King Mez: Taking The Throne
By Bryan C. Reed
With My Everlasting Zeal, Raleigh Rapper Stakes His Claim
Historians may argue the degree to which Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-coronation was planned or improvised, but one thing is certain. When Napoleon grabbed the crown from the hands of a probably bewildered Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame Cathedral that December day in 1804, he changed history.
Tradition as far back as Charlemagne demanded a coronation ceremony, crown placed upon the monarch’s head by God’s earthbound representative. Napoleon upset the balance, putting his own power above the Church’s. An Internet search for the term “self-coronation” today yields a consistently critical usage, lobbed at self-aggrandizing politicians and pundits, at the until-recently ringless Lebron “King” James, and basically at anyone with the gall to assert authority where it hasn’t been earned.
The self-anointed King Mez took the title on credit. The 22-year-old Raleigh rapper born Morris Ricks II chose a stage-name that speaks to his lofty aspirations, tenacious ambition, and the firm morality he sees as a counterpoint to an overly self-centered and materialistic rap field. “I feel like a king is someone who is very insightful, who’s meant to lead a lot of people, very humble but very commanding and authoritative whenever need be,” he says. “He treats women like queens, which is very essential, and you build a kingdom for your children, so one day, like the people who build the businesses, Rockefeller and all types of people, their kids are always going to be straight because they work so hard. Those types of things have a lot more to do with my name than anything else.” He understands that it’s a title he’ll have to live up to. That’s kind of the point.
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Morris Ricks II, the eldest son of two U.S. Army soldiers, was born at Fort Campbell, Ky. and raised in Southeast Raleigh. His hip- hop destiny revealed itself early. “Hip-hop was just always big in my household, man,” he remembers. “My parents played it in the car all the time. It’s all I really knew as far as music. They played soul music and other types of stuff, but hip-hop just stuck with me. I loved it so much, I had to just attempt it. I had to.”
By the age of 9, he’d graduated from mimicry to freestyling rhymes of his own. Once he started to work out his rhymes on paper, at 11 or 12, there was no looking back.
“It just stuck,” he says. “I kept wanting to do it, I was so excited about it.”
But it wasn’t until 2006, when he heard Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor — a conscious rap record that made major mainstream inroads on the back of the skateboarding single “Kick Push” — that Ricks decided to make Mez a full-time pursuit. “He was one of the only artists I ever really listened to that was still himself after a major record deal,” Mez says of hearing the record at 16. “It was like, man, he’s continuing to be who he wants to be, and have a message in all the music”
Three years later, Mez debuted with the mixtape, LLTK, a raw but able presentation of a developing talent. It was enough to garner some early attention and set the stage for the more personal and conceptual follow-up, 2010’s The Paraplegics, produced by fellow Raleigh up- and-comer Commissioner Gordon, and highlighted by an affecting, autobiographical first-hand account of witnessing domestic violence. It was on The Paraplegics, its name a commentary on a sort of moral paralysis induced by conspicuous consumption, that Mez found his voice. Sonically, his elastic flow suits the low, dry timbre of his voice. Thematically, he utilizes unflinching realism as a vehicle for moral lessons. He raps, chillingly on “The Light,” “The day I was ready to hit the door/ Was when I found Mama hair on the kitchen floor/ And I was feeling like a conquistador/ Because that Glock 9, homie/ I was ready to explore.” That stark image gives way to lines of acceptance, and ultimately, the song’s redemptive moral. Earnest intent counterbalances the moments (and there are more than a few) where he tips toward didacticism — “When I’m spittin’, it ain’t never to get me richer/ It’s you hearing the song and knowing somebody with you.”
“Hip-hop was built on that braggadocio, all that flyin’ and flossin’ in your lyrics,” Mez concedes. He’s certainly not opposed to having fun with boast tracks, but he most often aims for something more profound, exposing difficult and personal truths, allowing himself to be vulnerable in hopes his listeners might better relate to a flawed and hurt human than a gilded, hedonistic demigod. “It wasn’t really until people started making rap with a subject matter that touched people’s soul that it became something global, something more than music, like a movement,” he says.
In 2010, not long after the release of The Paraplegics, Mez lost his mother. He moved back home to help his younger brother, then still in high school. He went to parent-teacher conferences, cheered at football games, and helped steer his brother’s college application process. He emerged from the grief more focused on his musical aspirations.
Last year’s short-form The King’s Khrysis, a rapper-producer collaboration with Justus League and Away Team producer Khrysis, found a reinvigorated and newly confident Mez refining his approach, merging hard-nosed experience with defiant optimism. “People want to do good, I believe, but it’s not easy to. So I try to be mindful of that whenever I make music,” Mez says, summarizing his most consistent thematic currents. The six-track EP ends with its title track, Mez sharing verses with Phonte, the Little Brother M.C. turned Foreign Exchange crooner, who “take[s] the fedora and put[s] back on the fitted” in a symbolic, if small scale, passing of the torch reminiscent of Jay-Z’s hat-tip to Lil Wayne on the latter’s “Mr. Carter.”
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All this stage-setting has led to what might be considered King Mez’s proper full-length debut, My Everlasting Zeal. Though it was released for free on the Internet like his previous mixtapes, there’s a clarity of purpose and consistency of vision his past efforts can’t match. It’s clear he knows it, too.
Littered with signifiers of ascendant fame, My Everlasting Zeal tells the story of a talent on the rise. “I rep my city, but I’m hardly here,” Mez (who, it ought to be noted is currently residing in Maryland to be closer to family and frequent jaunts to New York) admits in the album’s “Intro.” In “About Me,” he’s adapting to seeing dreams realized, remembering humble origins and celebrating steadfast old friends; lamenting the fair- weather fly-by-night affections of would-be groupies; and finally waxing philosophical on prison and drug abuse as the alternate roads his life might have taken.
“Highness” samples piano and soaring vocal melody as a backdrop to a slam-poetry detour that finds Mez declaring, “I know there’s a crown out there for me. It don’t gotta be the main one, long as nobody livin’ got the same one.” He repeats the line in “Reign.” Musically, he finds a sweet spot in a steady boom-bap backbeat, coaxing fluid melodic samples that contrast the clipped, chirping, sped-up soul nuggets N.C. luminary 9th Wonder always favored. On tracks like “Reign,” the melodic propensity tilts Mez toward pop. And in the midst of his evolving but consistent tropes of trial and redemption, he finds time for an R&B-laced come-on in “Tonight” (with help from crooner Drey Skonie).
Still, Mez has a clear objective that trumps any diversions: “I see that crown like it’s gotta be mine,” he asserts at the opening of “The Town.” Mez’s coronation is the theme of My Everlasting Zeal. If the work he’s done so far has proven his mettle, now’s his opportunity to seize authority.
He’s proven his self-reliance in music and in life, hustling his way into a full-time rap career, with clothing endorsements and satellite radio spins. But so far it’s been a self-directed effort. “There’s no money behind me, no major label, no major artist, no major push, no co-sign,” Mez says. “That type of stuff makes you want to work as hard as you possibly can, and you’ve got to be innovative and creative and figure out your own way.” But those days, he says, are coming to an end. His self-determination is a means, not an end.
One day, he says with a present-tense confidence, he’ll be a big-label artist, on his own terms. In his mind, the crown is his for the taking.