In the summer of 2012, Baltimore poet, vocalist, and rapper Abdu Ali stared down a Dante's Inferno-inspired sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum called "The Descent," by Rachel Kneebone. It's a massive, table-like block of porcelain that gets gnarlier the further away from the ground it gets-starting out iPod-smooth and ending up as a ragged clump of lost souls all gazing into a sinewy pit.
"I like that it's white," Abdu explains in the bedroom of his Eutaw Street house. "It makes it more eerie." Precisely how it inspired 2012's INVICTOS EP, largely produced by experimental clubber Schwarz, is appropriately beyond words. Try this, though: Like "The Descent," INVICTOS is a hulking, personal slab of uncooked expression. One of those take-it-or-leave-it kinds of releases.
Invictos is Latin for "unconquered," but the reason Abdu picked it is decidedly more lowbrow than Dante. The title was taken from Portuguese gay porn he watched. "It was weird as fuck," he says with a laugh, "It was trying to be artistic but it wasn't." That merger of disparate influences-modern sculpture; chintzy, pretentious, X-rated fare-is characteristic of Abdu's music, which wanders from spoken word to hip-hop to ball-culture vocalizing to bleeding-edge electronic noise like it's no big deal.
EP highlight "Banjee Musick" finds Abdu spitting blasphemy: "I worship snakes, I fucks with Eve/ Apples is what I need/ Don't feed me no bullshit/ I ain't down with the pulpit." As words sprayed over a beat, it sounds dope as hell. But it can be close-read, if necessary: "Snakes are wisdom, and Eve is somebody who said 'Fuck the rules, let's eat the apple.'" Haunted jazz legend Nina Simone, gay icon Quentin Crisp, and local drag queen Miss Tony all get tribute tracks. Moaning poem "I'mma Leaf" is backed by almost subliminal shouts from Atlanta fight-rapper Waka Flocka Flame.
In conversation, Abdu reveals the same binary-breaking worldview found on INVICTOS. "Like, as far as me being gay, I was not down to be a top or no bottom," he says with a knowing chuckle. Then he apologizes for getting "a little too personal" and extends his point to the everyday, beyond music or sexual preference: "Like, I'm not down to only eat soul food. I hate limitations. It drives me crazy. I was always that bitch who didn't like boundaries."
Abdu Ali is a gay MC in a hip-hop town that at least seems a little more comfortable with such a thing: In 2011, rapper DDm publicly came out of the closet on the cover of Gay Life; and the long, storied history of Club music, closely tied to the gay-friendly worlds of house and ball culture, is significantly more open-minded than many realize.
Beyond Baltimore's relatively open-minded borders, web-savvy rap fans are witnessing a moment where out MCs are finally afforded a platform. The veering-on-mainstream visibility of Le1f and Mykki Blanco coincides with a shift in the country's sensibilities, as well as rap breaking into dozens of scenes and sects thanks to the internet and the ossifying of the major-label system. Hip-hop is more welcoming to "outsiders" in general, whether or not they buck heteronormative trends.
On Friday night, Abdu performs as part of an event called Guttahball Da Baptism. Its lineup is telling example of the safer, more open-minded space internet-bred underground rap is enabling: There's Cities Aviv, a post-punk-ish rapper from Memphis and OG Dutch Master, a Baltimore rapper very much in the art-damaged tough-guy vein of A$AP Rocky. James Nasty, one of the more open-eared club DJs, and Schwarz, who throws Baltimore breaks into a Tumblr-fueled avant-garde abyss, are also on the bill.
Though INVICTOS is still finding an audience, and shows like Guttahball are happening more frequently, Abdu is frustrated. "I go to the University of Baltimore, I'm a creative writing major," he dispassionately details. "I kind of don't like being in school no more." A friend, reading rap blogs on a laptop in the corner, quips that depending on when this piece is published, Abdu may have already dropped out.
"School is fucking wack. I'm too smart for this shit," he says, disgusted. Why he isn't exactly feeling the classroom these days is clear. He takes frequent trips to New York to play shows. There, he is seen as some kind of fabulous force of nature from the home of The Wire. At this year's South by Southwest Festival, he performed at the massive outdoor event GayBiGayGay. Things are moving fast for him. He pretty much leap-frogged that frustrating moment where you're "just a local artist."
Abdu flips open his laptop and plays a moaning, gasping beat from iTunes. He raps along with it, twisting his voice into croaks, hiccups, and a melismatic croon-Lil Wayne-style. This is from his new project he explains, which will be about "asking more questions and trying to figure out how to fucking live and grind." He runs through a list of influences-Bjork, James Brown, Notorious B.I.G., Patti Smith, to name a few.
He's curating. "This next one will be even more cosmic," he declares. And then, naturally nodding to his tendency to merge the unexpected, adds with a smile, "It will have more Waka Flocka samples too."