June 8, 2017

maze

Justin Carroll-Allan taught Dame Lillard how to ball.

Maze Koroma forged a rap career in the whitest big city in America. In Portland, you’re more likely to see a gang of bearded men in their thirties riding penny farthings than you are to see a group of teenagers playing E-40 on a battered Beats pill. Sure, Portland’s got a rich musical history. This is where Elliott Smith cut his teeth, where Nu Shooz sampled Nuance for “I Can’t Wait” (which was then sampled by Biz Markie and Jedi Mind Tricks), and where The Decemberists wrote songs that played in the background of countless first dates at Starbucks between 2007-2011. This rich musical history—of which I’ve barely scratched the surface—doesn’t include much rap music, however. Portland’s got a bigger history with white supremacy than it does with rap.

Thanks to a few new artists, this is finally changing, and Koroma’s at the center of this shift. Koroma’s It’s Complicated, It’s All Happening so Fast, Even Though I Can’t Keep up with You, You’ll Always Be My Sunshine is a synth-drunk fever dream that explores growing up on the internet, the pains of being a local rapper in a rap-less town, and the absurdity of having online lives separate from our real selves.

The album’s beats came from a keyboard jam with producer Neill Von Tally. The two played for about half an hour, then made the project from the result. “I wanted the whole project to blend together,” Koroma told me when we met in Portland producer RAC’s studio. The album feels like one long piece. Its transitions are seamless and organic. The keyboard sounds have a busy, almost frantic feel to them, reminiscent of the overwhelming affront of the internet, particularly these days, when the news is always coming, and it’s always bad.

There’s an underlying moodiness that pulses through these songs, a battle between caring too much and not enough. On “Complicated,” we see a frustrated Koroma bemoan the lack of progress in his career: “First came the show, the money came after / three drink tickets for the local-ass rapper.” In the song’s narrative, after Koroma goes outside for a smoke, the doorman gives him a hard time, not seeming to recognize him: “He ain’t do nothin’ but laugh /can’t think ’bout nothin’ but cash / two other niggas on the bill, so you guys do the math.” This is comical of course, but it’s hard not to note the despair in a scene like this: small, unfriendly, leading nowhere. But the feeling lingers for just a moment before Koroma changes the tone with a joke: “I only have three things: my word and my balls.”

He’s sincere, then he’s ambivalent. Perhaps this is best displayed here: “Honestly I give a fuck but I don’t give a fuck.” This attitude runs rampant on the internet—has since before the halcyon days of Myspace gave birth to the scene-kid selfie. Maze told me he read old internet manuals for inspiration, and that these relics were what inspired the album’s cover art. This project is honest, frenetic, and perhaps the most authentic rap portrait of our relationship with the internet and its effect on us.

The one good thing about making rap in a city that doesn’t really make rap is you get to be a pioneer; there’s no shadow to escape. “As far as black culture in Portland is concerned, it’s definitely strong, but small,” Koroma told me. There were no local rap artists reigning in Portland when Koroma was a kid, so he found influence elsewhere. “I had cousins who were really into New York rap, but I was also influenced by stuff I saw on TV and just everything I heard. Just because you’re from somewhere doesn’t mean you have to sound like it,” Koroma said.

“As an internet kid, I had access to everything. I was influenced and inspired by everything I come in contact with.” In Atlanta, it’s hard to not be a trap rapper. In the Bay Area, it’s hard to not be hyphy. In Compton, it’s hard to not have a touch of G-Funk. In Portland, Maze had the freedom to be whoever he wanted. The only thing left to do was find the people to help create the scene.

When Koroma moved back to Portland after a brief stint in Maryland, he decided he was going to give music his all, and he made it his mission to surround himself with like-minded artists. The Renaissance Coalition, Koroma’s squad, was born the day he got back, and they’ve been meeting and creating together ever since. That was a few years ago now, and the Renaissance Coalition is still consistently putting out music. More artists have popped up to help expand Portland’s scene. Neill Von Tally has surfaced and created the Eryst label. The Last Artful, Dodgr has clattered onto the scene like a beer bottle smashed against a pool table in a bar brawl. Her album Bone Music is one of the best rap debuts of 2017, and it earned an impressive 7.2 rating from Pitchfork.

And of course we can’t forget Aminé, the rapper responsible for last year’s enormous hit “Caroline.” Finally: Portland has a hip hop scene, and Koroma’s It’s Complicated is the foundation from which will grow an eclectic, intelligent music community, one that will add to the national rap conversation.