Record of the Week: Mike Floss’s ‘Contraband’ EP

It can be a tricky thing, making rap music with an explicit message, as easy as it is to come off like someone lecturing from above, or to sacrifice style for the sake of sermonizing. Mike Floss, a Nashville native and figurehead for self-directed rap ambition in the city for at least a decade now, has been peppering his bars with conscious couplets all along, but on his new Contraband EP, he takes especially direct aim at an oppressive reality: how the criminal justice system targets Black citizens. And he hits his mark at what feels like intimately close range, removing any sense of distance between himself and his subject matter. That’s what gives it emotional might.

The project reflects Floss’s independent ethic. He utilized striving, young producers from Nashville and the surrounding region, including Enxgmaa — one of $avvy’s frequent collaborators — Unhappy Hank and Enrique1x, and cut his own vocals at home. “I don’t like recording in professional studios,” Floss explained, “unless I’m really going for a perfect-sounding song. But for something like Contraband, I want as much grit and rawness as possible.”

Equally central to the creation of the EP was the fact that it grew out of Floss’s organizational affiliations, as a leader of the Black Nashville Assembly and an artist-in-residence with the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit the Civil Rights Corps. He summarizes the latter as “an organization that is fighting for prison reform and reform as a means to abolition.”

“So I think the project is really one that pushed me creatively,” he goes on. “You know, trying to make something like as serious as abolition sound cool is not an easy thing to do.”

Floss has long been known as a confident technician, and a thinking one; you can often feel the wheels turning in his mind. Ordinarily, his delivery is crisp, cool-headed and measured. That’s his baseline on this song cycle too, only he varies his tone in ways that deepen the tracks’ impact and encompass a rich range of experience and response. During “Giant,” he sounds defiantly buoyant, eager to share room with a sample of an impassioned speech that community leader Jamel Campbell-Gooch gave to city council; during “Drowning,” he’s a man whose stoicism has been fractured by the high financial and psychological costs of incarceration, reaching out to those who care as he sinks near despair; during the final track, “Together,” his spoken word-style delivery swells with righteous, insistent purpose.

Floss’s writing approach helps his lessons land. He gives little room to abstract ideas or dense language, favoring conversational clarity in his rhymes. “You’re going to hear some stuff that you may want to rewind and go back, and I slip some little things in here and there,” he says. “But for the most part, I just wanted it to be digestible on first listen.”

At its most arresting, his narration is personalized and particular, deeply knowledgeable even when it’s not autobiographical, a seamless stitching together of details he’s lived and those he’s witnessed and imagined with empathetic vigor. He shouts out Black students at Pearl-Cohn High, the public school he attended, who chafe against an education system that doesn’t serve them as well as it could, and reflects on his reputation and aspirations as an artist, his scarred memories of encountering police and his complicated pride toward his city. Over the course of six tracks, the longest of them just slightly over three minutes in length, he steers listeners’ attention from terrible realizations through bravado, profound lament and the gathering of strength, strategy and solidarity.

Floss chose the EP’s title after learning that formerly enslaved people who escaped behind Union lines during the Civil War, in Tennessee and elsewhere, were referred to as human “contraband.” What he’s communicating through this music could itself be considered a kind of contraband, he allows: “I don’t know how far this project is going to go or how many people will hear it, but it’s a lot of stuff I’m saying in there that could become a little tricky for your daily comfort living in the city. So I definitely view it as something that’s volatile in that way, but I’m OK with that.”

*Look and listen for a feature on Mike Floss at the end of the week