Craig Smith will not wait.
At the ripe age of 18, the local rapper scurried off to Atlanta — hip-hop's Motown — hoping to be discovered. But he wasn't old enough to get into any of the clubs. Now Smith is 21, married and making music in Kansas City. Sometimes he's so eager to hear feedback on a new track that he posts it online, even if it's not quite finished. Last month, he dropped a free, downloadable mixtape. It's called Awesome.
"It's almost the perfect way to say, 'My music's better than yours,'" Smith says.
If that sounds unbearably cocky, then you already understand why Smith is a somewhat controversial figure in the local hip-hop scene. Smith, an unabashed admirer of Kanye West, sees a clear parallel between himself and the famously outspoken star. But Craig Smith is not an asshole. In person, the lanky lyricist is exceedingly polite. He has an open, boyish face and hands that can easily palm a basketball.
Smith went to grade school with Greg Henry (better known as Greg Enemy), another young talent on the local hip-hop circuit. They recorded together in high school, and both chose work over higher education once they graduated. Swing shifts at mundane jobs help motivate Smith to find time for his music.
"It's kind of like a day-to-day suffering," Smith says, "clocking in, thinking, What else could I be doing? You always start a new job with the best intentions, but something's always tugging on you. It makes the music better, I think. Every time I've had a job, I've released a project."
When Smith was working on the tracks for Awesome, he worked for Owens Corning, bagging fiberglass insulation. Getting laid off was a relief, he says. But with time on his hands, he now finds himself obsessively checking reactions to his mixtape online.
"I'm so pissed at how the downloads are going right now," Smith says. "I have to say, 'Dude, you just released it. You're not Tech N9ne. You're not Jay-Z. You're Craig Smith. You're not going to get a thousand downloads in two hours.'"
Smith made most of the beats himself for Awesome's 15 tracks. He included samples from Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne and used several instrumentals by the Swedish producer T-Riple, whom Smith met through MySpace. "It's easy to tell which ones he made because they sound like you're in the middle of a video game," Smith says.
But Smith's voice is Awesome's best asset. Its weighty, bass-intensive heft offers a welcome break from the reedy whine of rappers such as Drake and Lil Wayne. And there's no doubt that he possesses a rapper's most essential skill: the ability to make anything he says sound cool. But as his mixtape's title makes evident, Smith finds it easier to tell — rather than show — his self-described awesomeness. The chorus on "Look at Me Now" repeats: I am so awesome. More than one verse displays the anvil-sized chip on his shoulder: I told people my plans and they laughed/That's why I get an attitude when they ask/This town ain't the place for rock stars.
Smith feels blacklisted from hip-hop's backpacker circles, he says, because he refuses to suck up to older or better known artists in order to book performances. Kansas City suffers from a classic syndrome: too many rappers, not enough fans. So Smith takes it personally when he sees an artist onstage who, in his opinion, didn't get there on talent alone.
In July 2009, Smith let loose his frustrations on a forum thread at hiphopkc.com. "Don't act like you can't come to my show because I'm not your homeboy or because I'm not in a crew," he wrote. "My point in that is to say, I'm throwing a show on Saturday, I want people to come, and to the people who think, Oh, it's a Craig Smith show... he's not in my clique or crew so I'm not going (EVEN THOUGH YOU NIGGAS KNOW MY NAME) — Stop actin brand new."
The responses to Smith's rant went on for four pages. Some people agreed with him. Others have given him a chilly reception ever since. "I didn't get shows before because I wasn't your best friend," Smith says. "Now I don't get shows because I went off on you about it."
But Smith is getting shows now. A few weeks ago, he performed at the Riot Room with a rock band called Nature Vs. He'll be there again as one of 13 acts in a show April 2 called Underground Takeover.
Smith came off like a brat online, but he's just a nice guy who'd prefer to spend an evening watching romantic comedies with his wife than playing politics in a beer-drenched club. His ambition gets mistaken for ego, his impatience for entitlement.
"People think I'm being immature, but in reality, I'm just seeking," Smith says. "If they don't see my vision, what I'm going for and how fast I want it to come about, they think I'm being naïve. But Kansas City is a conservative place. Maybe I'm not going too fast. Maybe everyone else is just going too slow."
He pauses and nods as if the thought came with a beat attached. Then his face splits into a grin.
"Nah," he says. "I'm impatient."