DEC. 1 | AT THE LISTENING PARTY
Surrounded by onlookers, entourage and expectations, Shy Glizzy closes his eyes and dances to the sound of his own voice. As the music gets louder, he begins to feel lighter, as if gravity is loosening its grip.
“When that music comes on, I just block everything around me out,” he explains later. “It’s all music. It gives me a different feeling. Like high school love.”
Tonight, the D.C. rapper is unveiling his latest mixtape at a downtown recording studio for a klatch of DJs and journalists eager to hear him rhyme about his against-the-odds fame (“Celebration”), his out-the-hood mobility (“Anywhere”) and his all-too-real mortality (“Funeral”). Taking occasional swigs from a bottle of champagne, he dances through the entire tracklist.
The mixtape’s title, “ Law 3: Now or Never ,” suggests that this is an especially consequential moment in Shy’s young career. In truth, just about every moment is.
Shifting tastes, expiring metrics and toppling hierarchies have destabilized today’s rap game, making it tricky to tell who’s blowing up, who’s falling off and who’s just quietly keeping on. Tomorrow remains up for grabs.
And while he’s only a few days away from turning 22, Shy still holds the venerable belief that rappers should be truthful about where they come from and what they’ve done there — which means it’s his responsibility to transpose the troubled childhood he spent in the streets of Southeast Washington into music.
The hard part is making that story — one that’s sadly common in rap, and in America — sound like it’s entirely his own.
“At 13 years old, I was doing grown-man things, so I know who I am, and I’m telling people who I am,” Shy says after the party. “I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
JAN. 31 | IN CONCERT
The distance between the greenroom and the stage isn’t all that far. But when you’re surrounded by four dozen friends from a neighborhood that no one thought they’d ever escape, every footstep in the procession becomes charged with ceremonial electricity.
It’s Saturday night at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, a venue so densely packed with bodies and anticipation that the air feels carbonated. When Shy and his oversize entourage finally spill out onto the nightclub stage, the capacity crowd finds ways to cram a little closer. His charisma is radioactive. The dance floor turns into a trampoline. Girls in the front row compete for his attention by doing unbelievable things with their mouths.
Somehow, the energy spikes deep in the set when six magic words finally pounce from the speakers: “Swish! I’m ballin’! I’m so awesome!”
It’s the affirmational hook of “Awwsome,” a sensational mixtape anthem that’s blossomed into Shy’s trademark hit, and now the entire room is shouting along. Having recently peaked at No. 30 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop airplay chart, “Awwsome” may never sound more riveting — or more true — than it does at this moment.
But eventually the speakers go quiet, the lights go up and Shy leads his crew back downstairs to his overcrowded dressing room. Was this the best concert he’s ever played?
“Yeaaah,” he says, bending the word into the shape of his grin. Then he catches himself, shrugs and slumps. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
He’s not ready to smile until every night feels like this.
FEB. 26 | IN THE STUDIO
He comes here to work, but also to think.
“If I don’t get in the studio, I don’t have no therapy,” Shy says softly, settling in for a session at House recording studios in Hyattsville. “I’d be punching holes in the walls. It’s my only relief.”
Because he approaches rap music as a diaristic practice, the recording studio isn’t just a place to conjure his next hit. It’s a place to organize his memories.
And he remembers pain. Born Marquis Amonte King at Greater Southeast Community Hospital on December 12, 1992, he grew up poor on 37th Street Southeast, just north of Fort Dupont Park, with his mother, his grandmother and his younger brother (who also raps under the name 3 Glizzy). His father was shot and killed before Shy’s first birthday, an event Shy obviously doesn’t remember, but it still “hurt in every way.”
He remembers music, too. When he was 8 or so, he and a handful of friends won a talent show at the Benning Stoddert Recreation Center for their rendition of “Overnight Scenario” by local go-go legends Rare Essence.
“I don’t know rap. I can’t tell you a Tupac song,” Shy says. “But you put on some go-go and I’ll know it word-for-word. That’s why I feel like I got my own sound — or a D.C. sound. It was created right here. I didn’t want to become a rapper because of Lil Wayne or Master P.”
But throughout his childhood, Shy ultimately remembers trouble. “I done sold drugs, I done robbed people,” he says.“Growing up, I was hanging out with all the big boys. The streets ain’t got no age limits, no feelings. . . . I was never interested in doing stuff that kids would do.”
At age 12, he wandered into a neighborhood “tattoo party” and convinced whoever was toting the ink gun to give him a shooting star just beneath his right eye. Fearing his punishment, he didn’t come home that night.
At 14, he says he was arrested for petty larceny and spent his high school years in and out of juvenile detention. At the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center in Rockville, he says, he starting reading the Koran, then the daily newspaper, then stacks of biographies. After “a lot of self-educating,” he started writing rap lyrics.
He was back on 37th Street before he turned 17 and eventually earned his GED, but went on to face charges for drug possession, gun possession and theft, according to public records.
By 2011, it was time for him to get serious about his career, and he dropped his first mixtape under the name Shy Glizzy — “Shy” after the nickname his friends had given him, mistaking his gentle cool for timidity; “Glizzy” as slang for a Glock.
And now, while he’s less than forthcoming about where he currently resides — “I lay my head in a nice place,” he says — Shy essentially spends his workweek in studios like this one, improvising lyrics behind a microphone, finding new ways to narrate his life.
He says the memories press hard on his mind, which means the words usually come to him with little effort. And it’s clear that he’s long figured out how to make the high, brash timber of his voice sound utterly tenacious.
In rap music, booming baritones used to convey a sense of authority, but today, a sharp voice as confident as Shy’s signals emotional honesty. Ultimately, it’s the voice of someone being himself.
