An NC Hip-Hop Gem Forgotten, Then Remembered

A letter to Lute’s “West1996”

Lute’s “West1996” cover art, borrowed not-so-subtly from Nas’ “Illmatic.” Trolls would later flip out about this.

[Editor’s Note: I worked on this piece over the course of the past couple months, taking my sweet time on an article I thought had no pressing deadline and no immediate purpose. The artist it focused on had seemingly faded into the ether, but rather than speculate about his career, it was an attempt to lift up and pay homage to a project that continued to shine for me among the best of what has come from our state, even three years since its release. Last night it was announced that that artist, Lute, had been signed by J Cole, and a sequel to the album below is slated for a 2016 release. Because it’s interesting to consider how quickly things can change, I haven’t updated any of my comments in the article about Lute or his career to reflect the huge news from last night. It’s all there the way I initially wrote it and planned to put it out, save for the conclusion. Hope you enjoy.]

— Originally published: Dec. 8, 2015. —

The year is 2012, and the setting is a sizzling hot summer in New York City. A precocious 17-year-old from Brooklyn named Joey Bada$$ has just released 1999, a rich, organic (read: rough-around-the-edges) mixtape that will soon have music writers and critics nationwide tripping over themselves to crown Joey the heir apparent to the New York hip-hop crown. No rapper in recent memory had so effectively brought his own idiosyncratic and modern flair to sounds so deeply entrenched in the past, no album had so purposefully paired 90’s nostalgia with geographic pride…

… No album except West1996 that is, the forgotten gem of a project released by Charlotte, NC rapper Lute in February of 2012, months before Badmon’s 1999 ever hit the internet.

Borrowing from and built upon much of the same boom-bap foundation that 1999 does, West1996 painted a vivid picture of home in Charlotte even as it sourced much of its sound from golden era producers far beyond the confines of the state. It was brash, it was unforgiving, it was flat-out dope, and people took notice from all over. In no uncertain terms, West1996 was and still is one of the best hip-hop albums to come out of North Carolina.

But while 1999 has grown with time to become the revered debut mixtape of one of hip-hop’s most powerful young voices, West1996 has faded, its creator and lead character still unknown on the national landscape, and its place among North Carolina’s discography of great hip-hop releases largely unrecognized. What happened? Like most things, probably an indecipherable string of could’ve beens and maybes, but I don’t know the whole story. What I do know is that for how good it was compared to a lot of the shit people celebrate these days, we don’t talk about it nearly enough.

Yeah we ain’t the same, but our goals ain’t no different, I’m slow tippin’,
Like what’s the mission? To overrule the coalition/
Like what’s that rap shit you talkin’ n — — ? What you spittin?
What’s that rap shit you talkin’, n — — ? Take a listen…

These are some of the first words we hear from Lute on West1996, and in just a few lines, they speak to the purpose and ambition of the entire project that will follow. In particular: “What you spittin?,” a question that really any rap hopeful should be able to answer before speaking into the microphone. Do you really have something to say? For a rapper without a huge fan base, the answer can be easily sabotaged by insecurities and doubts, and when he dropped West1996, Lute’s audience was small.

It didn’t stay that way for very long.

Roughly a month after its release, the mixtape was already up on Complex, which had never written about Lute before. Without any previous national reach or exposure as an artist, that’s usually pretty tough to do, but Lute had an X-factor: Pete mothafuckin’ Rock, who tweeted out “omg best album ever” with a link to the album’s Bandcamp page. I don’t know a lot, but I think when Pete Rock says “best album ever” about a project, that’s about when bloggers start writing.

A couple months later I was at the Kings Barcade release show for King Mez’s My Everlasting Zeal album, and as fate would have it, the name in everyone’s mouth was Lute, this new exciting kid from Charlotte, who was opening the show. From the internet blogosphere to the real world of shows and word-of-mouth, Lute was rising fast.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the upstart, whose newfound exposure also attracted a slew of golden-era message board grumps, angry about the album’s Illmatic-inspired aesthetic and jacked beats.

Thankfully, the music spoke for itself. To anyone who delights in emcees who flip rhyme schemes and constantly experiment with wordplay, Lute’s rhymes jumped off the page and out of the speakers immediately:

Ridin’ through the city, whole clique wit me,
Holla if ya hear me, no thanks to the radio/
Glidin’ down 85, yup in an ’84, uh,
Doin’ 75, swangin’ on 24s/
Sippin’ on 45’s, baby, I’m good to go,
Stay strapped wit a .45, in case they don’t really know/
Just let the beat drop, spittin’ heat rock ’til the tape pop,
Let ya head nod ’til the tape stop, let the hate start…

- “80 Proof”

From a logistical standpoint, West1996 was hardly a reinvention of the wheel. In many ways it was actually the most quintessentially hip-hop project possible: the work of a rapper who gathered some beats he liked, wrote rhymes to them, and recorded. It almost sounds too easy, like a behavior deserving of derision rather than praise. The thing is, most rappers can’t jump from J Dilla to The Pharcyde without losing their identity somewhere along the way on the melodic journey from Detroit to Cali. Lute could.

From Pete Rock to Common and back again, the Charlotte native bounced between instrumentals without so much as skipping a beat or even sounding uncomfortable, keeping his flows tight and his focus sharp.

Don’t know exactly where we headin’, we just gotta go,
And it’s that Carolina struggle, but we never fold/
Yo this that Carolina struggle story never told,
This that Carolina hustle never runnin’ low/
Where is that Carolina love that we never show?
Well, this one’s for us, Carolina folk/
It goes ‘North Carolina, gone and raise up,
keep ya shirts on!’

- “Carolina Folks”

He was effortlessly cool, uncompromisingly honest and totally at home on the mic — it felt undoubtedly like we were watching the next star in North Carolina be born before our eyes. And just like that, he disappeared, as quickly as he had come.

Lately it’s been hard to find much from Lute, as much as I may try, though he did just make an acting appearance in the new Rapper Big Pooh x Nottz video for “300Z.” His Bandcamp page still only features West1996, as does his Twitter bio, both of them almost a time capsule into a period when the rapper really was, if for the briefest of moments, on top of the world.

Make no doubt about it — mixtape, album, project, whatever you want to call it, West1996 is some of the best music we’ve ever been blessed with from an NC rapper. Detractors will say it’s just a mixtape of a dude rapping over other dudes’ beats, but the sum of Lute’s parts on West1996 are so much greater than some raps over classic instrumentals. In 2012, Lute created something cohesive, grounded, and powerful, something uniquely rooted to his hometown and home state in a way that few rappers before or after have matched.

Yes, including Joey Bada$$.

Update: Lute has now been signed to J Cole’s Dreamville record label, the first North Carolinian signee on Dreamville. His sequel album 1996 Pt. II is slated for 2016 release, and a song from the album, “Still Slummin,” debuted last night on the Revenge Of The Dreamers II mixtape. Listen here.