Rapper lets his guard down on more personal 'Sunsets on Bartlett'

In the past, rapper Darrio Lamont has shied from telling too much of his own story on record, viewing music as a reprieve from the hardships and heartaches of day-to-day existence.

But on Sunsets on Bartlett, Lamont's new collaborative full-length with producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton (available on all major digital platforms beginning Friday, April 13), the Cleveland native presents snapshots from his life that he was previously hesitant to explore for an audience.

“I've always used music to escape, so it's harder for me to talk about pain,” said Lamont, joined by Burton for an early April interview Downtown. “But other people want to hear my story. They want to know about when I've been shot. And my father who's done this, and my mother who's the getaway driver, and my grandmother who run a gambling spot. They want to know these stories about me. … If you listen to the intro, that's me trying to step into giving y'all an idea of what's going on in my neighborhood, what's going on with my actual family.”

On the album-opening “Sunsets on Bartlett,” Lamont recounts the September 2016 evening when his brother took a bullet to the face, rapping, “I remember when they shot my brother/A late-night call from a shooken mother.”

“He was shot through the mouth, and it ripped his teeth, split his tongue, and it came out the main vein here [in his neck],” said Lamont, who later watched gas station security camera footage of the incident in which his brother spotted the shooter and paused to alert others in the vehicle to the danger rather than immediately fleeing the scene. “He's now paralyzed on the right side of his body. He can't talk. He's had seven strokes, four brain surgeries. They said four times in the first 72 hours that he wasn't going to make it.”

The record was further shaped by the death of friend and fellow Columbus rapper Sheron “Nes Wordz” Colbert, who died in June 2017 but features on Bartlett's “Sweet James 2,” a lush, almost operatic track that finds Lamont lowering his shoulder and plowing forward through the pain. “I be OK,” Lamont repeats mantra-like on the track, as if trying to speak better days into existence.

“After Sheron passed, I couldn't write. I didn't have any passion to write, and I didn't know what to talk about,” Lamont said. “Once the music woke me up again, I was like, man, I just can't never fall.”

This musical nudge arrived courtesy of longtime friend Burton, who produced tracks for Lamont's 2007 debut and has contributed at least half the beats for every project the rapper has released in the years since. When the two first connected in '07, Burton's studio occupied the attic of a three-floor campus home, and Lamont compared the process of working one's way up to the top floor with leveling up to the big boss in a video game.

“You had to go from outside, where they trust you to be on the porch, to eventually being in the living room,” Lamont said, and laughed.

The pair's friendship, developed over more than a decade, shapes the Southern-rap-tinged songs on Bartlett, which, at times, feel like a conversation between beat-maker and MC, snares sometimes serving as nonverbal accents and vocals weaving through the mix with stunt-driver grace.

“You have to treat the vocals like an instrument,” Burton said. “After they're recorded, I might go back in and pull something out so you can hear him clearer, and then bring it right back in. Or I might put an inflection on the beat.”

In many ways, it's an extension of the conversation that continues off-wax, with Lamont emphatically hyping his friend's skillset (“Jack is a genius”) and Burton echoing the rapper's desire to move past grief (“There is no other option”).

“We started together. He understands the way I think,” said Lamont, which made recording the entirety of the more-personal Bartlett together ideal. “Whether it's how I feel about something politically, like Black Lives Matter, or my children or family, or even a beautiful girl, this is a snapshot of me.”