Bringing Neo-Soul and Lyricism Back To The Game

Intellect is an artist from Pensacola, Florida, who has a rough go at things. He started out trying to play pro basketball and had a decent shot at it before he injured his knee. So he moved on to playing football, as many in his situation do, and then reinjured his knee. Having to say goodbye to his dream of pro sports, he started thinking about what his true calling in life was. Remembering his early years in the church, where his dad played piano, he recalled how amazing he felt when his dad would let him take the mic. Other churchgoers were somewhat taken aback by his aggression on the mic, but this did not detour his confidence. Later in life, he became active in the military, which took some time out of his music career. Trying to do life the way everyone says you’re supposed to, he got a job as a technical advisor for NBC shows. To my knowledge, this is still his full-time gig. But one thing is for sure, Intellect has made his music career the front and center of his pursuits as of late. His best friend and manager, Christianne Williams, sent me a documentary she made featuring his struggles in the industry. The link is included at the bottom. It’s a short video, only 25 minutes, and it’s captivating, so I highly recommend everyone watch it.

Today I will be reviewing Intellect’s single, “Then There Were Two,” which he released about 10 months ago. But before I get to that, there are a few things I want to touch on regarding what I heard him say in the documentary. Intellect is aptly named. Known for his intellectual lyricism and his multisyllabic, complex rhyme schemes, he’s received a lot of push back from industry execs who want him to dumb it all down some for the mainstream consumer. I am also a rapper, and I received the same sort of push back at first. They apparently told him he needed to write hooks like a nursery rhyme in order to reach people, but he adamantly refused to dumb himself down. There are a few things I want to say about that. Music is meant to an inclusive experience, not an exclusive one. What I’m saying is this: When you have incredibly intellectual lyricism — particularly if you’re dropping those SAT words nobody knows the definition of — you’re saying to your audience, “you’re only in on this if you know these words. Otherwise, you’re not in on this.” It’s also like saying, “I’m better than you” in a way. I have a Masters degree in Writing and Poetry from an Ivy League school, so, I have plenty of those SAT words I could be throwing in my rhymes.

But the reason I don’t is that it doesn’t really communicate anything if the audience doesn’t understand them. I’m trying to communicate with my lyrics, and that means they have to be something people can understand and relate to. Big words can be an excluding device, rather than an including one. So I use my Intellect to weave a story using only the words I know will communicate the idea and be understood by the audience. I find that to be an even more intellectual exercise because it stretches me and forces me to come up with new ways to say things. And when it comes to the hook, this is where I’ve personally learned to bend a little. Imagine you’re teaching a class of high school students, who are begrudgingly listening but not really trying to learn anything. You, as the teacher, need a way to “hook” them into being interested in what you’re saying. The hook in a song works a little like the class-room demonstration or hands-on-experience would work if you were teaching a class. It may not be the meat of the information, but it hooks people into wanting to pay attention. So when I have a particularly wordy verse, or I’m touching on something rather abstract or esoteric, I employ the most fun, modern, simple hook I can. In a song I’ve recently done which has yet to be released, I spend the whole time in the verse rhyming the word orange. It was purely an exercise in lyricism. I know that that interests me, but, would it interest anyone else? Maybe not for four minutes. So, I made a hook that sort of embodied that fun Slump God vibe, and it made the whole song work across audiences. This isn’t a concession on my part, but rather, it is me meeting the audience halfway, hoping they will do the same. I’m not sure we can ask more of them than that. That brings me to the point of who you’re making music for. If you’re making it just for yourself, it doesn’t really matter what you do. But I sense that Intellect craves a public response to his work, and, who doesn’t?! So, if he wants to keep a close following of fans in a sort of niche interest area of the market, he’s well on track to do so. But if he wants to have millions of fans and reach a wider audience, he’s going to have to meet the audience where they’re at. A good example to look at is Eminem, who is known for (and occasionally bad-mouthed for) his complex lyricism. But if you notice, in his case, he will make the subject matter something fun, silly, or just relatable while making the lyricism just a vehicle for discussing those things.

