody and King Mez, Driicky Graham of "Snapbacks and Tattoos" fame, and the true-school formalists Phonte and 9th Wonder, formerly of Little Brother. And then there's Nick Cannon and Fred Durst I guess, both of whom are extremely famous North Carolinians who have made rap songs before, so they count too––if only for "Gigolo" and "N 2 Gether Now," respectively. But as that list might suggest, for all the individuals from North Carolina who have made their mark on hip-hop, the state still hasn't established a unique vision for what its version of hip-hop sounds like.
Well$, the Charlotte-born rapper who now lives in Chapel Hill, is trying to change that. "I feel like North Carolina rap artists, we have to show unity––that we're cultivating a culture and not just individual aesthetics. It has to be a part of something greater," he tells me on a recent Saturday afternoon, his lanky frame sunk low into a couch in a downtown Durham bar. He's wearing torn jeans, a T-shirt with fashion-forward bleach stains on it, and a Carolina Hurricanes hat that casts a shadow over his subtle face tattoos. Across the bar from us sits a bookshelf crammed with board games: standard family game night fare, along with complex tabletop games and the sort of esoteric card games that maybe a hundred people own that take hours to master. Well$ leans forward and points to them. "If you're coming to a place expecting there only to be Monopoly and suddenly you see Scrabble, you're going to appreciate Scrabble so much more because you were only coming and expecting Monopoly. In North Carolina, we don't have our board games on the wall yet."
In other words, local hip-hop scenes that blow nationally don't always pop because of one group of artists who all sound alike. Instead, that rise often happens because of a number of artists making unique music are linked as much in the way they are putting their own spin on elements of a greater culture as they are sonically. "Until you can finally say you know what a North Carolina scene kid is," he explains, "We won't have a sound. Down here, you never know what you're going to get."
Well$'s goal, he tells me, is to help lay the groundwork for that more coherent vision of North Carolina hip-hop culture from which a scene can blossom. "Hopefully, I can be a forefather of that, and help the next generation of artists who are specifically from North Carolina."
The next step towards making that happen is All Kings Get Their Heads Chopped Off, a surprise EP he's dropping today, which you can stream below. The EP is a follow-up to the 22-year-old rapper's October 2016 album, The Way I'm Living Makes My Mom Nervous. That project was a strong collection of tracks that found Well$ confidently navigating the strange, contradictory place that is contemporary North Carolina, a state whose artistic legacy and penchant for progressive social movements are at odds with a conservative and downright racist political class. All Kings Get Their Heads Chopped Off touches on similar ideas while taking a more personal, introspective tack and subtly moving Well$'s sonic template forward. While the beats on TWILMMM were occasionally farmed out to big names such as Metro Boomin and Sylvan Esso, All Kings Get Their Heads Chopped Off is a strictly in-house affair, featuring production work from members of Well$'s Immaculate Taste collective, including longtime collaborators Alec Lomami, Vacay, Lucho, and Tommy Coyote.
What is clear is that with each successive release, Well$ is coming closer and closer to setting the template for what "North Carolina rap" actually means. Though the beats on All Kings Get Their Heads Chopped Off occasionally scan as something that might not be out of place on a mixtape from one of Atlanta's more outré post-trap denizens, he attacks them with the energy, skill, and lyrical flair to go bar for bar with the best rappers from all over the map, his southern drawl shining through no matter how hard he goes. In his quest to defy categorization, Well$ may very well end up creating one of his own.
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