If there's one thing I get all blustery about on a regular basis when it comes to the Portland music scene, it's that we have plenty of great singers and rappers—but very few great storytellers.
And now here comes a 21-year-old kid to blow that thesis away [TRUST ME: STREAM OR DOWNLOAD CASTAWAY NOW
]. North Portland MC Vinnie Dewayne, currently living in Chicago where he's attending college, is a master-in-the-making. On his second full-length mixtape, Castaway
—it opens with a surprisingly poignant tribute to the Tom Hanks film of the same name—Dewayne proves he has both the technical skills and the wisdom of a much older MC. In fact, he has a skillset that's increasingly disappearing from hip-hop music altogether, replaced by the shock and swag that sell singles. That Dewayne was able to find his voice—reasoned, analytical, earnest—among the candy-coated, manufactured fare that swamps the airwaves is a testament to his commitment to his craft.
Dewayne, like Rakim and Nas before him, has an uncanny knack for describing the brutality and hopelessness of the inner-city (or, in this case, St. Johns) experience while maintaining an emotional depth that less skilled MCs tend to front right past. On "Can't Lie," he's essentially speaking from two perspectives at once: That of the streets and that of a good kid the streets are actively trying to destroy. To be able to balance those viewpoints—to be both narrator and protaganist in one effortless-sounding swoop—is a hell of a feat for any songwriter. To do it with the high level of self-awareness and clarity of detail that Dewayne does here is downright mind-bending. And "Can't Lie," while one of Castaway's most linear songs, isn't the exception—it's the rule. Dewayne is a very special talent, and he's in possession of a sincerity and easiness that most MC would buy at a premium if they could. (In fact, now that Brandon Roy is retired, maybe The Natural isn't a bad nickname for Vinnie.)
You can't really walk up to a teenager and say "tell me about your experience being black and poor" any more than you can ask Paris Hilton what it's like to be rich and famous (it's "hot," I'd imagine). That's why popular music is so important. It gives young people like Dewayne an avenue to lay everything out on the track—he explains the process beautifully on "Pour it Out"—until your questions are answered. At least it used to. Storytelling isn't just a lost art in Portland, it's a lost art period. That makes Castaway all the more profound. It's a heavy, impressive document not just of a place and time, but of a make-or-break time in a young man's life. It's a disheartening work in that it paints a bleak but believable picture of life for a young black kid in a thoroughly gentrified city; It's inspiring because great storytellers like Dewayne still come around every once in a while to relate their experience.
My only job is to tell you how important a voice this kid could be, for himself and for Portland. But Vinnie really does that better than I can. Elsewhere on the album, Dewayne explains his commitment to keeping it real thusly:
This a story I ain't never left alone
Cuz I never felt the life of a man steppin' on the gas pedal of a Porsche with a million records sold
My arm reaching for the torch, I need my mom a better home
How do I feel free in a system where they throw us in a pot filled with pot and lock us up for selling tree in the system?
What it mean to live a dream when your brother been shot and stopped breathing and your mother feelin' pain they not treating?
See I'm living on the edge, I'm spittin' for my niggas up in jail
I'm speaking to my niggas that we lost
I know y'all hear me from this hell, I'm repairing the trail
Them leaders mislead us, they all want us to fail
Look into my eyes, do they tell you I'm aware?