Every weekday at noon, the august voice of Frank Stasio welcomes listeners to The State of Things, a public radio exploration of salient regional topics and compelling cultural events. Most weeks, Stasio invites a band into the studio, too, perhaps an upcoming indie rock outfit or an affable area string band.
But in early May, 24-year-old Raleigh rapper King Mez became the show's rare hip-hop guest, on air to perform three songs from his fourth free, online-only LP, Long Live the King. The afternoon session was an uneasy fit, as Stasio's warm, avuncular style seemed to trip the constantly polite Mez. He muttered through his backstory and talked about his birth certificate. He stumbled through the song preludes and suffered technical glitches. He delivered clichés about his motives and lambasted a systemic lack of honesty in hip-hop.
"He hadn't done an interview like that," admits DJ Paradime, a friend and collaborator who accompanied Mez in the Durham radio studio on that Friday afternoon. "That was a really proper interview—very different from, like, Shade 45 or XM Radio. He didn't really know how to introduce the songs as well as he should have."
For Mez, though, it was only the latest in a series of learning experiences that's taken him from a rough childhood and a potential life of vice to the role of an ascendant area emcee working to turn loads of promise and early press into an international career.
He's started to put the proper pieces in place: Late last year, he inked a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music, a relationship that helps Mez get paid for the music he writes and increases his chances of soon landing a substantial, equitable recording contract. He has a clothing deal, and he and his closest collaborators—Paradime and producer Commissioner Gordon—have just stocked their own recording studio in downtown Raleigh with high-end gear. APA, an international talent agency that handles hundreds of musicians, comedians and authors, has just made him one of the firm's newest clients. He's even about to spend two months in Los Angeles, where he and Dawaun Parker, the co-producer of Eminem's Relapse, will try to build a few songs for Mez's official debut album.
None of that, however, guarantees success. Mez hasn't even sold an album yet, though he hopes Long Love the King forges the connections that will soon help him sell a lot of them.
"It's a great deal. We had to fight for it to make it like it is," he says of the publishing contract. "People saw that and were like, 'Oh snap, it's on now. King Mez has a record deal.' But it's nothing like that."
In many ways, the work is just beginning, something for which Raleigh Denim co-founder and Mez mentor Victor Lytvinenko has attempted to prepare the younger Mez.
"We're obviously in different mediums, but a lot of the questions we ask ourselves are similar," Lytvinenko says. "He's precise. There's something very surgical about the way he writes his rhymes and the way that he puts it out there."
But that's not the version of Mez that Lytvinenko heard on the radio in May. While Mez was on the air in Durham, Lytvinenko sat in his Honda Fit before lunch and listened to the stilted 17-minute segment. The two met in 2012 when Lytvinenko agreed to co-sponsor the album release show for Mez's third LP, My Everlasting Zeal, at a local rock club. Ever since, he's served as an adviser for Mez, offering advice on fashion and, perhaps more important, the attitude of success.
Lytvinenko noted that the interview lacked the precision and candor he'd come to admire in Mez's music. They debriefed on what had gone wrong, and Lytvinenko, who's become a national media darling through his handmade clothing line, offered insight on how to spin those awkward situations to his advantage.
"I know that he wants to be great," says Lytvinenko. "So I talked about that last two percent, that little bit that kinda puts you over from being good to great. That last two percent takes twice as much work. He wants it. He wants to know it. He wants to learn it. I have so much respect for that."
The first 98 percent wasn't easy for Mez, whose real name is Morris Wayne Ricks II. When he was nine years old, one of his father's mistresses showed up at the Baltimore house where he lived with his younger brother, Mike, and his parents. An Army brat, he'd already traveled extensively. For once, it seemed maybe they could settle down.
As he remembers it, the confrontation between his mother and the mistress became aggressive, his mother "spazzing" on his father's other woman. When the tension broke, Mez's mother convinced the interloper to drive her and her two sons to an accountant that would do her taxes on the spot and give her the expected refund in the form of a cash advance. Return in hand, the four of them drove back home. By the time the senior Ricks came home from work, the entire family was gone.
"We breezed," Mez says.
The single-mother-led family arrived in Garner and, eventually, Southeast Raleigh. Three years ago, Mez's mother, Roberta, passed away. Before she died, her son's fledgling hip-hop aspirations had begun to show signs of promise. Her death meant that he'd still have to help care for his younger brother, that his rapping career had to allow for more than his ego. The realization redirected his life, adding a depth of humility not often associated with upstart rappers.