“How do you get away from that voice?” he asks, perhaps just to listen to the sound of the question.
MARCH 21 | ON THE ROAD
He’s in the bull’s-eye of Texas, and he isn’t alone. Hundreds of rappers have swarmed Austin for this year’s South by Southwest music festival, each hoping to sip from the holy chalice of hype.
Shy is here to win new fans and fickle journalists, but he won’t be speaking to many of them. He’s still sore over a December interview with Complex Magazine in which he felt his comments about D.C.’s rap scene were taken out of context. (“It was ridiculous,” Shy said in a previous conversation. “They switch your words up.”)
Earlier in the week, he performed a festival showcase for 300 Entertainment, a smart new record label spearheaded by industry moguls Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles. But instead of inking a record contract with 300, Shy currently has a production and development deal with the label that allows him to release his music whenever he sees fit. When asked, 300 steps in to help with publicity, radio push and other services.
“Shy doesn’t want to put out records, he wants to create movements,” Liles says weeks later over the telephone from New York, speaking in platitudes that still manage to underscore the incredible savvy of 300.
Because these days, most rappers are capable of building their reputations by releasing their own mixtapes online. Instead of locking these artists into momentum-shunting record deals, 300 gives them access to major-label publicity resources, allowing them to set the pace of their own careers. For Shy, the goal is to chart an ascent so perfectly slow and steady that it feels like longevity.
Tonight, he’s making his final festival appearance on a bill that includes Dej Loaf, Travis Scott and fellow 300-signee Young Thug. And while none of these rappers’ songs will sound as powerful pouring off the stage as “Awwsome” does, Shy doesn’t quite steal the show.
He’ll leave Texas with a little more buzz than he showed up with, as if that were the plan all along.
APRIL 16 | ON THE BLOCK
When you scale the cul-de-sac that cleaves through the Stoddert Terrace public housing complex in Southeast Washington, it’s as if you’ve reached city’s summit. Down below, you can see the aging curves of RFK Stadium, the majesty of the Mall, the blue-brown sparkle of the Anacostia River. It’s a dazzling and disorienting view. Up here, you grow up with nothing while watching over everything.
The neighborhood clique has gathered at the dead-end of 37th Place, their eyes stuck to the cement as they roll dice in the afternoon sun. Shy’s tour bus is scheduled to arrive around the corner on 37th Street in a few hours and some of his friends have shown up early, hoping to score a seat for tonight’s late-night one-off concert in Rhode Island. “Everybody wants to get picked,” Benny Tesfalidet, Shy’s manager, says under his breath. “It’s like the draft.”
Suddenly, the whispering April breeze is punctuated with gunfire — the pop-pop-pop of a drive-by shooting down the hill on Ridge Road, less than 500 feet away. Shy’s friends respond to the gunshots as if they were raindrops. Some go indoors for a little while. Others barely budge.
An hour later — after the two victims of the shooting have been taken off to the hospital with nonfatal wounds — it’s as if this jarring burst of violence had never even happened. Kids glide down the sidewalk on their Razor scooters, and when the sun gets too hot, everyone moves across the street beneath the shade of an apartment building with plywood covering its windows.
Shy finally rolls up in a luxury sedan, hops out and greets his squad with ritual handshakes and big smiles. There’s an unspoken relief to this reunion. On a street where it’s perfectly normal for bullets to fly at 3:30 in the afternoon, everyone is still alive.
And while waves of gentrification have drastically transformed large swaths of the District in recent years, Shy knows that the fading public image of two separate and unequal Washingtons is still very much a reality.
“Restaurants, stores — we don’t have that on my side of town,” he says, tugging at his beard. “They gonna break into the barbershop if they gettin’ too much business in my hood.”
In a few hours, he’ll step out of his hood and onto a bus that will whisk him off to a nightclub more than 400 miles away. There, he’ll rap about this deadly little tract of the nation’s capital — and about how he’s still surviving it.
MAY 9 | WITH THE PEOPLE
Shy likes to go shopping when he’s stressed, but right now he’s on the clock. The rapper and his entourage are here at DTLR, the popular sportswear retailer on Minnesota Avenue SE, for a meet-and-greet with hundreds of young fans.
He’s promoting a new remix of “Funeral,” which includes a hoarse cameo from the Atlanta rap hero Jeezy and a chorus in which Shy imagines the glamorous life and the street life colliding atop his burial plot. “It’s gon’ be some superstars at my funeral,” he raps. “You might get your ass robbed at my funeral.”
The song plays on a loop, creating a surreal scene as children silently queue up to pay their respects to a living, breathing rap star. When they finally reach the table where Shy is autographing 8x10 publicity photos, they stoically pose for iPhone snapshots alongside their idol, suppressing giddy smiles until after they’ve heard the camera click.
It isn’t an overwhelming crowd, but Shy says the momentum of the past six months has felt just right. He’s gearing up to release a new mixtape with his crew of understudies, Glizzy Gang, and many of his fans are wondering if the recently announced title of Kanye West’s forthcoming album, “Swish,” is a nod to the lyrics from “Awwsome.”
Based on the security presence at DTLR, passers-by might wonder if Shy is a Kanye-level superstar himself. During the event, numerous MPD officers monitor the sales floor and the parking lot — protecting, serving and perhaps even casually surveilling. As the event winds down, one lieutenant asks a Washington Post photographer if he could have copies of the photos she was snapping. (An MPD spokesman said he was unable to speak to the intentions of the lieutenant in question, who is currently on leave.)
Were Shy and his friends being protected? Or were they being watched?
They exit hastily through the back door, pile into a mini-fleet of sports cars and SUVs and peel out of the lot, speeding off to a future where they hopefully won’t have to wonder.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.