Sean Hunt looks relaxed. On a recent chilly midafternoon, he sits at a window booth in Lawrence's Replay Lounge and flips through a newspaper. Known to most as the rapper Approach, he wears a black crewneck sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo for Maryland rapper Logic.
Hunt speaks with an easiness about him. His warm brown eyes make his unfaltering gaze appear soft and friendly. Dimples and a silver nose ring give him a look of youthfulness that's less than his 35 years.
Age is on Hunt's mind a lot these days. The hip-hop world, he says, is not particularly generous when it comes to older artists.
"Rock-and-roll musicians are allowed to have careers until they're 80 or 90," Hunt says. "But in hip-hop, if you're not in the 16-to-25 age range, it's like you should be done with it. But this music is only 36 years old or so. I feel like when you write words or play music, the older you get, the better you should be at it."
In October, Hunt released Make-Out with Violence, his most ambitious full-length album to date. The 16-track beast of a project runs more than an hour in length. Of the last nine albums Hunt has made, Violence is the first on which he has created all of the music on his own.
"My last eight albums have been me and another producer — someone handling the music, me handling the vocal work, so I could focus on the song and the structure," Hunt says. "But I wanted to start engineering and recording my own material, which gives you more control. I wanted to do it all the way through, and I feel like I owe it to the people that have stuck with me to become a more well-rounded artist."
Hunt spent nearly five years working on Violence, starting in 2008, when he was living in San Francisco, and continuing when he relocated back to Lawrence in 2011. It took a homecoming for Hunt to find his groove. The result is stunning. Violence is markedly different from any of Hunt's previous releases, blending electronic beats that evoke mid-1990s trends (listen for the electric organ on "Parade") with smooth, undeniable R&B hooks.
"The music on there is a lot more soulful, and I still wanted to play with some of the electronic stuff I'd discovered," Hunt says. "I had to go through a couple years of knocking my influences out of my head and discover my own sound. The influences are there — I'm paying homage to them — but it's still me presenting me, giving the nod to the music that I loved."
Hunt adds that Violence is far more honest than anything he did before.
"I'm kind of known as a high-energy guy and a party groover," he says. "But I really wanted to tackle some more personal issues here: some of the experiences I'd had, some of the relationships I was putting to rest when I moved [back from San Francisco], and some relationships I was finding again when I returned."
Hunt pauses and laughs a little: "It took me about four years for me to get comfortable with the idea of what I was actually doing."
Violence hasn't been out two months, and Hunt is already piecing together an elaborate and aggressive plan for 2014 — a big to-do list filled with boxes for self-improvement and more releases.
"For the next year, we're going to be working this record," Hunt says. "There are nine videos that are going to drop. This summer, we'll have a documentary that shows the tours and the stuff that comes after the release, because I think a lot of the time we miss that part in music.
"I wanted to do a couple projects to show that I am my own label, and this is what it takes," he continues. "I'm showing people the day-to-day, from a blue-collar perspective, what it is to subsist. I want to show the many levels of how it works. Making music and being a superstar is like going to the NBA: Only a select few make it there, and it takes a lot of different things for that to happen. But there's a lot of room to do something you love and be able to do it for a long time and make money at it and still live a good life."
Since the release of his first mixtape in 1999, Hunt has put out an overwhelming amount of material and founded Lawrence music label Datura Records with Brent Tactic. (The label celebrated 10 years in 2012.) If stardom came knocking, he says he probably wouldn't say no. But that has never been a priority for him. His desires run deeper than fame and fortune.
"My ultimate goal is, in the next five or six years is, to start nurturing new talent," Hunt says. "I really want to show people how to do this for themselves, if that's what they really want. I want to give some insight into what it really takes — what you think you want to do when you're 18 and then what it looks like when you're 35. That's why it was important for me to step back in to making the music, because that provided a new hunger for me."