Rapper addresses weight of expectation, matters of faith on deeply personal new album

Entering into recording sessions for his 2017 debut, Canopy, Nashville rapper nobigdyl felt the weight of expectation for the first time in his young career.

“With the three mixtapes [released prior to the album], it was just this fun era. … I was just creating just for the sake of creating. Nobody had heard of me, so they weren't expecting anything,” said the rapper, born Dylan Phillips, who visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Thursday, March 7. “Leading up to [Canopy], it was like, ‘OK, if this album works this will probably be my career.' Knowing it could be this kind of turning point, or tipping point, I felt pressured to make some tracks that were more commercial sounding, and I ended up making some artistic concessions.”

So beginning work on Solar, his 2018 sophomore album and major label debut, nobigdyl wrestled with a number of questions: What kind of rapper did he want to be? Did he value success above artistic integrity? Did he need to update his look to connect with a larger audience? Or move to a new city? What exactly did he hope to accomplish with his art? Was it merely to enrich himself? Or were his aims somehow larger?

As these questions swirled, nobigdyl started writing, emerging with “Pressure,” the anchoring track on Solar, which finds the rapper expressing his myriad doubts and conflicts (“The fame it just offends me/I chase it all the same”) before clarity arrives in the final verse. “I'm tryna rap in such a way it make my mother glad,” he raps, verbally shedding his ego-driven desires for commercial success. “I hope my raps take all the drugs out of my brother's grasp/I hope my raps push enemies into a lover's hand.”

“It's a thesis statement I couldn't even have articulated until I started writing that song,” nobigdyl said. “That whole verse is just me reverse-engineering and dissecting what I'm hoping to do with my music.”

Growing up, a career in hip-hop appeared unlikely. Despite a fascination with the form that started at age 9, nobigdyl grew up in a religious household, and early on his mother forbid him from listening to rap, citing its vulgarity. (His dad would occasionally sneak him radio edits of tracks by groups popular at the time, such as Naughty By Nature.) Eventually the rapper's mother relented, allowing him to purchase “clean” versions of popular hip-hop albums, which sustained nobigdyl until the floodgates opened with the arrival of uncensored online downloads.

Early on, nobigdyl patterned both his lyrical style and the subject matter in his songs after artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, though it wasn't long before he realized that he wanted to convey a different message in his songs — one more strongly shaped by his deep religious roots.

“I think I realized all the artists I loved were just talking about what matters to them,” he said. “So as I got deeper into my personal faith … that's what started to come out. But it was never like, ‘I'm going to get into this Christian hip-hop industry,' or whatever. I'm just rapping and this is what's coming out.”