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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

Pacino's 'Incomparable' Rap

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By rap standards, Pacino carries himself with relative modesty. He's not an aggressive self-promoter, he doesn't talk about rap like it's some kind of competition, and he's the rare local rapper who doesn't speak in grand terms about being the first to put Milwaukee on the map.

"My attitude is that if I make a name for myself outside the state doing this, then cool, but if not, that's cool," he says. "I love rap as much as the next person, probably more, but I'm about to graduate college, so it's not like if I don't make it in music I'm going to die by the time I'm 30."

That's not to say he wants for confidence, though. When he talks about his music, all that humility goes out the window.

"Honestly, I view myself as incomparable," he says. "I know all rappers say that they rap in a unique way, but I think my work speaks for itself. When I approach the mic, nine times out of 10 what I do is going to be different from everybody else."

Talk like that is easy to dismiss as generic braggadocio, but Pacino's verses really do distinguish themselves. He raps in svelte, choleric bursts, and his cerebral rhymes pivot at unexpected angles and often fold in on themselves altogether. And he's got no off button: At his best he can rap for dozens of bars before reciting anything resembling a cliché, all that time continually introducing dazzling new patterns, both rhythmic and lyrical.

Pacino's 2009 debut One of None proved him to be one of Milwaukee's most technically gifted rappers, yet the album didn't make many waves in the city. That could be blamed in part on Pacino's scant promotional efforts (it's easy to mock the local rappers who over-promote themselves, but there's no denying that they get results), but even if it had received more press, the record still didn't have the feel of a breakthrough effort. For all the raw talent it displayed, it lacked the basic flair and polish required for an album to reach audiences outside of the most die-hard rap enthusiasts. Pacino's dense, tightly knotted verses were impressive, but when they were piled so high on top of each other without prominent hooks to break them up, they could start to feel impenetrable.

Pacino's new mixtape, Beyond Compare: Soon You'll Understand, begins to correct that problem. Released for free download this week, the mixtape includes a couple of songs that play like singles, most prominently "Want It All," an infectious banger with a regal beat and a hearty chorus from Ray Nitti. That may seem like an odd pairing at first—an erudite lyricist like Pacino working with a club-minded pop act like Nitti, who probably gets more commercial radio play (and invites more eye-rolls) than any other rapper in the city—but after years of crossing paths and sharing producers, the two have become close affiliates.

"I would say this even if we weren't affiliated with the same team: This dude goes all in on everything he does," Pacino says. "I know a lot of people don't take heed when I say that, because Nitti gets so much grief because of those 'Bow' and 'Work It Out' records he did, but I will always back that man up. We've really developed a mutual respect for each other that we can both benefit from, since I don't make a lot of dance records—I'm more in the Jay-Z/Drake realm. We complement each other."

And in Pacino, Nitti has found a peer who isn't somehow trying to piggyback on his success. Never mind that doing so probably wouldn't work for Pacino anyway—it's unlikely he could duplicate Nitti's club appeal even if he wanted to—since any attempts would also be a violation of the code Pacino lays out for himself repeatedly both in conversation and on his records. He firmly believes that any success he finds needs to come on his own terms, from rapping about his own experiences.

"I try not to overdo the whole hustling motif, for instance," he explains. "Yeah, I'm from Hampton Avenue, and I'll talk about that, but I don't feel a need to maintain that image for street credibility. I don't want it to define me. I'm also Greek. I went to college. So I try to incorporate all those life experiences into what I rap about.

"Besides, I'd look silly if I laid too hard on those topics, anyway," he adds. "I'd hear people being like, 'Please, Pacino, you can't be rapping about hustling; you were just in economics class with me last week.'"