A Percolator of Bay Area Hip-Hop Boils Over With Ambition

At 26, the Pinole-bred rapper and producer P-Lo is releasing his second official album and embarking on tour in June. (Photo: Dan Franco)

On a recent Sunday evening, P-Lo’s friends and fans crowd into a small Tenderloin art gallery for the listening party for his upcoming album, More Than Anything. This also happens to be the rapper and producer’s 26th birthday, but he’d probably be in just as good a mood even if it wasn’t.

More Than Anything means a lot of different things. I have this certain belief in myself that I want to show through my music,” P-Lo announces, beaming, as everyone gathers to hear his new project, released independently on May 12. “And through my music, I want people to feel the same way I feel about myself as themselves.”

Cal-A, the event’s DJ and one of P-Lo’s co-producers on the album, hits play on the opening track. Girls take selfies in front of a giant print-out of the More Than Anything album cover, which features P-Lo’s gold-toothed grin in front of a soft, beige background. Bay Area hip-hop celebs like Iamsu and Dave Steezy mingle with other artists in the room; Rexx Life Raj, who's embarking on a tour with P-Lo in June, walks in with an adorable French bulldog. P-Lo introduces each song emphatically on the mic, and then everyone cheers him on as he dances earnestly to his own music.

P-Lo, aka Paolo Rodriguez, first gained recognition as the producer of Yo Gotti’s “Act Right” and Wiz Khalifa’s “Bout Me.” A Pinole native, he’s made countless beats for fellow members of HBK Gang, including Iamsu, Sage the Gemini, and Kool John. When people talk about the “post-hyphy” sound of the contemporary Bay Area rap scene, they’re likely referring to his work, which evolves the sparse synths and hard-hitting drums of the 2000s into something sleeker and more radio-friendly. Even though his reputation as a prolific slap-maker precedes him, he also has a strong resume as a rapper, with regional hits like “Going to Work” and “Light This B-tch Up.”

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But for the past year and a half, P-Lo says, he’s been thinking seriously about how he can elevate himself as an artist rather than a producer. More Than Anything is the second chapter of a three-part autobiographical album series, following last year’s Before Anything. And with this latest project especially, he sought to reveal more of himself to his fans while expanding his sonic range.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of things, but this is kind of my first offering,” he says. “I’ve had mixtapes before, but I haven’t taken them as seriously as I took this one. I haven’t applied as much effort and planning and mind-power [as I did] to get this to where it’s at.”

Part of that process is branding. And indeed, looking around the gallery at the listening party, you can tell he’s honed in on a new, more refined visual aesthetic. Portraits of P-Lo by Mancy Gant, the photographer behind Kamaiyah’s A Good Night in the Ghetto album cover, hang on the wall. A couple of them are out of focus; in one, P-Lo wears an expression of simultaneous pleasure and pain as a hand pulls his hair. It’s vulnerable and intimate, suggesting that P-Lo’s evolving past the party-boy persona he cultivated on past projects.

P-Lo. (Dan Franco)

“The past year, I’ve been learning about myself and, more than anything, it’s been a growing process for me as an artist, as a human, and as a business,” he says. “I’ve been in the music business for some years now, just being on the producer side, you know what I’m sayin’. So I’ve been able to soak in a lot of game and apply that game to what I want to be.”

Throughout More Than Anything, P-Lo meditates almost obsessively on what it takes to become successful. Unlike his last major project (Moovie!, with Kool John) he doesn’t strive to project the image of a rockstar lifestyle. Instead, he gets introspective, opening up about his ups and downs.

“That’s something a lot of people aren’t able to see -- well, not yet, at least,” he says, of his honest, more self-reflective lyrics. “People love having fun, but as I’ve matured there’s different layers of myself that I want to show, and stay true to myself. And I think — I know — that’s what I did [on this record], because everything really felt natural.”

The beats are more varied on More Than Anything, too. There are soulful jams with hints of tropical house and R&B; songs for cruising around in the whip and songs for dancing.

Still, despite branching out, P-Lo hasn’t abandoned his hyphy roots. At the listening party, the energy in the room goes up a notch when Cal-A plays “Put Me On Something,” the lead single from More Than Anything, which features E-40. The attendees get less self-conscious. Some people start gigging, others pull out cellphones and take goofy Snaps with their friends. That optimism and confidence P-Lo alludes to throughout our interview courses through the room.

“Every morning, I feel inspired and really excited about life,” he tells me later. “I want people to feel that.”

Q.Logo.Break

P-Lo's next Bay Area show is July 7 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. Tickets ($25 and up) and more info here.

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