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When it comes to lyricism, few rappers have done as much for the craft as Chino XL. During the last 20 years, the Los Angeles-based rapper has redefined what it means to be a supreme wordsmith. He’s created hit singles, released revered albums, collaborated with some of the most popular artists in all of music, delivered memorable roles in film and television, written for television and remained a fixture on the touring circuit.
His new double album, RICANstruction “The Black Rosary,” features the Los Angeles-based rhymer delivering a masterful mix of deeply personal songs, astounding lyrical exercises and remarkable narratives. It’s been more than six years since Chino XL released his last studio album, but the wordsmith needed to recalibrate several aspects of his life before he returned to a solo project. “I had to get focused on what really mattered, which is my family, my music and my life in general,” Chino XL explains of his new 35-track album. “Musically, I had to focus to get it back to its essence, which is that lyrics still matter. RICANstruction is a play on the word ‘reconstruction’ and RICAN is because of my Puerto Rican heritage. Latinos in general, we’re Catholic and have a dedication to prayer and to Saints. As for ‘The Black Rosary,’ the rosary is the prayer to put your life back together and the beads are what you wear on your neck.”
On such painfully revealing songs as “Silent Art Child,” “Mama Told Me” “Sleep In Scarlet” and “Regaurding Elizabeth (Save Me),” Chino XL discusses the abuse he suffered as a child, revisits a suicide attempt, begs for forgiveness to his aborted child and details several fractured personal relationships.
While crafting these emotionally draining songs, Chino XL realized that he was helping himself and others by recording them. “It’s a complete unbottling of a lot of stuff, things that I probably had suppressed,” he explains. “The human psyche has the ability and the power to do that in order to keep it functioning. I felt that it was time to let most of it out so I could move on and get past some of those issues. Also, being on tour last year, I realized how many people I connected to when I expressed a lot of those more painful, emotional songs. It seemed like a lot of times, somebody really needed to hear it. I can learn from it to help them relate to it so they could get past what they had going on. I realized that’s part of my journey.”
No song, however, defines Chino XL’s journey more than “Father’s Day.” Here, he recounts one of his daughter’s battles with cancer – an ordeal that started when she was only 10 months old. Beyond the sheer pain and ultimate triumph depicted in the song, what makes the selection remarkable is how Chino XL infuses his top-tier lyricism into a storyline that is so raw, so devastating, so vital.
It’s a characteristic of much of his best work. “Probably my best-known song is ‘Kreep,’ and it’s in that same vein,” he says. “‘Father’s Day’ still contains a lot of wordplay, but I didn’t dial back my lyricism at all. It’s just a narrative. I put myself into a small time machine and transported myself back to a place that I really didn’t want to visit, but there’s a lot of people dealing with similar issues so I figured I would share it. Plus, it was one of the most reconstructive moments in my life.”
On the brighter side, Chino XL salutes some of his late friends on the triumphant “Eye.” Over a driving beat from DJ House Shoes, he showcases several layers of his lyrical gifts on the punchline-heavy song. “It’s got a heroic feel to it,” Chino XL says. “I like it because it’s a tribute to Dilla and to Proof, who I worked with. The beat came from House Shoes, so it’s Detroit. The song highlights my New Jersey roots and I live and have been a fixture on the LA scene for more than a decade now, so I feel like it encompassed a triumphant hip-hop feeling. I had the great blessing to have worked with Dilla and Proof before they passed. Then, to attack the beat, I had to write and use some interesting pentameters, so when I hear it, I hear the challenge of it. It sounds like a victory when I hear it.”
Signed to Rick Rubin in his teens, Chino XL introduced a new style of lyricism that featured rhymes that created a new edginess in rap. It became his signature with the launch of his solo career. Chino XL’s debut album, Here To Say You All, became a landmark release thanks to the jaw-dropping lyrics featured on “No Complex” and “Freestyle Rhymes,” as well as his relationship meditation “Kreep,” whose video became a staple on MTV. His subsequent single “Wordsmith,” culled from his acclaimed Poison Pen album, is included in The Yale Anthology of Rap.
Since then, he’s become a prolific and in-demand rapper who has released four studio albums, has performed on songs with everyone from Snoop Dogg and Travis Barker to Common and Tech N9ne, and who has toured with Ghostface and Immortal Technique. On stage, Chino virtually transforms into another entity, delivering a show as impassioned and as captivating as his otherworldly lyrics, head-scratching breath control and remarkable delivery patterns. “I give it 1,000 percent,” he says. “When I’m done on the stage, I leave myself up there for a while. It takes me time to merge back into myself. I’m doing everything I can to make sure I connect with the audience. I change my set list up, go into the crowd. I’m sharing my art with them. They came to see me and they bought a ticket into my life, so I welcome them in.”
As an actor, he’s delivered memorable performances on television shows (CSI: Miami, Reno 911!) and movies (Alex & Emma, Sundance favorite The Beat). “I don’t consider myself a phenomenal actor, but I can get the scene to where it’s real or convincing,” explains Chino XL, who also wrote a segment for the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. “When I write rhymes, I do it from a complete place of motivation within the confines of the structure. Talking to acting coaches, that’s what actors do with acting and that’s what I try to do with every scene.”
Despite his thespian achievements, it all comes back to lyrics for Chino XL: how to deliver them, how to come up with the most memorable lines and to how outdo every other artist lyrically. His pursuit for lyrical supremacy drove him to create his new album, RICANstruction “The Black Rosary.”
Chino XL’s dedication to his craft has resulted in a career defined by his status as one of the best rappers of all time, someone who always put lyrics first and pushes the genre forward. “I’m trying to push lyricism as far as you can,” he says. “I believe that it’s my contribution to the art form, to art in general and to music. I feel like if you’re not going to try to raise the bar, then what are you doing it for? I try to do it because I feel like that’s part of my blessing and to share my blessing, I have to propel the art form and push the boundaries of language.”
As he says on RICANstruction “The Black Rosary” track, “Hell Song,” “Chino did for lyrics what the movie Jaws did for sharks.” Believe it.
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