'Where I come from is the beginning of the story for me," says D.C. rapper Lightshow. "Where I'm going is the narrative."
Where Lightshow comes from is the neighborhood around 10th Place Southeast in Congress Heights. He was born Larinzo Lambright-Williams, just down the street at what was then Greater Southeast Hospital, and his first two homes were on the street. 10th Place is such a prominent part of his identity that he appends it to his social-media handles and references the block in his lyrics.
But the Trenton Terrace Apartments he grew up in are now gone, demolished in 2003, something Lightshow connects to the greater wave of gentrification in the city. "If you look out the window," he says, gesturing out a seventh-story window in downtown Washington, "you're able to see how much the city's changed."
How Lightshow got from Southeast Washington to giving interviews in an office across the hall from the International Monetary Fund is a story of dedication — of grinding and making the right connections. And, as the 26-year-old rapper tells it, that narrative is just beginning.
Before he was a rapper on the come-up, when he was just a kid at M.C. Terrell-McGogney Elementary, Lightshow quickly learned a lesson that would point him toward hip-hop. He recalls winning a science fair in the fourth grade. The experiment (about oil and water) wasn't anything special, but the presentation, he says, "got us over the hump."
Soon, he'd take that same energy for presentation and apply it to music. His mother, a human resources professional, had bought him his first microphone and music equipment. When he about 11, he used a combination radio-CD-tape player to add verses to the instrumental outros of his favorite songs, pretending he was scoring features with his favorite rappers. He then graduated to making tracks on his computer and started figuring out how to record.
"Before taking off as an artist, I recorded for everyone in D.C.," Lightshow says, referring to Wale and Shy Glizzy sessions he assisted on at Selfmade Music Studio in Temple Hills. He's gleaned what he could from the artists and received key advice from his mother. "She used to tell me, 'You have all these punchlines and no hooks, can you write a song for me, please?' "
He learned that lesson and eventually released his first mix tape, "Everything Real Life," in 2011, sounding much like the wave of rappers who cropped up in the wake of Atlanta trap star Waka Flocka Flame. His first brush with fame happened the next year, when, he says, "Wale threw an alley-oop" and had him rap on the "Folarin" album cut "Georgetown Press." On one verse, Lightshow teased his ambitions: "Shout out to Georgetown, but I won't get trapped in the District, nah."
To do that, he would do what everyone from 50 Cent to Lil Wayne to Wale had done: start releasing mix tapes. A steady stream followed, including beat-borrowing tapes (the contemporary version of that CD-tape trick), a 2014 mix tape hosted by Miami tastemaker DJ Khaled and all-original tapes called "Life Sentence." The "Life Sentence" series puts a positive spin on the long jail sentences his friends have gotten.
"Everybody has their own life sentence, something that they're dedicated to and motivates them," he explains. "I'm trying to bridge a gap between people who don't come where I come from."
The cover of "Life Sentence 3," his best artistic statement to date, is a metaphor for his life: It's a courtroom illustration, with Lightshow as both an orange-jumpsuited defendant and as a jersey-clad lawyer. It represents his two sides — the one who has been arrested for "dumb stuff" (including a few gun and drug charges) and the one who knows better.
"I needed to make a decision on what type of life I want to live," the rapper says. "A street life that we know how it ends, or do I want to go and shoot for something I won't be able to attain but at least I shot for it?"
"Life Sentence 3" got Lightshow closer to his goals, but he's not quite there yet. He has high hopes for his next project, called "Kalorama Heights" after the tony D.C. neighborhood where the Obamas reside. In that way, Lightshow has evolved from the 21-year-old on a Wale song who didn't want to get "trapped" in the District.
"I don't gotta go to Beverly Hills, I can be right in my city," he says. "If it's good enough for Obama, it's good enough for me."
Friday at the Fillmore, 8656 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Show starts at 8 p.m. 301-960-9999. fillmoresilverspring.com. $10-$30.