His fan base growing, the south Minneapolis rapper reveals a troubled youth and high aspirations on "The Last Great ..."
He cried a little, laughed a lot, got mad a couple of times, bragged a few more times and alternately showed flashes of curiosity, introspection, insecurity, melancholy and intense ambition. And that was all in one interview.
You can imagine, then, how much raw emotion MaLLy put into his second full-length album "The Last Great... ," which the Minneapolis rapper-on-the-verge has been working toward for a year.
"I had to get people's attention first," he said. "Now, it's time they see what I'm really made of."
Minnesota hip-hop fans have seen a lot of the real-life Malik Watkins, 26, between last year's Soundset festival and this year's. He made his debut there last May, and later watched Slug of Atmosphere perform in a MaLLy T-shirt at the fest. He then played First Avenue's Best New Bands showcase and opened Atmosphere's "Welcome to Minnesota" tour over the winter. As his profile shot up, so did his music reputation via a download series, "Free on the 15th," featuring seven bouncy singles with his new producer partner, the Sundance Kid.
Following his album-release party Friday at 7th Street Entry, MaLLy will return to Soundset May 27, serving as co-host alongside Brother Ali, who guests on one of his new tracks, "Unplugged." It should be noted: MaLLy is not actually a part of the Soundset-creating Rhymesayers Entertainment crew with Ali and Atmosphere. Not yet, anyway.
A lot of his success so far has been earned through his own grit, determination and intelligence. He's not just working off street smarts, either, although he certainly has plenty of those.
His father wasn't around when he grew up. Instead, there was a longtime boyfriend of his mom's who was in and out of jail and addictions (but was a good guy, he says). This explains some of the more venomous, wrenching lyrics on "The Last Great," including these from the opening cut "Swallowing the Reign":
"My real father is a lame / My heart broke inside when my fake father went up in flames."
A fan of everyone from Nas and Joe Budden to the Black Keys, MaLLy shared a special love for Tupac Shakur with his "fake father," who recently passed away. It was Tupac who taught him to open up about the pain expressed throughout "The Last Great."
"He helped me figure out how to tell my story," he said. "I could make up stories about selling dope or whatever. Or, I could tell the truth."
The truth is not exactly the stuff of thug life: Watkins is a University of St. Thomas graduate and works by day in an executive training program at Travelers Insurance, which he says has been surprisingly cohabitational with his rapper aspirations. He attended private grade school at Minnehaha Academy on a scholarship -- one of a very few African-American students there at the time, he said.
His home turf was and is south Minneapolis around the Seward, Longfellow and Phillips neighborhoods. He met up for his interview last week at Seward's Brackett Park after visiting his grandmother nearby, at the house where he lived while his mom battled and defeated breast cancer.
Those memories are what brought MaLLy to tears later at Merlin's Rest, the Lake Street pub where he hangs out enough to have developed a taste for Scotch (also maybe helping instigate those tears).
"My mother, my grandmother, my uncle, they were there for me and put a lot of work into me," he said. "I think about that in my music. It's like, I can't screw up, because it would be an insult to them."
MaLLy feels a similar debt to his younger, Rochester-reared cohort the Sundance Kid (real name: Jonathan Cliby), whose vaguely electronic, synth-laden production steered the "Free on the 15th" series in many directions. As MaLLy pointed out, "That all sounded different from the record."
The sonic palette on "The Last Great" ranges from Daft Punk-y dance beats in "Hands High" to bass-booming grime in "Shine" to sunny, soulful R&B on "Good One."
MaLLy's lyrics in "Good One" are what really stand out, though: "Make good, do good / The rest should come."
He says it as a promise.
Get out your wigs and/or your ear-plugs: The 400 Bar is hosting another Bob Dylan Soundalike Contest on Thursday, the vocally depleted singer's 71st birthday (7 p.m., $5). Dylan Days in Hibbing also kicks off that day, featuring a performance by Murzik -- also playing the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday -- plus other to-dos such as a bus tour and the "Blowing in the Wind" glass-blowing demonstration. Details at DylanDays.org. ...
Because of construction at Orchestra Hall, the Famous Dave's Blues Fest will move a few blocks up Nicollet Avenue to between 3rd and 4th streets when it returns June 9. Charlie Musselwhite tops out this year's free lineup. ... Orchestral psychedelic rockers Me & My Arrow aren't just performing shows every other week in the summer, they will also issue a new single every other week. The biweekly download series kicks off with "Erazor," released Friday in time for their set Saturday at the 331 Club's free Art-A-Whirl bash. Look for the next single on May 30. ...
Often the musical highlight of northeast Minneapolis' annual Art-A-Whirl, Creative Electric Studio's floating raft gig -- where Marijuana Deathsquads defied electrocution in a downpour last year and the Stnnng floated out into the middle of the river in 2010 -- is not happening this year. Yeah, go figure. The event's co-host, the Sample Room, has started up its own party with Blue Sky Blackout and Idle Hands on Friday and the Nightinghales and Fort Wilson Riot on Saturday. Psycho Suzi's also has its own bash Saturday with the 4onthefloor. ...
One more new Whirl party of note: Anchor Fish & Chips is hosting a free two-day bash to promote its new food truck, and owner Luke Kyle did not have to look hard for some well-adored headliners: His brothers Ben and Robin Kyle will perform with their respective bands, Romantica and Valet, the former on Saturday (6 p.m.) and the latter on Sunday (7 p.m.). Quite the talented bunch.
Follow Riemenschneider on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib
Poll: Which of these returning TV series are you most looking forward to this fall?