Allen "Ace" Henderson, a self-described deer, has bounded suddenly from his seat in his east Raleigh apartment. He seems to glide toward the second-floor balcony's railing.
"Hey," he yells to a trio of friends shooting hoops below. "We just said something about 808s up here, about how Kanye West changed the game up."
The young emcee pauses and listens, scoffing at one friend's less-than-glowing response—"He said 'Basura,'" he relays. Henderson paces for a moment before sitting back down. He begins to dissect his admiration for the genre-scrambling sounds of West's 808s & Heartbreak.
Henderson is often contemplative, nearly stoic. But flighty tangents like these illustrate the twenty-two-year-old rapper and singer's central dichotomy: Henderson writes lyrics that seem wise beyond his years, and they seem to fly from his spark plug of a body.
In November, Henderson self-released the album Analog Youth: Yesterday Is Over, his most comprehensive attempt at folding his views on morality and memories of a Raleigh childhood into a cohesive narrative. The best rap album to emerge in the Triangle last year, Analog Youth depends on Henderson's energetic tension.
And, in a moment when Triangle rappers like Rapsody and King Mez, his mentor, seem upwardly mobile again, Henderson is a likely candidate to have next. An intriguing new EP, LAP 143, is his subsequent step.
"I think of Analog Youth in a political aspect: What am I really going to talk about for the next four to five years if I don't have any type of platform?" he says. "What's going to be there? What can I say to you if you don't know what I'm about?"
Henderson has a sharp, square jaw and a wiry build. His eyes are almond-shaped, and his no-motion-wasted kind of physical grace speaks to an athletic background. His posture and self-assured demeanor make him seem deceptively tall. Through basketball, Henderson says, he first learned how to turn a lifelong love of words into rap.
"My main allegory for music was basketball," he explains. "That was my right, dominant hand. From there, it was creating cool punch lines, the dunks. Cool entendrés are the layups."
Henderson then sought the dynamism and duality of super athletes, like runner and passer Cam Newton: "I needed to develop ambidexterity—singing, carrying a tune, that's my left hand."
Henderson has a knack for allegories, and he's incisive as he is insightful. But in grade school, he says, teachers deemed him a "special" child in need of testing. A diagnosis of ADHD helped him understand—even harness—his thoughts. His parents, both singers, encoraged Henderson to play an instrument from age ten. Playing alto saxophone in the Broughton High School marching band helped him develop mental discipline. There, he learned the value of collaboration, which has served him well as an emerging emcee.
"I've been accustomed to learning how to stand out, but also to blend in and contribute," he says. "And that's all my main purpose is: stand out enough so that I can attract the right people around, and play my role to the best of my ability."
Henderson's band background is surprisingly prominent during the stylistically wide-ranging Analog Youth. The sentiments are complex, layered—some jump from the face of the track, others lurk beneath strata. With gasping urgency, Henderson bleeds out some of his finest raps on "Buck." And then there's the more nuanced emotion of "3K15," with a sultry sample of jazz singer Melody Gardot and a homage to OutKast's "Ms. Jackson."
"Take a little trip to the mountains/I've been looking for the fountain," Henderson croons in mellow tones over a light beat. The rhyme reflects the painful memory of watching his grandmother die.
"[That's] the fountain of youth," he says. "I wished I could have manifested that for her in that moment."
Analog Youth is deeply personal for Henderson, whether by incorporating his spirit animal into the artwork and track titles or copying verses from letters he never sent. It's the punctuation on his childhood, a segue into adulthood: "I'm telling the story of myself and all these environments I've been in. I preface it with 'Cleanboi,'" he says.
At shows, Henderson often leads crowds in a chant: "I'm a cleanboi 'till the day I die," the audience shouts. But what does it mean? Being clean, he says, can start as simply as a pack of fresh white tees. It's a quick take on the idea of cleanliness as godliness, even self-improvement. No matter what your present circumstances are, cleanliness is within reach. It's the better version of whatever you're doing.
Analog Youth's narratives unapologetically relate the dirty details of Henderson's journey so far, but, in "cleanboi" spirit, he rejects the notion that a life of restraint equates to a life unfulfilled. There's no self-pity.
"Making the best of what you got while you have it," he says. "Once you find a purpose for what your passion is—boom, it's a wrap."
This article appeared in print with the headline "So Clean"