Jae Ace Balances Bombast and Profundity
and sensitivity have never been mutually exclusive in hip-hop. Since the
genre’s earliest days, its most imposing figures have shown glimmers of their
soft sides, while its poetic souls have dabbled in hard talk. Ultimately,
though, most rappers leave little doubt what their preferred lane is. Tupac may
have moonlighted in message songs, even scoring some of his biggest hits with
them, but they never defined him the way his Thug Life tattoo did. Drake,
conversely, may feign menace from time to time, but on tough beats he always
sounds like a tourist—emotions are clearly his bread and butter.
Milwaukee’s Jae Ace is the rare rapper who can’t be pigeonholed quite so easily. On his latest free album NOON, he divides his time between openhearted ruminations on relationships and philosophy and bombastic street rap. He can evoke the conversational charisma of early Wale on one track, then convincingly channel Future’s authoritative croon on the next. If Ace has a preference for one style over the other, he keeps it close to his chest. He gives equal weight to both, weaving between the two as fluidly as he shifts from rapping to singing. On a lesser project, these styles might clash, but on NOON they feel like organic complements, since they all stemmed from the same studio sessions.
During those sessions Jae Ace was joined by fellow rapper Pizzle—a kindred spirit who shares Ace’s open mind and ear for contemporary sounds and provides the album’s only guest rap—and members of Elusive Orkestra, a burgeoning Milwaukee production collective specializing in smooth, uniquely soulful sounds. “They’d play some stuff, and I’d sit there and listen and think it through a bit then go lay some stuff down, since I don’t usually write my raps,” Ace explains. The sessions were loose and collaborative, with Ace and his producers bouncing ideas back and forth. “I played some instruments growing up, and I write a lot of music in all sort of genres outside of rap, so that really helps being able to read music,” he says. “I can communicate with my producers and get into what they’re doing. I also learned how to engineer and that’s crucial, too. The mixing and mastering has to be the best quality.”
If there was a wildcard during those sessions, it was Killa Quisee, a young producer whose sound skews decidedly more aggressive than Elusive Orkestra’s. He had produced a few beats for Pizzle when he first met Jae Ace in passing, but Ace had mostly forgotten about that encounter by the time Quisee contacted him out of the blue weeks later soliciting a collaboration.
“He sent me a beat and asked if I could come up with something for it, so I sent a track back to him and he just went crazy over it,” Ace recalls. “The chemistry was wild. He’s a young, hungry producer, one of those producers I could see doing big things in the future. He’s tapping into new beats and genres. When I first met him, he had that raw, Lex Luger style, and seemed into artists like Young Jeezy, or a lot of Atlanta rap. He’s more like a street artist, but now that he’s been around the Elusive Orkestra, he’s starting to mix in more keys, too.”
There’s a tendency among people who follow the local rap scene to treat it like a horse race, focusing on which artists are rising or most likely to break, even though those prognostications are wrong more often than not. That relentless focus on future potential sometimes does a disservice to the feats local rappers accomplish in the present—and to be sure, NOON is a feat, as rich and purely enjoyable as any Milwaukee rap release of the last year. But if you were to compile a list of artists to watch going forward, you could do a lot worse than the cast of those sessions: two likable rappers with a savvy sense of songcraft and a half dozen or so producers who are just beginning to hone their own aesthetics. If this is the future of the local rap scene, it’s in good hands.
You can stream or download NOON for free at jaeace.com.