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In the increasingly formula-following rap game, Phoenix rapper Willy Northpole likes to do things a little differently. For example, because he's signed to a Def Jam imprint run by hip-hop superstar Ludacris, you'd think he'd be lining up the star to give his debut a little extra juice. Nope. Not that Northpole and Luda aren't close — Northpole has done dozens of shows with him and he says the DTP owner has put his full support behind his upcoming debut album, Tha Connect, set for release June 23.
"I chose not to put him on the album because everybody expects it. Everybody expects Ludacris and I to do a club banger," Northpole says. "I could've had Luda on the record — he's appeared on every DTP artist's record — but the only way I'm gonna shine is if I outshine everybody around me."
Northpole, 29, has been waiting for his chance to shine for a long time. Born William Adams in Phoenix, Northpole started rapping when he was 12 and honed his skills freestyle-battling off Broadway and 24th streets. He almost saw his dream derailed by a stint with the Broadway Gangstas gang and a three-year stretch in jail for armed robbery, but by January 2008, Northpole was back on track, ready to lead a promising pool of local hip-hop talent into the mainstream ("Raising Terrazona," January 10, 2008).
He'd been signed to Def Jam's Disturbing Tha Peace imprint by Ludacris himself, who said, "I felt Willy Northpole's style and music the moment I heard his voice." His debut album was originally rumored to be coming out in late 2008 but was pushed back while DTP focused on promoting Ludacris' Theater of the Mind album.
Ultimately, the delay was a good thing. It gave Northpole time to branch out lyrically and musically and to begin incorporating R&B beats and funky soul hooks into his grimy, urban sound. But just because some of the songs are danceable, that doesn't mean he's got "club bangers" on Tha Connect. "I don't do songs that aim straight for the club," Northpole says. "How many times can you say 'in the club'? 'Pulling up to the club?' 'Rolling in the club?' It's just so played out. I have never said 'in the club' on a song, and I never will. I think a song can have a great beat and people can dance to it, and it doesn't have to be a club banger."
Northpole built his reputation as a fierce freestyle rapper, capable of biting, off-the-cuff flows like this freestyle he spit for Web site crackdistributors.com: "I push the West with one foot like a scooter / Then I come back and leave that as the ruler / My confidence is common sense 'cause I'm the shit / Ya'll n**gas can scratch on some drums and shit . . . I'll backhand a bitch / Not a bitch with tits; a rap bitch with a dick / I ain't talkin' no particulars, yo / I'm just playin'; I'm just pickin' 'em slow."
He admits he's known mostly for his free flows, but Northpole says he's also had time to focus on his lyrics, and that the songs on Tha Connect show his growth as a writer. "Lyrically, I'm at my best," Northpole says. "I really feel I'm being respected as a lyricist. This album is full of stories. Every song has a different concept."
The stories behind the singles from the album are eclectic, from a paean to tattoos called "Body Marked Up" to an autobiographical tale of hard luck and reform called "Hood Dreamer" to the romance storyline of "#1 Side Chick."
"'#1 Side Chick' is about having your main girl, and then having your girl on the side. We're shooting a video for the song June 8 in L.A. with Taj [Nas' "Hero"], and the video follows a whole storyline about going back and forth between the two girls," Northpole says. "And in the video, the guy chooses his side girl to be his main girl at the end. And it's 'to be continued.'"
The song features a guest appearance by Weezy protégé Bobby Valentino, while "Hood Dreamer" includes the vocal talents of B.O.B. Northpole says Ne-Yo is also on the album. And while Northpole's getting guests for his record, he's also making some guest appearances of his own.
He says he recently recorded a verse for Paula Abdul's new single, "I'm Just Here for the Music." Abdul was working with producer Elvis "Blac Elvis" Williams (Beyoncé, Rick Ross) and told him she wanted an urban feel for the song. "So they called me up, and I went in there and laid down a verse," Northpole says. "Her single is fire — pop, but fire. I can see it charting."
In preparation for the release of his own record, Northpole's been making appearances across the U.S. — from radio stations to high schools — for the past two months. He'll have a brief stay in Phoenix the week of his CD release, when he says he plans to host "several release parties."
Northpole will also perform at the Dub Show Tour with Ice Cube at the Phoenix Convention Center on Saturday, June 13. Then it's back out to promote Tha Connect. "I have to get out there and set up my own fan base. We're gonna stay on the road," Northpole says.