One of the best rappers in Arkansas works the checkout line at Wal-Mart in Pine Bluff. You'll recognize Goines, whose nametag says Andrew, as the checker who looks like he's come to work straight from a cocktail party, in loafers, neatly ironed khakis and a cotton pique polo. A few weeks ago he had a subdued mohawk — more rounded-out hill than spiky wall — but he's since settled in to an even close-crop. Creeping up his neck: a large, block-letter “G” tattoo.
That hints at the contradiction that might be the root of the rapper's peculiar genius. Working a 9 to 5 isn't unique. No one in local rap is living lavish. But while most fuel their projects through side-jobs, there's usually a wide gulf between what they do in life and what they rhyme. Wish-fulfillment rap has taken over. “If I rhyme about owning a Bentley Coupe, I will soon own a Bentley Coupe,” goes the logic.
Goines represents for the people. On his song “The Prejudgement,” he plants his flag for those “living every day so battered and scarred, feeling like they never mattered at all.” He's the self-avowed Everyman, yet, at the same time, he's stridently devoted to going against the grain.
The Pine Bluff MC came onto the local scene in 2004 with partner Arkansas Bo in the duo Suga City. On Conduit Family's debut compilation “Big Bizness,” they established their sound somewhere on the sonic map between UGK's country rap tunes and early Outkast “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacMusic”— laid back, soul-infused, deeply Southern rap. Since then, they've performed around the state and put out several mixtapes, steadily growing their fan base to one of the state's biggest.
Conduit leader Chane Morrow, who also raps as Epiphany, says Suga City works as a duo because “they're the perfect dichotomy — the complete opposite of each other.” Bo is gregarious, constantly joking and laughing. Even when he strikes a menacing pose, you don't have to look hard to see a sly grin peeking out. Goines is more reserved. When he raps, it's usually with an edge.
The bio on their MySpace page suggests that “Suga City” is a kind of rap utopia they've imagined, “free from all of life's daily drama, where you could just sit back and represent for all the slickest and flyest.” Tonally, that easygoing ideal has been clear from the beginning, but lately, they've started to catalog the ills around them and work in other lyrics that belie their sound — as if Suga City is less an alternate reality than a goal.
“Rap has done a complete 180 from where it came from, and it's my job to bring it back,” Goines said in a recent interview. “Lead by Example,” his new mixtape, picks up where he left off with Suga City.
Now 27, the rapper says growing up he listened exclusively to soul music; he didn't buy his first hip-hop albums until he was 17. His first purchases: the three kings of '90s East Coast rap, Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. Those influences come through on “Lead.” Soul, or something approaching the genre, forms the foundation. Like most mixtapes, it draws tracks from the industry, but where most rappers typically pick well-known tracks, Goines' release has a heavily curated feel. Tracks from well-known artists like D'Angelo figure in, but most of the backing tracks are obscure. The intro samples Telepopmuzik, a French electro-pop group.
Lyrically, there's a hint of those East Coast icons. All made their bones on vivid narrative raps, and Goines can certainly craft a visual. (His performance name, a alteration of his last name, Goins, was inspired by the writer Donald Goines, known for his graphic portrayals of street life). But his focus on “Lead” is more existential. “Whatever gave, I'm giving it back/Hell and hard times, a big wish to push some small rhymes/And nothing's more humbling than seeing life crumbling …,” he rhymes on “Do U.” Life is hard out there for fill in the blank — a rapper, a young black man, a guy looking for a girl, someone who dresses differently.
A chip on his shoulder pushes him along. “He takes everything that people have ever done to him, and he put it in his music,” says Arkansas Bo. “He vents.”
“It comes from his childhood and, from his vantage point, of being picked-on and overlooked,” echoes Epiphany. “He's got the craziest, funniest stories where he's always the victim. But when you take them for what they were [from a child's perspective], they're not that funny.”
“A Satirical View of Being the Bad Guy” is the sort of clumsy subtitle of “Lead.” It's a meta touch from the rapper. “People get me mixed up as being this mean, conceited guy,” says Goines. That's not a big leap for the audience—his style is cool, but always with a bite. Like Bo says, he's taking the pain of his life and releasing it with a vengeance. Stuck in a cycle of scorn, he's decided to go even farther. “If you think I'm mean,” Goines says dryly, “then I'm going to show you what the fullness of that is like.”
It's a pose he established on “Theme Muzik,” the excellent compilation CD Conduit put out earlier this year. “Judged on my physical/Never took serious/Dreams don't look good/And girls never get at us…/Yeah, I'm the villain/the same one you picked on, beat down and lied to/But now I'm back.” A definite feel of foreboding hangs over the new music. There's a gun on the cover (Goines is never one to dip into gun-talk), and a social critique of “Miss America,” one of the standout tracks, dances a little close to serious misogyny, but despite the title's promise, there's not much out and out shocking — just fine, well-wrought low-key Southern rap that's as good as anything today, and not just in Arkansas.
It might not be too long before the world outside of Arkansas knows Goines. Conduit head Epiphany says a Suga City album with major independent label distribution is imminent. The MC is nonplussed by the potential and says he's just focusing and reflecting on “Lead by Example.”
“When I look at this CD, I'm like, ‘I made this myself!' ”
“'How can you tell me that I shouldn't be happy with what I'm doing?” he says about no one in particular.