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On his 2008 solo album Sacrifice, Substantial was unsure of his future. “Kids right now, is a scary vision/With my income, support I’d barely give ’em,” he rapped on “Let It Go.” Elsewhere, radio-friendly songs like “Chain Reaction” and “Resurrection of the House Party” sought mainstream acceptance with accessible flows and glossy production. The results were mixed: While Sacrifice emphasized Substantial’s presence as a formidable MC, the album felt too disjointed to have a long shelf life.
But along the way, Substantial grew up. Bop Alloy, his side project with Seattle producer Marcus D., is a quiet-storm blend of hip-hop and jazz fusion suitable for contemporary airwaves. His 2009 standout tune “Logicool” outlined his transition from a lyrical b-boy to a family man: The Prince George’s County native has a daughter now. When he isn’t rapping, Substantial, born Stan Robinson, works as an educator and community activist in Maryland. He’s built recording studios for at-risk youth and raised funds for inner-city kids.
Lyrically, he’s settled into a comfortable groove. On his autobiographical new album, Home Is Where the Art Is, Substantial isn’t focused as much on memorable punch lines. Instead, he describes his own maturity to a backdrop of wistful compositions. Take the observational “See Hear”: Over head-nodding bass drums and faint vocal chops, Substantial describes the yin and yang of everyday life. “Kill each other over money and pussy,” he groans. Then seconds later: “But then I see the smile on a child making moves/Actually following through on the righteous path that they choose.”
That common-man ethos is persistent on Substantial’s album, which isn’t surprising given Oddisee’s involvement with it. The producer is known for his low-key business approach. Odd not only crafted the direction of Home, he produced four of its 12 songs (“Check My Resume,” “Make Believe,” “Shit on My Lawn,” and “Umoja”). As a result, the music stays within Substantial’s comfort zone: 1990s boom-bap, soulful instrumentals, and furious record scratches. Above all, the album serves as an adult take on life’s events. “Make Up Sex” is a playful, yet sophisticated look into his marital challenges—forgetting to change his daughter’s diaper, putting her onesie on the wrong way, and coming home late from shows. On “Grateful,” he’s forward-looking, if not somewhat morbid: “When my last experience has been acquired, and I’ve arrived at the date I will expire/I hope that I’m surrounded by extraordinary folks that I admire.”
You think of those things the closer you get to middle age, as late-night hangouts and cheap pizza fall further down on the list of priorities. These days, Substantial seems to prefer a quiet life of limited extravagance. Home Is Where the Art Is outlines the personal journey of a man finding peace with himself, even if he’s concerned with the depressed state of his community. He chastises drug usage and materialism. He debunks haters and wants stronger public education for minority students. It might be a little idealistic, but let the man dream.