“All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” - James Baldwin
“Smothered in contradiction / listen as I explain / the reason that I soak and bathe inside the pain.” - FinaL OutlaW; “Pessimist”
FinaL OutlaW is sick. Lyrically to most. But today, he is fighting a cold.
Dressed in his customary black attire - backwards black fitted hat, loose fitting black-T hanging underneath his black leather jacket, dark jeans, black Timbs - his eyes move constantly as if he is in perpetual thought. Every statement released from his mouth is preceded by a noticeable pause, then, almost on cue, a subsequent sniffle. He speaks in parables as if each of his life’s experiences has undergone its own thorough scientific analysis complete with re-drawn hypothesis‘ and foregone conclusions. And it is those experiences - tragic, triumphant, and everything in between - that shapes James Johnson the person.
It is those same experiences that define FinaL OutlaW the artist.
As we stroll through Manhattan’s Union Square - a symbol of late nineties economic prosperity - looking for a place to park amongst the street performers, independent artists, housewives less day jobs, and NYU students coveting the free wifi, FinaL OutlaW describes his El Salvadorian upbringing in Uptown’s (predominantly Dominican) Dyckman neighborhood. Ingrained at an early age, through perhaps the bleakest window possible, was the value and necessity of commitment.
“I have one brother and one sister. My parents were together. I don’t want to put their business out, but there were a lot of things that didn’t work out so...Lets just say that loyalty was broken a few times. And I did witness some domestic violence. To the point that at one point I was accidentally sprayed in the face with mace. But I don’t hold any grudges, man. I love my parents. I think that beyond the mistakes that they made with each other, they realized that they had a grand responsibility of staying together. So, because you know obviously they had kids. And despite the mistakes and violence that I’ve seen between them - and the disloyalty - they remained together. And thats symbolic in my mind because they committed to one decision and they stayed there. My dad has always been there to support us.”
FinaL OutlaW’s upbringing is less unique than it is common where he’s from - and that story and others like it provides the angst and passion behind some of his most potent lyrics and is undoubtably the reason why his fans connect with them. Tales of witnessing “a group of sixteen dudes” gang stabbing one McDonald’s employee at age nine, or inexplicably dropping his bike to evade a barrage of bullets during a Coney Island shoot out litter his childhood memories. Compound those with the time he watched a van run over a woman with a baby carriage at Van Courtland Park, or that ride on the “L” when the subway train severed a drunken passenger, or that twelve year old girl he knew was buying condoms for “Daddy” - and lines like “I watched the world fall apart through a fire escape” (on his award winning anthem, “Hip Hop Forever”) gain newfound clarity. He carries these and other weighty experiences with him like lyrical pocket change, pulling them out of whenever its time to drop dimes.
Sonically, FinaL OutlaW is often compared to revolutionary Emcees such as dead prez, or (one-time fellow G.A.ME activist) Immortal Technique. His visceral descriptions of common man plight, politically skeptical view points, and vivid, often cynical, depictions of the mind’s most horrific scenarios (“every woman I ever loved was a victim of rape, or “Pessimist’s” gut-wrenching tale of child molestation for example) force the shallow listener (or those searching for an easy reference point) to lump him into the same box as larger-named artists with similar content. But the mere mention of such comparisons is enough to quickly unleash the ire of FinaL OutlaW. “People are like ‘oh, he reminds me of Immortal Technique’. Shut up! Stupid. You haven’t even listened to it. You haven’t even delved into that realm where he’s at, to really understand where he’s coming from!” he says as his eyes fill with a disarming level of annoyance. “A lot of people I feel, unfortunately, are so simplified mentally that they can’t help but compare you to immediately the biggest thing in their head at that point.”
The differences between FinaL OutlaW and those to which he’s most frequently compared are significant. He doesn’t believe in revolution of any kind. He doesn’t believe in politics whatsoever. He’s deeply spiritual but far from religious. He believes in “the prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ the same way he believes in Rosa Parks or Gandhi or Tupac Shakur - great examples of what perseverance and deep faith lead to.” The flattering, if not complimentary, nature of such comparisons (dead prez, Immortal Technique) is trumped by the extreme frustration he experiences from pigeon-holing of any kind.
