Although Lyrics Born has already amassed a resumé that any MC would envy — founding member of Quannum Projects; collaborator with Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist, KRS-One and many others, just to name a handful of credentials — he believes the best is yet to come. "I see myself on a trajectory," he explains. "I still don't feel like I've made my best album, and I still don't feel like, career-wise, I'm at the peak. That's really what I work toward daily."
Which means his latest effort, As U Were, can be considered another step toward perfection. "When I set out to make this album, I definitely was looking to make an album that I wanted to hear as a fan," he says. "As a fan of Lyrics Born — as a fan of music, as a fan of soul, as a fan of funk, as a fan of hip-hop — I definitely wanted to pay homage to a lot of the musical influences that maybe haven't been as obvious in my past work."
Lyrics Born, with Keys N Krates, 9 p.m. Friday, January 21, Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, $12, 303-455-2124.
He does all that and more in As U Were, which is like a romp through selections of the best electro-funk from the '80s, with byways accessing Born's signature hip-hop stylings. His deep, hypnotic voice paints pictures of the price of fame, the true cost of money and how to rise above it all, set to a hip-shaking soundtrack. It's virgin territory — adjacent, but still somewhat foreign, to his previous work.
"That was the whole point," he notes. "I felt it was time for me to do something different. I didn't want to approach the production process, the writing process, in the same way that I had done my albums in the past. It was just time for me to get refreshed and really go for a different kind of sound, a different kind of sound palette.
"My blessing and my curse is that I make a different album every time," Born adds. "And I think artistically, for me, it's necessary. But there are challenges that come along with that. And I'm just very fortunate that people are on board for this crazy ride."
A crazy ride that, in this instance, ventures through deep, dark, frightening places at times. "There were a lot of points during the making of this album where I literally felt like the levees were breaking all around me," he reveals. "And I felt a lot of pressure to maybe do things that I wouldn't have done in the past — professionally, personally, artistically — but despite all the chaos, I just kept hearing that voice, and that voice just kept saying: 'Look: As you were, LB, just as you were.' Just because the world is crashing down around you doesn't mean that you have to fall apart. Just stick to the plan. The plan is, keep making albums, keep challenging yourself artistically, and everything else will work itself out."
And so it did. The album is complete, and he's embarking on another of his famously ambitious tours, with both a band and a DJ, to introduce it to the world. After plying his trade for fifteen years and establishing a name in hip-hop, Born says his biggest challenge is managing his life so he can maintain his momentum. "I think just as you get older, everything gets more complicated," he notes. "Particularly as your career grows, it gets infinitely more complicated. Especially in the modern era. The modern artist's career is infinitely more complicated than when I started.
"But at the same time, on a lot of levels, it's really exciting," he continues. "It's exhilarating the speed and the rate at which everything moves, and it really requires you to be incredibly nimble and grounded."
That grounding is evident in his treatment of subject matters such as drug addiction, heartache and regret — not necessarily new topics in hip-hop, but Born's analysis and approach reflect a thoughtful, uplifting theme that elevates his work. "I believe that music is a very spiritual thing," he muses, "and I think it's really helped me understand the reach that music has and the power that it has."
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"To be able to do what I do for a living and succeed is, like, one in a million. It's not really something that I can look at and say, 'This is a coincidence.' With my sensibility, that just doesn't jibe. And then you start to realize, okay, maybe the purpose of what I'm doing is broader than what I originally thought. And then I start to treat what I do with a lot more respect and a lot more reverence, knowing that it has more power than I initially thought.
"It's still fun," he adds. "That's still a large part of the motivation, but now it's kind of like, 'Okay, how can I make music history? What can I really do here that's going to add on to a musical legacy that came before me? What am I doing with my music that's literally and actually helping people?' You know what I mean? What am I doing that is going to make my work memorable forever? These are the kinds of things that I think about now. It's not really about getting up out of bed, smoking weed and freestyling anymore; it's just not. That part, although fun, is over."
Creating art that betters the lives of its audience and is remembered for all time is certainly a lofty goal — but Born has the confidence, the skill, the creativity and the drive, plus a streak of perfectionism that will continue to propel him toward the seemingly out-of-reach finish line as long as he's making music. There's always the next tour, the next single, the next project, the next collaboration, the next step, and discipline is everything.
"I fuck around, that's no secret," Born declares. "I definitely have my fun. But when it comes time to work, I have a schedule that I'm trying to keep, and I have a lifetime goal that I'm trying to achieve. And I can't do that if I don't stay on track."