Shanny, the model from Butter Magazine, is struggling to balance on a stool fashioned out of a stack of Heineken cases. She pats her glossy, blue-black curls with her French-manicured talons and tosses impatient glances around the liquor store's stockroom. Clearly, she expected more from the Popper's headquarters.
Shanny met the Popper, whose real name is Walter Lee Edwin, earlier in the day. As evidenced by her tight skirt and heels, no one told her that she'd be hanging out in this smelly room at Country View Market, a liquor store on 58th Street and Swope Parkway. (Helping a rapper plan the wardrobe for his upcoming music video should be a glamorous task, right?) Meanwhile, the Popper wears basketball shoes, gray sweatpants and an oversized white T-shirt.
The Popper is 37 years old. In rap years, that makes him a dinosaur. But he's not about to relinquish his bones to some museum's dusty display case.
He had considered hanging it up, focusing on fatherhood and fading into rap's fuzzy memory. But a few months ago, the Popper reunited with an old friend who was recently released from prison. "'I been locked up nine years, and I been out six months, and you ain't done nothin','" the Popper says, quoting his homeboy. "He said, 'Do your rap. The whole 'hood got your back on anything street-related. Don't worry about no funk or nothin'. Just say what you wanna say, go in and do your thing.'"
Newly inspired, the Popper gave himself a deadline: 10 days, 10 songs. Those 10 songs, backed by industry tracks, wound up on a mixtape called Me, Myself & I, and 30,000 free copies were passed out in clubs, recording studios and alleyways, and on the street. The response, the Popper says, has been deafening.
"I'm not like I was in the '90s: rap or die, rap or die, rap or die," he says. He's squatting on a case of malt liquor and leaning against a rack of Kools. "But the streets evidently have delegated me as one of the people representing Kansas City. That mixtape — they said it was the best mixtape out in a long time, one of the greatest. This ain't me sayin' it. Other people sayin' it. And so I said I might as well do the music."
The Popper's rap career dates back to 1996, when he and the rap collective Veteran Click debuted with Veteran's Day. He has since put out a steady stream of mixtapes, albums and collaborations, with a fallow period after 2009's You Ain't Bout Shit.
The Popper's bigger hits have always been party songs, like 2005's "I Do." But on the underground tracks, which he feels are more genuine, he raps about real life in the streets.
He has recorded a new album to add to his beefy discography: For the MO, which arrives April 19. The Popper recruited heavy hitters — KC legend Tech N9ne and Ron Ron — for the album's title track and single. (Ron Ron is a youngster by comparison, but his every move makes waves in the scene.)
"I just wanted to put out something right before the summer hit," the Popper says, "something that people would listen to, that would make people go back to the lab and produce better music than they were producing. Motivate 'em. Yep, yep, yep."
As the Popper recounts this, he's briefly distracted by a heavy sigh.
"Aw," he says. From his tone, one would think that his huffy model companion had vanished and been replaced by an adorable puppy. But Shanny is still here, with her attitude in full effect. "She making me feel bad now," the Popper says. "You wanna leave?"
A lip smack. "That's up to you."
"Naw, but you're kinda scaring me now," the Popper laughs, a deep, throaty sound. "Like, you gonna be real mad." His voice gets high as he imagines Shanny recounting her day: Popper's so fuckin' lame. He had me come pick him up, and he couldn't even have his car to get the stuff for our video shoot, and when Tech does video shoots he pays for everything.
He switches back to his own voice. "Well, I'm ballin' on a budget. You OK? OK. As we proceed!"
The Popper has some star power lined up for the weekend's video shoot. In addition to Tech and Ron Ron, he's got Bobb'e J. Thompson, the 15-year-old actor from Kansas City who co-starred in 2008's Role Models alongside Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott. Thompson now plays a major role in Tyler Perry's TV series House of Payne.
In the "For the MO" video, Thompson is cast as a bad kid at Lincoln Preparatory Academy. (The Popper is an alumnus.) The Popper plays a security guard; Tech N9ne is the principal; and Ron Ron is a substitute teacher, Mr. Know-It-All.
Asked what the song is about, the Popper launches into an a cappella portion from his verse: KC I love it, plus I hate it, too/The streets is a jungle, I'm happy that I made it through/Flawless MC on the mic, yeah, I ate a few/Got a universal mouthpiece that y'all relatin' to.
"It's kind of an anthem song," he says. "One of my dudes from Kansas heard it. He said, 'You can't always be my age and be rappin', but this single proved that they can't judge by age; they gotta judge by your mouth.' It's not age; it's mental mind state."
By now, Shanny's glare has become a 1,000-watt soul scorcher. The Popper straightens up slowly, ironing out wrinkles in his sweatpants with his hands. "I'm proud of you," he says to the model, as if he's talking to a 5-year-old. "You're not usually this patient, huh?"
Shanny whips a feathery wisp of hair behind her ear, looking at him blankly. "I mean," she says, "why would I have to be?"