"He really didn't have much and then lost the closest person to him—his mom," explains Paradime, who lost his own father around the same time. The two bonded over the experience. "He's just a real humble kid. He's had to take to care of his little brother, who's not too much younger than him. If he would have been doing drugs or drinking, his brother would have followed suit. That plays a role in him not doing that."
On a recent Wednesday evening, Mez strolled up the street near Raleigh's Cameron Park, ambling past a cluster of law offices. He and fellow rapper Bobby James were headed to the convenience store on their daily junk food run between recording sessions. Despite the evening's oppressive humidity, they were lighthearted and smiling, joking about the options offered at two respective stores.
After a few minutes in the first one, they left empty-handed. In the second store, Mez suddenly shouted, "You see this plethora of snacks?," delighted that this choice stocked his preferred brand of salt 'n' vinegar potato chips. He grabbed several and pointed to plastic bags of sliced cherry candies. "I eat these before I perform," he confessed.
Mez is a witty, easygoing sort, a personality that he's sometimes had trouble projecting publicly—not only on the radio, but also through the selection of his singles. For instance, he chose the rather sullen and serious "Can't Let Go" to be the lead cut of Long Live the King, not the much more upbeat "Flight."
But it's an important choice. During the song's music video, Mez ambles through his former Southeast Raleigh neighborhood. He daps old friends and walks through a house where some of his peers are indulging in and glorifying the vices that chased him as a kid. "It weighs heavy on my heart," he raps.
Had he not embraced different values, his life could now be in the same place.
"Shit was wild before my mom passed away," he admits. "I could have been one of the people who grew up and had justifiable reasons to be a Blood or whatever, just because I went through a bunch of wild shit when I was younger. Young and black: In a lot of situations, shit is terrible for people like me."
To air those grievances, Mez has worked to refine his voice and his delivery during the last four years, until they cut through the noise and the chatter. He increasingly deploys each word with purpose and care. As one reviewer for Pitchfork Media noted, "Mez can fall too in love with his own voice," couching that criticism among a string of laurels.
To Mez, though, his voice is the most essential tool, and he wants potential listeners to hear it in the cleanest way possible. It's a dutiful love. When Mez began to furnish his new studio with equipment, one of the first big-ticket items he purchased was a $3,000 Manley Reference Cardioid Microphone.
While he produced or co-produced eight of the dozen tracks on Long Live the King, he's quick to clarify that putting beats together isn't his focus or how he hopes to communicate and impress.
"I'll play my beats for you, but I will give you a disclaimer," he says. "I treat it like, 'Oh, I'm not a producer. So, if you don't like my beats, I don't care. That's not my bread and butter.' But if you say you don't like the raps, then we have an issue."
At this point, Mez's biggest hurdle might be convincing the radio-listening masses to fall in love with that voice. He needs the right single if his career is to be more than an underground or local success. He's only become interested in that prospect lately, and getting there on his own terms is paramount.
For Long Live the King, he contemplated releasing "Flight" as the first single. Aided by New York vocalist Sonya Teclai, the bounce-friendly ode to evading golddiggers comes spangled with wonderful, skipping drums. It's an instantly attractive cut, easy to love and perfect for the radio. It was almost too easy, admits Paradime: "We want an organic following."
"I've been growing into that space," says Mez of a singles mentality. "The sound is almost there to where I can walk that line of me being me and have catchy music. If I would have made that jump earlier, I probably would have lost who I was."
This is certainly the time for Mez to project exactly who he is. He has released four free, downloadable projects to date, including Long Live the King. They are carefully formatted and sequenced, not harried hip-hop mixtapes. But he doesn't consider them proper albums. He's waiting to sign a record deal before releasing that. He's pondered and declined a few offers to date, but the right relationship appears to be on the horizon. He hopes Long Live the King is the final stepping stone.
"I feel like Long Live the King is the first time that I get into a full spectrum of who I am. I'm trying to be a good person, a well-versed person, a well-spoken person, well-thought," he says. "But to me, it's not a first album until you sell it."
All those dualities—the street-raised nice guy, the high-brow rapper in search of a single, Morris Ricks and King Mez—meet at once during "Morris," one of the best cuts on Long Live the King and its next single.
Mez describes the person beneath the rap persona:"I'm trying my best/I promise/but competing with all these forces," he says. "Wanna graduate from my past/but almost too scared for new courses." Maybe King Mez is the defense mechanism that's long kept Morris out of trouble and currently keeps his temptation to a minimum and his zeal at a maximum. Or maybe his two sides are finally merging.
"I know that there are people who question my situation and say, 'He's talented, but what's happening?'" he admits. "I been in the fourth quarter my whole life. I've been on fourth down my whole life. I've always had to convert—one way or the other."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Searching for sovereignty."