With that being said - and he’ll likely disagree with me for making my own reference point - there is a Tupac-slash-Chuck D-like quality to his music. Each song carries an unavoidable honesty - directly from the heart, never allowing fabrication to erode its message. His voice seems to reverberate over the beat giving size and scale to each syllable spit. His cadence on tracks like “Bring It On” or “Lets Kick It” along with his admittance that he’s “smothered in contradiction” harkens to the late Makavelli. And his live show carries the same weight as his studio tracks complete with near-album clarity. In no way does it sound like he’s swagger-jacking these legends. OutlaW’s style is all his own, lets make that perfectly clear. But the motivational, get-your-ass-up-and-do-something-about-this-shit emotion that this writer receives from listening to (his album) We’re All Gonna Die..., or “Hip Hop Forever” for example - is refreshingly reminiscent to the empowering zone entered when listening to Pac or P.E. Judgement or otherwise, this is a rare and beautiful quality.
In person or on wax - also like Chuck D, also like Tupac - FinaL OutlaW doesn’t dance around his opinions on anyone or anything. When encountered with what he perceives as inequality or injustice, he calls it out directly.
“If someone is going to be flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets and driving buses, pay them a respectful amount that they can actually support their family with and recognize the fact that they are running the country that you’re sitting on. They hold the shit on their shoulders. We built this mutherfucker, yo! And we don’t get the pay check that someone gets for doing something far simpler than degrading yourself to scrub a fuckin’ hospital bathroom.”
OutlaW speaks with the same disdain for prejudice and politics as he does for bloggers, Jay-Z, Kanye, and today’s Hip Hop community. In his world, a spade is a spade and he’s not afraid to name names. “Alot of these bloggers...c’mon yo. You’re trying to be as popular as the artists themselves? That is so stupid. You know? They just automatically like ‘oh yeah, check out this new “Hip Hop Forever” video. It reminds me of a little bit of this dude.‘ Shut up! Stupid...They don’t report on shit!” he states with an ironic chuckle.
“The Hip Hop community that we have right now is such a backstabbing, lying ass community of people...Lets take Kanye West for example..if he was really really really really really that outspoken, he would put his career on the line doing something for the people and not putting his career on the line going POP... But I didn’t feel he was real for many reasons... Theres a lot of things that I feel radical about. But I’m not a radical. I’m just a person with feelings. Cause a radical is a category. Like Jay-Z, I don’t like him...Jay-Z to me is a person who doesn’t give a shit about us. You know? Jay-Z is the type of person who funds movies like that ‘State Property‘ bullshit where theres nothing but violence and mutherfuckers getting killed with baseball bats.”
Through living a tumultuous life such as his - one where his education was hijacked by racial discrimination (excelling in an overcrowded accelerated math class only to be ushered into lower level to make room for an incoming white student); one where he watched the degradation of his parents by detectives while moving through the shelter system; one where he witnessed domestic violence at an early age - the question begs to be asked, what excites FinaL OutlaW about life? What makes him hype about the future? And although his answer to this question is noticeably brief (“I get excited like everybody else. [You] gotta appreciate everything”), there is an uplifting change is his demeanor when he discusses his upcoming West Coast tour, or his next mixtape, Unstoppable Love, or when he talks about his history volunteering and helping those less fortunate. His eyes shine like a child pleasantly relieved that the toys are still there the morning after Christmas Morning. Even a life loaded with trepidation isn’t enough to block from his mind the opportunity of a brighter tomorrow.
As we exit Manhattan's Union Square - home to scattered homeless people, anchored by the now defunct Virgin Music Megastore - its clear that woven within the multi-layered complexity of the artist known as FinaL OutlaW lives a fairly simple person. Honesty, fairness, education, equality and economic prosperity for all - baseline principles achievable only by doing the right things in life drives James Johnson on a daily basis. Along with the recognition of those basic principles, its impossible to deny the contradiction, if not hypocritical nature, of his conversation. He repels quick judgements and shallow comparisons of his music to other artists by uninformed listeners, but makes his own judgements about fellow artists that (he acknowledges) he’s never personally met. He speaks with anger and pain about the hijacking of his education as a youth, but hasn’t pursued a college degree because of his career upswing. Valid or otherwise, excuses are excuses.
And thats what makes FinaL OutlaW’s music so powerful. Thats what he means when he describes himself as “smothered in contradictions”. Those inherent, internal contradictions are part of what connects us all as human beings. It represents a level of humanity that an artist is forced to tap into, as James Baldwin says, if he or she is to survive. Its the reason that Tupac’s music resonates with fans who weren’t yet born when he was alive.
It is these contradictions...and tragedies...and triumphs within the life of James Johnson that define the music of The FinaL OutlaW.
“This is the only real concern of the artist, to re-create out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” - James Baldwin
“And people ask me why I wear black all the time...First of all, I like black. People take you seriously automatically and I’m a serious person.” - FinaL OutlaW