So, even in a generation of hip hop where lyricism isn’t much appreciated, his style still works. So, it is more than possible for Intellect to make it in this industry, but he’s going to have to start thinking about his audience when he’s making music. I know he’s going to hate to hear that, but, I promise there is a way to do that which feels totally authentic. He just has to be willing to play around some until he finds that way. For me, it was using fun hooks. And considering my audience didn’t come easily at first. But when I wanted to try to do that more, I started out talking to them directly, which helped me keep them in mind. I made songs that discussed my personal hardships and left open-ended areas for them to relate to and spoke to them in encouraging ways. Speaking directly to the audience reframed the way I was making music so that I could make it something we both liked, the way we all try to do when we are conversing with someone we don’t know well. We meet them where they’re at, try to find topics of common interest, and generally attempt to encourage and express interest. It works a little like that. But nobody should be asking Intellect to dumb himself down. I think it’s more like, let the audience in a little bit. Being a vet may have left him more closed off than he’s willing to admit.

So, as I said, Intellect does have a lane either way he goes about it. His style is richly influenced by Neo Soul, something which J. Cole and others are bringing back into style currently in hip hop. And as far as the intellectualism is concerned, KRS1, known as the professor, was able to make quite a name for himself using his Intellect. However, KRS1 did so by teaching and reaching his audience, that’s why they called him “the professor,” and this is something Intellect could benefit a lot from mirroring. Intellect’s song, “Then There Were Two” is an accomplished song. The intro has deep vibes, with an expertly employed string swell that collides on the beat drop with a fully symphonic instrumental. Something about this composition feels very cinematic, almost a 90’s movie kind of vibe. Before I even heard Intellect come on the beat, I almost expected to hear Killer Mike come on, which is good because Intellect’s tonality and delivery is very reminiscent of Killer Mike, with maybe just a touch of Ludacris in there. The whole song has that kind of “Gangsta’s Paradise” vibe, with all the cinematic connotations. However, I wouldn’t call it a throwback. While Intellect himself may be a relic from a lost time in hip hop, his music is bridging the gap well. The song doesn’t sound out of place in this era, but, maybe just a little out of touch. It’s as if he knows before he even releases the song that nobody is going to want it, and that comes off in his vocal delivery. Angry and aggressive, he seems to want to shut us out, but I think if he varied up his cadence some and let a little emotion in (other than anger) he would find that the audience would respond to a slight show of vulnerability. After all, vulnerability is what we all relate to, whereas being hard and unstoppable is only something we want to vicariously relate to. And there is a place for that type of vibe, though I’m not sure a Neo-soul beat is one of them. However, the song does work. I just think, if he’s making this work with all these problematic elements, how show-stopping could he be if he just let the audience in a little, gave them some content they could understand, gave them some emotion they could relate to, and really just opened up to them. How amazing would that be? I think he could be a gamechanger if he were willing to make those concessions.

One thing he shouldn’t change is his lyricism. His rhymes are enough to make an old head like me, weep. One line I caught was, “mathematic charismatic rhyme addict” and thought — finally, someone who actually gives a shit about the rhymes. That should be commended and applauded. Hats off to Intellect for that. Stick to your guns on the lyricism, but maybe reconsider some of the SAT words that shut people out. Again, his lyricism and storytelling are on point, but I still feel that if he threw in some more vocal inflections, I think the storytelling would hit better. People just don’t relate as well to a consistently cold lack of emotion. The production was beautifully done, and the radio effect (or narrow eq) on the chorus was an exceptionally well-employed detail, creating a nice change-up. It’s a well-balanced mix, with Intellect’s vocals taking up the low end and the instrumental taking up the mid to high-end range. I actually don’t even think his chorus was too wordy in this one, but I could hear that his heart wasn’t in it, which didn’t help. He needs to commit to having fun on the chorus, and just treat it like it’s a whole different part of songwriting then the verse is, the way you might treat making a skit track or something.

All in all, Intellect has something special. I want him in hip hop. I can’t change the fact that hip hop wants lyricism less and less, and I don’t think he should bend on that. I think the main problem with Intellect isn’t that he’s too smart or too wordy or too old-school. It’s that he’s too closed off. He’s not making these songs for the audience but still expects them to respond to it. He just needs to tell them a story in a way he would tell a group of people if he wanted them to listen to him, or teach the audience the way he would teach a class of bored students if he wanted them to learn something, or express to them the way he would express his feelings to a close friend, knowing he just needed to make them understand. That’s all he needs. Everything else, he’s an expert at. That’s all that’s dividing him from greatness, and I look forward to seeing if he’s willing to overcome that or not.