Meet Al James, the crossover hip-hop phenom with a penchant for thirst

Meet Al James, the crossover hip-hop phenom with a penchant for thirst

We talk to the enigmatic musician about the changes in the music industry, writing in Filipino, and Love in the Time of Tokhang.

Rapper Al James is an enigma. His Instagram is on private mode. His only two singles (so far) are on YouTube, with both clocking in over a million views already. No mean feat for an unsigned artist, whose presence has remained under the radar of music websites and most music snobs on social media. The only evidence of the mark he’s making, outside of his crowd-drawing performances, are the comments on YouTube and on his Facebook page. Over 400 five-star reviews, with comparisons to Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Bryson Tiller. The single one-star review says: “Soundtrip ng mga hypebeast. Soundtrip ng mga hypebeast. Soundtrip ng mga hypebeast.”

Pahinga ka muna:  Al James makes jams that combine the sonic signatures of Top 40 Trap music, mixed with sexy AF Filipino lyrics, delivered in a low, irresistible, mantikilya voice.

It’s fitting for someone whose music has been spreading mostly by word-of-mouth. His fan base ranges from Kuya Vapes to hypebaes. His jams are bops that combine the sonic signatures of Top 40 Trap music, mixed with sexy AF Filipino lyrics, delivered in a low, irresistible, mantikilya voice. It’s a potent combination. I’m not going to lie, only D’Angelo, or maybe Serge Gainsbourg, can make me feel flaming hot on the inside, then icy and prickly on the outside. Tense, clenched, but also moist and—

Anyway, Al James walks in. He stands a little over six feet, and his only entourage is his girlfriend, who also acts as his manager. She carries his pair of white Nike Air Force high-tops that are bigger than her face. He’s wearing a white shirt, jeans, and classic black Chucks and a sprinkling of gold jewelry — he is a rapper, after all. His presence is that of the quiet guy among the cool kids, the one who comfortably stays at the back of the pack, whose silence is presence amid the noise of others.

His fan base ranges from Kuya Vapes to hypebaes. His jams are bops that combine the sonic signatures of Top 40 Trap music, mixed with sexy AF Filipino lyrics, delivered in a low, irresistible, mantikilya voice. It’s a potent combination.

Born Alvin James, he is the youngest of four kids in a music-loving family. All elder siblings are big music fans, while some perform as well. “Dad ko yung mahilig sa music,” he shares. I prod him to say more. Who did he listen to while growing up? “Michael Jackson, uhm… The Beatles…” Al James is in his head a lot, which is probably why he decided to pursue art.

Growing up in the graffiti scene, hip-hop is a natural draw. He graduated with a degree in Fine Arts and Design at the University of Santo Tomas, which is where he met his first collaborators, a group that has since grown, now known as Baryo Berde. Currently, Al James works as an art director for an agency by day.

Age of Aesthetic™: Al James adds a visceral layer to his music that sets him apart from his peers.

The sense of the visual is strong in this one — important for survival in this Age of Aesthetic™. It adds a visceral layer to his music that sets him apart from his peers. He makes his own album covers, right now his music easily conjures a distinct neon-lit glow. Creative control is natural for Al James, which bodes well for his career. It’s this similar visual control over their Brand™ that makes artists like Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator a perfect fit for the Instagram generation.

This deep sense of the graphic spills to his lyrics, which combine narrative with atmosphere, something that reminds me of the writing of Frankie O. and ‘Bino. Take some lines from the first verse of his 2017 single, Ngayong Gabi:  “Kitang kita ko na husto / talahiban at tanim mo’t mga bundok / Handang languyin ang nasa pagitan ng dalawang hita mo’t malunod /  Basang-basa na nga nasa isip mo gusto na matikman / Ang tamis na nakaligtaan mong todo

Creative control is natural for Al James, which bodes well for his career. It’s this similar visual control over their Brand™ that makes artists like Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator a perfect fit for the Instagram generation.

Roughly translated, with poetic license: I can see your lush grassland and your mountains, I want to drown in between your knees, to taste the sweet nectar of your brain. Jesus. Make sure your mom ain’t in the car when you listen to this. Catch the wordplay? Basang-basa: wet, but also, easily read. It’s raunchy AF, but contains a seed of wisdom: the first organ you have to lubricate is the brain.

Apart from being sexy, the man has balls to be writing lyrics about Love in Time of Tokhang. it’s almost revolutionary. In the same song: “Dito tayo sa dilim yun walang may kita / Buksan mo ng palihim meron yang sorpresa / Wag ka sakin maaning di ako PDEA.”

Mas challenge yung [pagsusulat sa] Tagalog kasi limited [yung vocabulary] pero mas dama mo siya,” he says about his choice to write in Filipino. “Yung sinusulat mo, yun yung bibigkasin mo talaga everyday, so mas feel [ko] siya gamitin.”

When it comes to Al James, the thirst is real.

Luckily, Filipino flows for Al. “Nakakagulat na marami nang nakaka-appreciate ng Tagalog songs ngayon,” he says. He knows he’s an unusual case — an artist who can cross over from underground to mainstream (his song Ngayong Gabi hit #1 on Wave 89.1’s primetime hit list last December 2017), who can fill the floor at high school dances and high-end clubs.

Dati i-jujudge na nila na jologs dahil Tagalog,” says Al James. “Iba rin yung music scene ngayon, iba rin yung crowd ngayon. Mas open rin sila, mas open sila mag-explore and makinig.

The time is ripe, and he still has a lot to prove beyond his two strong singles. For now, he seeks time to focus on creating new music, and he’s already being approached by big names for collaborations. But he’s already fully-booked with gigs until the end of March, his girlfriend tells me. This just tells you that when it comes to Al James, the thirst is real.

Photography by Arabella Paner
Assisted by Kervin Tan
Shot on location at Dulo MNL
Clothing from SupportYourFriends and Tenement
Produced and styled by Ina Jacobe
Tags:
#culture #music #profile

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