Clayton James chill-hops his way through the tough times 

Keep Your Head Straight

click to enlarge James’ debut mixtape follows his emotional journey from the last couple years

Julianna Angelo

James’ debut mixtape follows his emotional journey from the last couple years

Clayton James
w/ Scene Jesus, Cubeo, Hirow
Fri. Sept. 13
8 p.m.
$7
Tua Lingua
2701 W. Surrey Drive
North Charleston
(843) 303-3778

Hope is an underrated outlook on life. Sure, it's easy to get swept up in cynicism thanks to almost everything on the news, but we often relish in it. Rapper Clayton James battles his demons throughout his most recent album, finding optimism at the end of the dark tunnel.

James' mixtape, The Half Price Prince, is introspection at its grooviest, a seven-track hype-machine for one of Charleston's latest artists to break onto the scene.

"It really started as something else," he explains. "I had this idea for this project called 'Days in the Holy City.' And it was going to be my depiction of what I viewed Charleston as. Then — I don't know. I feel like I went through some more personal thoughts, and the songs I started to write became less about the environment around me and more about me in that environment."

Immediately following graduation, James discovered the uncertainty of post-college life and considered travelling to Morocco in the Peace Corps. "I feel like giving up my music for two years and coming back and maybe not ever having a chance to reach a place that I feel like I can achieve — it kind of scared me a little bit," he says about his last minute decision to stay in Charleston.

"I started thinking more about what my future is and what's been going on in my life."

The mixtape that transpired from those thoughts starts at its lowest.

"I close my eyes, but never rest/ thoughts turn into predictions of my future at the best odds/ and how they're still low/ and how that ain't much/ I'm just an artist with a canvas and a paintbrush," James raps on the heartbroken opener, "Paranoid."

"I think I'm writing it from a stand-point of the character being me, but I also think the issues are pretty universal," James says. "I don't want to outright say that I'm writing the songs about me."

The surrounding environment is inescapable for the rapper, as remnants of James' proto-project "Days in the Holy City" hide in certain lyrical themes.

"Lamp swinging, I'm champ/ bringing my best methods/ my cell ringing, I'm playing, yo/ can I get a second," he raps over dangerous, detuned production on "Brian Scalabrine."

According to James, swinging lamps is a reference to The Royal American's overhead lighting fixtures. Plus, he had a vision of premiering the track at the popular music venue.

"That's a really triumphant song for me," says James. "It's kind of a song that, when I play it, I want the crowd to get very hyped up."

While James is the brain behind his project, he credits his manager, Marcus McDonald, for booking his shows, and his frequent collaborator DCLN for guiding the mixtape's production.

"I asked DCLN if he would be able to do a song or two, and we ended up doing seven in two days," James remembers.

DCLN left an indelible mark on The Half Price Prince, bringing an alt-R&B flare to the production. "There's a lot more singing and melody, which is not something that I'm used to," he says. "When I started rapping, I was very much old school hip-hop: the Roots, Wu-Tang, Biggie, this guy Blu out on the West Coast."

The producer built the album's music around James' lyrics, fitting the content's increasingly positive outlook.

"The way the album is laid out is it starts a little more solemn and a little more down-tempo because it's kind of you're arriving to the place of realizing your mortality and how you're not promised anything in the future," says James.

"Movies," the rapper's favorite song, is the mixtape's flash point for PMA.

The morose, robotic beat of "Paranoid" is forgotten and washed away by warm jazz-chill-hop production. DCLN shows his versatility behind the mixer, once again, by precisely matching James' mood.

"Been sitting back and bitchin'/ about my own position/ but acting crazy is to do the same expecting different/ I had to dead that/ to try and get my head back/ this Holy City beautiful/ I stayed and don't regret that," he raps, recalling his story.

"It's talking about, 'yes, you struggle with these issues,'" James says. "'Yes, you might be uncertain of your future, but sometimes it's all in your head.'"

As the tape pushes forward, so does the rapper in his personal growth.

The structure of The Half Price Prince expounds a truth that most can only learn through experience. No matter how bad life gets, it always has the possibility of getting better.


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