Sometimes an artist — Dutch-born painter Vincent van Gogh, for example — has to die before his work is recognized by the world.
Hip-hop artist Aaron Manuel Beltran, known as Preemo, is okay with that possibility. He says he's created his career's masterpiece, did so on his terms and could die a content soul. It's called Concrete Dreams, which he claims he painted with "one hand behind my back."
If that's the case, he used his good hand, because Concrete Dreams could very well be hip-hop's Starry Night, that colorful but dark, enchanting and scary van Gogh painting that was also unappreciated in its time and not easily describable.
Preemo, 30, is a tall, lanky, smooth-talking and charismatic MC. He says he's not from anywhere, so maybe "gypsy" is the right description. He lives in Houston, but the city may or may not be able to claim him by the time this article appears in print.
At 14, Preemo recorded his first demo and put on his first show in Matamoros, Mexico, a rock's throw south of Brownsville. Back then, both towns had as much hip-hop culture as Antarctica.
He almost dropped his first major album, The Arrival (which never arrived), as part of a major-label deal while living in Los Angeles at 21. He created Concrete Dreams in Houston.
Preemo was born in the town of Mexico, Missouri — yes, it exists — and lived in the Mexican state of Veracruz, as well as Phoenix, Brownsville, Dallas and Spokane in the States. His mother and sister live in Atlanta.
He's literally all over the map; like we said, "gypsy." The Houston Press picks him up in north San Antonio, posted up in front of a Party City in an empty strip mall.
We're about to bring to life parts of the canvas on which Preemo painted Concrete Dreams, already an underappreciated and forgotten piece of work that our colleague Shea Serrano wrote "will age to be a remarkable album." It was released last month.
We first live out track eight, "Crown and Coke," at a downtown San Antonio nightspot. We down the title cocktail eight or ten times with our girlfriend and her luscious friend — a dark-skinned, flirty-eyed Puerto Rican from Chicago's South Side who could be any man's bilingual wet dream.
Preemo takes a proper liking, and the situation literally goes down like his "Crown and Coke" lyrics:
"And I'm trying to be a gentleman, but your wife's friend just went from a nine to a 10 / Now I ain't talkin' about changing your name or movin' in, but maybe after your gin / You could come home with me for a visit / And in the morning I could bring ya back to get your Civic / She grinned, gave me a kiss, then whispered / 'You know you're not my type / Let's not ruin the friendship.'"
That night spills into the next few days. As we pass the time scrolling through the discographies of other unheard artists in our living room, we talk about life. Life for Preemo is hip-hop, so we talk about hip-hop...the whole time.
But we notice something is eating him. Preemo's fierce loyalty to musical originality may have made him a martyr to the long-forgotten hip-hop rule of not sounding like the rapper standing next to you — no matter the certain fame that awaits, no matter if it costs you your career.
Preemo was headed for instant stardom with R&B sensation Amanda Perez in 2001. Both were signed by Los Angeles DJ/A&R rep/producer Mighty Mike Quinn, who made Perez a national hit in the early part of the decade. She's an artist who still rides the wave of that never-replicated success.
But a petty disagreement on Preemo taking a paid show in Brownsville instead of an arranged, unpaid one in Little Rock put together by the label broke all ties between Quinn and Preemo, he says.
Later, he signed with famed producer and songwriter Walter Milsap, a Timberland protégé. Milsap wanted to replicate records being praised by Jay-Z and 50 Cent at the time, however, and Preemo didn't compromise his originality.
He catches a ride home with us to Houston after a week in San Antonio, but before we hop on Interstate 10, we take a 30-mile detour north on Interstate 35. He has to say goodbye.
Ah, that's what was eating at Preemo. We pull up to a two-story home, and a young girl comes out and embraces him tightly. But she's not his girlfriend.
She's a 14-year-old incoming high school freshman: Preemo's daughter. Dad's heading out again to make music, and she isn't sure when she'll see him again, but she understands. In fact, she's his No. 1 fan and a willing martyr herself to the cause.
More accurately, her time with Daddy is the great sacrifice she makes. It's a ritual both have carried out throughout her life.
"This is the hardest part," Preemo says as he gets back in the car. Suddenly we're living track 19, "No Goodbyes," a song dressed with a melancholy trumpet that tugs at the hearts and jerks the tears out of long-distance fathers who might have prioritized their personal career, another family — or, in this case, hip-hop — over their only daughter:
"So I taught you not to cry when it's time to say goodbye and I don't feel like I should / Always hated goodbyes because none of the goodbyes were good / And I know you appreciate the money that I sent you but deep down I know you rather have me there with you"
Early the next morning, speeding down Interstate 10, we're late for our brother's high school graduation in Katy. There's no choice — Preemo is going to have to crash the graduation party. We just don't have time to drop him off first.
Walking up to the Merrell Center, he says, "I don't think I've ever been to a graduation."
Preemo dropped out of seventh grade and ran away from home at 13 to live with his 17-year-old girlfriend, so it's understandable that this milestone assembly seems foreign to him. What isn't is how a man of limited means could bluff his way through life until eventually becoming one of the wittiest and most intelligent underground rappers on the scene.
Or how he can carry his life from one city to the next in trash bags with incredible positivity and create Concrete Dreams, a project that hopefully will be resurrected and hailed as a composition before its time.
Looking at Preemo's turbulent past, you know he isn't supposed to be here, but he is, so it's natural to want his music to reach millions, and to think it's destined to do just that. But nothing about Preemo's life is predictable.
As much as you might want to think he's now meant for fame, because that's how the fairy tale always ends, then you need to listen to track three. "The Ultimate Truth," which samples the Alan Parsons Project's "I Am a Mirror," is Preemo's favorite track on Concrete Dreams:
"Suppose I were to tell you that the meaning of dreams is not all that it seems / And the ultimate truth is a lie / You are just a puppet who can dance on a string / Do you feel anything? / Would you laugh? / Would you care? / Would you cry?"
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Is the ultimate truth that Preemo got in his own way? From where he wanted to be?
"I'd rather die with my integrity," he says. "And when I'm dead and gone, they're going to be like, 'Damn, that shit was dope.'
"If I die, if I'm never heard and I never get the respect that I'm due, it is what it is. At the end of the day, I'm going to live and die with the decisions that I've made."
Maybe then, the world will awaken to a concrete dream.