Stalin: Darkness Visible

With his new album, Bay Area boss J.Stalin shines a light on Bay Area rap — and his own 12-year career

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J.Stalin's grown up -- a little
PHOTO BY GARRETT CAPLES

arts@sfbg.com

I remember the day I met J.Stalin, 10 years ago. He bounced into the Mekanix's East Oakland studio, walked up to me, and shook my hand.

"I'm J.Stalin. I write and record two songs a day," he said proudly. Rail-thin, barely 5 feet tall, he looked like a middle-schooler. While he's thickened somewhat in adulthood, the pint-size rapper retains an air of adolescence that's one of the keys to his enduring success. Kids in the hood love Stalin because he seems like them and his music speaks to them. He looks like what he once was, a d-boy on the corner slanging rocks. Yet his music is versatile, with a profound undercurrent of melancholy to his storytelling and a huge streak of '80s R&B in his sound, both of which appeal to adults. Even without radio support, this potent combination has made him one of the most popular rappers not simply in Oakland but in the Bay Area, period, and when I hear a car roll up playing a local artist, more often than not these days, that artist is J.Stalin.

"Make sure you put that in," Stalin says. "I'm the most played person on the streets in cars."

It reminds me of our first meeting — but only a little, for, despite his youthful appearance, it's hard to discern the eager youngster of a decade ago in the somber adult he's become in his late 20s.

We're sitting poolside in a middle-of-nowhere suburb where J's tucked himself away with his girlfriend and 2-month-old son. I couldn't imagine living out here, but it's the perfect retreat for a rapper, away from the distractions of the hood. Coming from the cramped public housing of West Oakland's Cypress Village, Stalin can appreciate the surrounding blandness in ways I can't. And, of course, he's on the road frequently, fresh from a sold-out West Coast tour with Husalah and Roach Gigz and about to embark on a series of appearances for his new album, S.I.D. (Shining In Darkness) (Livewire/Fontana), which will take him as far afield as Ohio.

Named for his cousin, Sidney Malone, who died in 2008 at age 25 after suffering cardiac arrest during pacemaker surgery, S.I.D. showcases a different side of Stalin's music than previous releases, even as it leans heavily on production from his longtime producers, the Mekanix, in addition to tracks by Mob Figaz maestro Roblo and HBK member P-Lo.

"With this record, I wanted to get back to making fun music," he says. "When you come from the streets, and done been through hella shit, sometimes that's all you want to talk about. It ain't even like you rappin'. You just expressing your emotions. I love making street music, but my own music be depressing to me sometimes. I'm always going to give you that classic Stalin, but that's the difference between this album and the last album: I wanted more uptempo tracks you can dance to."

"I didn't want to just name it, 'In Memory of Sid,' so I came up with Shining In Darkness, because that's where the Bay at," he continues. "We shining over here but the industry don't put a spotlight on it. It's just a darkness to the rest of the country. The more I started recording on it the more the meaning unfolded to me. Like when you hear it, you're like, 'Why don't the world know about this nigga?' But at the same time I just wanted to keep Sid's memory alive; that was my biggest fan."

In another departure, S.I.D. is Stalin's first disc since July of last year, when he released his DJ Fresh-produced double-disc Miracle & Nightmare on 10th Street (Livewire/World's Freshest), his first project to crack the Billboard rap charts, at #60.

"It'll be like nine months since I dropped a project," he says. "I've been focusing on putting out dope albums instead of flooding the music with quick mixtapes and shit."

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