By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
Fresh Out the Box
"I wrote my album in that box," says Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire. The box the 27-year-old rapper is talking about is the cramped attendant's booth at a Con Edison parking lot in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cooped up inside and working 12-hour days, eXquire would alleviate the tedium by reflecting on his life and turning those thoughts into rhyme.
The project he penned was Lost in Translation, the 2011 mixtape that launched eXquire's journey from the grit-sodden climes of the New York City rap underground to being feverishly courted by major labels; it also hosted "The Last Huzzah," a remix featuring EL-P, Danny Brown, Das Racist, and Despot that has become eXquire's signature song and has been viewed just shy of 1 million times on YouTube. Looking back on the job now as he lounges in a Soho office, eXquire says: "It was shitty, and it inspired me, 'cause I didn't want to live like that no more. I didn't want to be in that box." He pauses. "I don't like being in boxes."
Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire's liberation from that parking lot box came the day he was fired without explanation. Hindsight will record the dismissal as a convenient quirk of fate: He's now signed to Universal Records after having "every label waving cash at me trying to sign me."
This rise into the major music leagues hasn't been merely symbolic, though, with eXquire moving out of his apartment in a Crown Heights housing project that doubled as his recording studio. Nicknamed the "Danger Room," the setup equated to a computer and speakers shoehorned into the corner of a living room decorated with homemade cut-and-paste collages produced from the ransacked pages of magazines and newspapers. Photos and mentions of the Danger Room became cult fodder on the Internet.
Musing on his transition, eXquire is frank: "My old world is dead. Nobody wants to live like that [in the projects] and be broke. There's nothing there." He speculates that building services probably "tore down" his infamous home decor, gives a shrug, and then says, "I didn't start rapping to be the same person."
Embracing change while figuring out new worlds is emerging as the motif of eXquire's music. His signing to Universal might seem curious at first: eXquire's music is ruggedly uncompromising, often ribald, and shoots from the underground. The six songs that make up his Universal debut, Power & Passion, are wildly and brilliantly unlike anything the majors are pushing under the guise of rap. It's a cavernous listen with beats that dwell in a murky low end of swarming basslines and quavering atmospherics—courtesy of production from EL-P and SpaceGhostPurrp—while eXquire enunciates his rhymes through flows that are both venomous and fluid.
It's also not for those easily embarrassed by expletives, as eXquire rattles off flurries of four-letter words and bandies around the term "faggot." The project offers no clues as to how Universal might hope to shift eXquire into the mainstream—but maybe that's the point. eXquire says his label is "completely dedicated" to the music he wants to create. He accepts that he's rapping in a new arena, but any progression will be personal, not commercial.
As eXquire prepares to leave Soho and pick up some furniture for his new abode, I'm reminded of something he said when I interviewed him at his old apartment last year on a rain-drizzled Thanksgiving eve. With the hype from "The Last Huzzah" peaking, he explained how his next record would involve him wondering "How do I proceed now that I've achieved what I was bitching about not being able to achieve?"
eXquire remembers the quote. He grins. "Yeah, it's the power and the passion, and it's figuring out this new life. I had the 'hood. I had the projects down; now it's a new life," he says. "So how do I progress as a man? I don't want to be the type that makes it in music but doesn't make it as a human being."
And with that, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire leaves the building.
Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire's Power & Passion is out this week.