Any one rupture that Nocando endured in the last three years could have inspired an album in its own right. There was his divorce, a split with his partners in Low End Theory, and public rancor with several artists on his Hellfyre Club label. So it was only right that his latest full-length should be called Severed.
During this decade, South L.A.’s James McCall turned himself from a Project Blowed legend and battle-rap deity into the resident emcee at the best weekly club night in America, the owner of the most consistently innovative indie-rap imprint of the 2010s and a critically acclaimed solo artist. Dr. Dre might take credit for discovering Anderson .Paak, but Nocando actually released 2013’s Cover Art, Paak’s first album to warrant substantial attention.
“Everything happened when I turned 30, and the lesson I learned was that like it or not, everything was mostly my fault,” Nocando says over sandwiches at a Leimert Park deli.
“It’s not because this person did this thing to me or this thing happened, but ultimately, it happened because I was too agreeable and I said ‘yes’ to too many things.”
Severed was recorded during that discordant period between 2014 and 2015 — a turbulent window that simultaneously afforded Nocando significant victories. He inked a lucrative publishing deal that found him holding his own in writing rooms alongside platinum stars and songwriting hired guns. He wrote hundreds of songs, some lingering in hard drives, others appearing on the first Emmy-nominated season of Empire. Several songs on Severed trace back to these sessions. “Villain” was originally conceived for Panic! at the Disco.
The record’s chief engine is “El Camino,” an instant classic inspired by Frantz Fanon’s anti-imperialism opus, The Wretched of the Earth. In four minutes, the song sums up the genius of Nocando at his best, as the rapper delivers a diatribe against the death of the American dream, nine-minute Macklemore songs about white privilege, Rodney King’s naïveté and people chanting political slogans for social media capital.
He uses the hood classic, a Chevy El Camino, as a symbol of hopes deferred, switching between character and real life. He shouts out his Ford Bronco, purchased because “O.J. was my hero.” It’s scathing and brutal, nuanced and subtle, but fearlessly daring to be misinterpreted.
“I don’t really care about being the boss or the soldier. I just don’t want to deal with people who think small.” -Nocando
Bidding farewell to his underground past, Nocando recruited his heroes and inspirations for the album: Slug of Atmosphere, storied battle rapper Otherwize, Aceyalone of Freestyle Fellowship. It acknowledges his roots but engages in live-wire experiments, sustaining the legacy of the Good Life Cafe and Project Blowed.
“I know who the fuck I am,” Nocando says. “I don’t really care about being the boss or the soldier. I just don’t want to deal with people who think small. And that’s the story of Severed. It’s me realizing who I was when I was 19 with big, lofty dreams, then getting into this and having to be practical.”
He pauses for a second, as though to consider the scope of the dozen years since Aceyalone took him on his first tour: the nights balancing studio, family and hosting duties, memorialized rap battles and forgotten Project Blowed cyphers.
“I felt like I couldn’t make the music I wanted because I had to spend a time working at this place to take care of my kids, or I had to work with these people or this engineer, or use this kind of production because these are the people that were around,” he continues. “But now, I feel free from all of that. I’m more in love with music than at any point since I first started making it.”
(Disclosure: Nocando is a sometime columnist for L.A. Weekly, and he and I used to co-host a podcast together.)