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Genesis Renji Toasts His Sometimes Home, Milwaukee

Nov. 1, 2016
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Photo credit: Dave Zylstra/Shepherd Express

Fake it ’til you make it, the old adage goes, and in no genre has that mentality taken root deeper than in hip-hop. Some artists take it to almost delusional extremes. The Internet is overrun by rappers with no production values and barely a couple dozen Soundcloud streams to their name rapping about themselves like they’re the biggest, most influential act in their city, if not the world. 

Genesis Renji scuffs at that impulse. It’s not that Renji is modest by any means. Far from it. The Milwaukee rapper regularly refers to himself as the G.O.A.T., and he’s quick to brag about his accomplishments: the tours he’s done, the tracks that have created local waves, the opportunities he’s given other artists with his label, House of Renji. But he also doesn’t shy from talking about what he hasn’t accomplished, and he admits it’s a long list.  

On “Stressed Out,” a track from Renji’s latest release I Might Be Home—a dense, soulful EP that often plays like a condensed, Milwaukee-centric counterpart to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—he confronts his failures, including one that still haunts him. “I’mma focus on making sure I’m stacking this paper so next time Dre is ever locked up Jaya ain’t gotta worry about waiting / We’ll actually bail him,” he raps in his huffy, half-anguished, half-angered flow. 

The verse, he says, refers to an incident where a friend got arrested on his birthday. Since it was a Friday he was stuck in prison all weekend. “Bail was $2,000,” Renji recalls, “and I just remember thinking, ‘Man, I should be famous right now, because two grand would be nothing.’ So that was one of the longest weekends of our lives, because we were waiting and there was nothing we could do. To not be able to provide or care for the people you care for, that’s something I stress about”. 

Renji says the recent success of other Milwaukee rappers only heightens the pressure he feels to make his own mark. “I got love for all these guys—Reggie, Ish, Web, Klassik, everybody—but when you see these guys pass you by, that’s frustrating,” he says. “So I understand why some rappers have that mentality, ‘What you think is what you become,’ ‘Move like you made it,’ and all that, but at a certain point I feel like somebody’s gotta be honest, because I envy some of y’all sometimes! It’s frustrating as shit! It’s like, what am I doing wrong? Or am I doing all the right moves but at the wrong time?” 

For the new EP, Renji determined to open up more, to make his music more vulnerable. “I think a lot of my past projects were vague,” he admits. “I was rapping about making it or wanting to be on. But on I Might Be Home it becomes more personal and specific.”

Though Renji spent chunks of his formative years in Milwaukee, he grew up a military brat, and spent his youth bouncing around between Maryland, Arkansas and Alabama. He still moves around a lot, and reckons that he probably always will. The EP is a loose concept album about his recent return to Milwaukee, and those first few nights back in your old city, viewing familiar places and old friends through fresh eyes.

“It takes place over just one or two days—it’s not a long project, but it gets at what’s most important to me, the places and people that I wanted to revisit,” Renji says. “I’m name dropping on it. I’m giving you the actual names of people I know personally, the people I talk to and associate with, and the things I’ve done with them. I think that’s what helps the project come to life—it’s just so much more vulnerable. I wasn’t expecting people to relate to it as much as they have.”

Renji says he’s settled in Milwaukee for the time being, and predicts he’ll be here at least for the next year or so—a long time for him, given his wanderlust. Even if he moves, though, he says he’ll never stop identifying with the city. 

“Milwaukee gave me perspective and culture shock, really,” he says. “When I first moved here I was 8 years old. I was an Oreo who had grown up in the suburbs and on military bases, and then I came here and saw the reality of everything that my family was dealing with. Gun shots were regular for them. One of my first memories here is hearing those gun shots—Pop! Pop!—and my mom screaming, ‘Get on the floor!’” 

“So Milwaukee gave me an experience, and it gave me a story to tell,” he says. “If I didn’t live in Milwaukee, I probably wouldn’t even rap, to be honest. I’d probably be a scientist, like my mom wanted me to be.”

Genesis Renji’s I Might Be Home is streaming on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Music.

 

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