P.A.T. Junior Finds Balance on “Learning To Live”

The Raleigh producer/emcee mixes equal parts joy and misery on his new album

Super Empty illustration. Photo courtesy of P.A.T. Junior.

The most unpleasant, and perhaps rudest, form of critique I can imagine giving an artist, would be to tell them that they showed too much emotion in their work. Likewise, for any feedback that criticized work for having too much honesty, too much thought, or too much introspection. Most would agree that these are characteristics we should be encouraging and celebrating, not holding at arm’s length.

And yet, when it comes to music, it’s rarely that simple.

While topics like loneliness, separation, sense of purpose, loss, and racial identity may be meaningful to us privately and individually, rarely do these overtones, especially when delivered harshly, form the backbone of popular music. And it’s easy to see why.

Many of the most honest, heartfelt, and genuinely rewarding songs to digest are also rooted in themes dark enough that their situational relevance is severely limited. That slow, sad song about addiction and loss? Hard to get anyone to throw that on their #Summer16 playlist. The aggrieved, painful call to action against racial oppression, complete with shrieks and moans in the background? If you’re not already a superstar like Kendrick Lamar, it’s a tough sell.

That was the crux of P.A.T. Junior’s last EP, Test These Records, which was packed with passionate lyrics and high-quality instrumentals, but lacked the emotional balance necessary to resonate with large numbers of people — songs like “Soulace Abuse” and “Blackest Bird” explored human anguish to its darkest recesses, yet provided little direction out of the dark.

“Legally, she washes down every tear with a drink/It’s a bridge to a fantasy where no one can see her bleed”
— Blackest Bird

The EP’s two other songs, “Employee Of The Year,” and “There’s A Cooler Way!” don’t do much to buoy the emotional aesthetic either.

On his new album, Learning To Live, it’s clear that Junior has learned from the “Test” that was his previous EP. His darker material is just one side of the story here, with the deep, moody tracks (some of them carried over from Test These Records) juxtaposed with more restrained and breezier exploits.

One exception is the aptly-titled “The Outlet,” a neck-snapping, boom-bap number that equates to a glorified cypher mid-album, allowing Junior to flex his lyrical muscles in a way that more conceptual songs might not allow. It includes a number of quotables, including this impressive tongue-twister of a bar: “The Wes Craven of Freddy-facin’ your local favorites.”

“That Ain’t Me,” which features a perfect cameo from fellow North Carolinian Danny Blaze, could be the album’s best combination of the dark and sunny realms. P.A.T. Junior’s verses tussle back-and-forth with inner conflicts over a distressed, stilted beat, before the whole thing blends into a chorus more reminiscent of Diplo, Skrillex and Justin Bieber than a little-known North Carolina rapper.

And that’s not to mention LTL’s fantastic opener, “Wake Up,” on which a number of current, well-known rap influences feel present, but no single one of them feels domineering. Anyone who calls him or herself a fan of NC hip-hop should take pride in how current, and yet simultaneously unique, this intro track sounds.

With his debut album, P.A.T. Junior has done something emerging artists rarely do: weave his personal story and perspectives into a project that possesses both widespread appeal and emotional depth. He still could use a better balance of light to dark, but that particular complexion could simply be his trademark. One thing he can’t be criticized for is a lack of emotion, honesty, or introspection.

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