Two steps to the left, two steps to the right. One would normally find himself at the center, the mark of stability and balance in the world. There is no leverage given either way. To be considered in balance is to appear not light nor dark; not good yet also not evil. Rap doesn’t have a marauding group of evil men in its clutches. It has people who may promote evil and give off evil assertions to the world. But none of those men (and women) are directly, and passionately, evil.
Future raps from a place of outright darkness, a villain who loves to be celebrated like Ric Flair even when he’s at his most despicable. The closest difference to his rising aesthetic of being a numb harbor of destruction that lacks empathy or joy would be Chance The Rapper. One would believe that Chance is so far in the light that he may as well be “Sia, you can’t see him." He won three Grammy Awards two Sundays ago for being a part of the light, the positive. What rap has in terms of men near the balance, their names are now singular. Drake isn’t near center; he’s more of a tragic figure still clutching to the darkness because he wants to feel that power. J.Cole is a step toward the light but is constantly looking over his shoulder, prepared to dive deeper into a monotone, a capable bore who appears “fake deep” but wears his depth like a Supreme hoodie. The closest to the center? Kendrick Lamar.
One of those closest to the center in Houston? Rocky Banks.
Banks and Lamar aren’t brothers in arms, nor can they be lazily compared to one another. Rocky even will tell you as such from the moment he hears it. But they seem to navigate paths of redemption; after all, Lamar made To Pimp a Butterfly as a constructive outcry against fame while clutching onto his faith and his blackness. At 22, Banks is a thousand miles away and some albums behind Lamar, mostly because of life experience and the common dictation that even though rap is a youth’s sport, not every youth is all that great at it. Two years ago, Banks had a clash of faith, almost at the risk of losing his life. It was another hazy night, his stomach suffering the worst effects of mixing pills, particularly the antidepressant Xanax, and alcohol. He’d indulged in life like this before, but nothing to this gross extent. His body felt numb, his mind ablaze with worry.
“My lungs were failing,” he told me this past January. “Paramedics told me I was near death.” He couldn’t recall what percentage of a chance they gave him to live, but he did. “It was really about self-control,” he said.
That self-control led to his December 2015 tape, In Other News, I Don’t Do Drugs Anymore. It was catharsis, an exercise in belief and satisfaction. It landed him on the pages of The FADER and openly showed the world that even the cartoonish contortion that he has done to his voice repeatedly can still win people over. Then, Banks couldn't help himself. He was too excited, too anxious and wanted everything to burst out of his body all at once. What control he did have for records such as “A Lot” were runaway trains of release.
On the second album of his life — well, the second project he’ll openly admit to — Banks is far more controlled. He’s singing all over Trust In Banko, revealing his government name and also positioning himself closer to speaking to God in public. “Favor,” with its massive horns that swing straight from the Baptist church, is the album’s most positive moment and Banks appreciates it on the second verse. “God started blessing me now/ Point out my enemies now/ You ain’t no friend of me now/ It’s pointless, we running it now." For what direction Banks and key producer Mufasa Enzor thought up for Trust In Banko, they sunk plenty of it into guests who sing from various registers of happiness. Bee Honey, Tony Amaru, Big Brandon Willis, Tiara Jewel and Michael Manchester all appear for the rousing final frame to drive the point home. Rocky Banks isn’t dancing with the Lord out of necessity as if He would happen to be the Mo City rapper’s lone refuge. Instead, Banks is basking in all that God has granted him.
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“I quit the drugs so I’m good now,” he raps with a low sing-song on “Skrt Off / New New." Enzor whips up a piano melody that differs between church hymn and Saturday night cruise as Rocky opts to be repetitive to drive the point home. It’s evident that the darkness and the slight paranoia that confounded In Other News are rarely found on Trust In Banko. He’s extended his hand hoping that the world embraces him in this state where Enzor mixes a rush of hazy, almost relaxing piano keys and drums with very few samples. He and Rocky wanted to create something that lasted, that felt true to the moment rather than easily imitable by others. “Now we’re elevated off that doubt.”
Most times when someone attempts to walk closer to the center, crises will appear, attacks that register not as just blips on the radar but things that need addressing. Sort of like the orange guy currently in the White House. Trust In Banko’s one bit of exasperation, at least for its creator, comes from family and within. For all the nights in the studio spent just to keep his mind and body grounded, you’d think people would recognize what Banks is truly to do. But he’s still spouting off isolation means (“Hi and Bye” announces, “I really don’t fuck with none of y’all") and looking at his mother as the most distant figure that happens to claim proximity to him. He believes his problems are hereditary, even if his uncle and close relatives introduced him to the gold he loves so much. He attempts to find a middle ground with his mom on the appropriately titled “Dear Mama,” where the eviction notice brings even more color to a formerly black-and-white relationship. “I wanna thank you for the many seeds you often planted/ Granted every wish I had but I still took for granted.” It sucks, a confession in the way of an easily fragmented relationship but really, what does Rocky have left? No matter what the voicemails may dictate, Rocky Banks and Rakeem Williams know where their center is — being loved by the woman who was initially convinced of his talents.
As Enzor cooks up a hazy bit of a closer in “Dreams Do Come True,” Rocky’s pivot in the world reaches its final destination. With constant mentions of church, collection plates and salvation, he’s still readily here to give people a dark backstory of what molded him into a monster before he got washed away clean. “House full of drugs but no food in the kitchen/ To add to the problem, my fam lost division…subtracted them people that can’t make no difference / that product gon’ sell but it don't involve interests." The more he confesses to the things that could have put him further left, the more he’s ready to step right back in the middle. Rocky Banks used to be a monster who didn’t care, who roamed the land and pillaged like a rap kid without an anchor.
Then sobriety saved him. Then his Yellow Hearts crew and fans alike found him as an ally and someone to believe in. He can’t move away from center now. Trust In Banko was him offering a hand to continue the road that In Other News set out. There’s a Rakeem Williams and there’s a Rocky Banks. They met in the middle once before. Now? They co-exist in the same body.