It's barely midmorning on a Sunday, but Stik Figa is all smiles and charisma, his eyes bright and alert behind thick-rimmed glasses.
He slides into a booth at RecordBar, outfitted in a Cowboy Indian Bear T-shirt, and grins as he orders breakfast: French toast, eggs with extra cheese and salsa. He clasps his hands in front of him and leans forward, ready to talk about his remarkable new album, City Under the City.
The Memphis-born Figa has for years been a fixture in the local rap community, one of the scene's busiest players. City Under the City is his eighth album since he started rapping six years ago. By now, he knows that he could probably go further if he relocated to a coast. But the Midwest, he says, is a large part of his art.
City Under the City (out October 15 through Mello Music Group) nods to this area's thriving but still very underground hip-hop scene, but it's also a giant step outside it. To make the album, Figa collaborated with producer L'Orange, a rising talent out of North Carolina — "an instrumental producer more often," Figa says, who "generally doesn't work with rappers." The producer, known mostly for his "film-noir production style" (as Figa puts it), stacks Figa's raps against blaring horns and steamy jazz.
"He had more of a linear idea of how this record was supposed to play out than I did," the rapper adds. "It was kind of out of my comfort zone — a lot out of my comfort zone. It pushed me to look beyond."
City Under the City places Figa on the precipice of a breakthrough. The underground hip-hop world is fluttering with excitement over his collaboration with L'Orange, and the duo's tracks on SoundCloud are pushing well past 10,000 plays (a mark that Figa calls a "personal best"). The album recalls that pivotal moment in underground rap when MF Doom and Madlib released their Madvillainy nearly a decade ago. It doesn't sound like anything Figa has put out before, and he isn't sure yet how he'll perform tracks off the album live.
"That's kinda the thing about this record," he says. "I think there are some tracks on there that I will be able to perform because I like them a lot. But I think, for the most part, it's a record that is just to be played. It's to be experienced, to be immersed in. I feel like I would be cheating the record if I tried to play it live, and L'Orange would have to be here, and it would all be a different thing. There are a few songs I can do, some tight raps, some 80-million-bar shit, but we'll see."
The food arrives, and Figa dumps syrup all over his French toast. He takes a bite and eases back and sighs. But he's not about to lose his train of thought; in conversation, Figa leaves no dangling tangents.
Figa refers to himself more readily as a writer than as a rapper — a small but significant distinction — so his one-on-one style isn't a shock. And on City, one of the things he's doing as a writer is telling a personal story.
"Kansas City is the town of division — of all sorts of division," he says. "Divisions within divisions. Gangs within gangs. It's all fractured. With music, I'm able to create a separate world for myself. When I was younger, dealing with people who were gangbanging and doing all type of dumb shit ... it [music] is about being able to transcend that. Not in some large way — that could be just getting a job at a car-repair shop, you know what I mean? Just being able to navigate that, do something different. ... That ended up being the whole theme or the idea."
On "Monochrome," the album's second single, Figa talks about growing up with greater ambitions. It's a secret-weapon kind of track: Figa comes out sly, delivering lines at a pace you can follow, stacking his lyrics for maximum impact. What you see is what you get, kinda like a Rorschach, he raps. The staggered laugh that comes after tells you Figa knows that life, like a Rorschach inkblot, isn't a get-what-you-see affair.
Figa is first a lyricist, one who takes calculated risks with words to achieve a certain effect, but his medium remains the studio.
"My process always starts with the beat, the production," he says. "And then I freestyle — I freestyle everything before I put anything on paper. I count the freestyle as the first draft. The paper is the second draft. And even then, though, the notes, they're not like raps — I mean, they're raps. They rhyme, and they're there. But the third draft is in the proof."
He goes on: "Emotionally, if I'm connected to the words a certain way and differently, I may say it different than what I wrote on paper. That's how I write records. I keep an emotional mistake, if it ends up being a grammatical or an enunciation thing. I feel like the emotion is more important than the words, in a way."
For Figa, the emotion and the words together are what make City true to his own experiences. "My life is just normal," he says. "Topeka is provincial. I come from that. I go to the barbershop. I go to the neighborhood. I go to the East Side of town to get Mexican food because that's where it's authentic. I'm checking on my nephews, making sure they're staying out of trouble. That's what I'm doing, so that's where the art comes from.
"I think it's a fortunate position," he adds, "because I actually can tell those stories from a real place. I haven't amassed a large amount of money or fame, so it's all very real and raw. I'm not talking secondhand at this point. I'm in the mix."