"Before I started rapping, I used to write a lot of short stories and compositions. So I write [rhymes] like I'm writing a short story. I write exactly the thoughts I want to get out there because if you try to fit lyrics in with [the music], you might miss a few words or the emotion that you want to get in there. So I write it all out first; then I break it up. And then I figure out what I want to rap.
"I want to keep the listener interested and want to see if I'm going to need to go slow for the first four bars or bump it up for the next eight."
The rapper known as Finale is describing his unique style — an unmistakable flow that can be described as a seemingly rushed but perfectly metered stream of syllables that treat the beat as its playground.
Finale's name may not yet be as familiar as some of his better-known peers, most who hold him in the highest regard as one of the very best Michigan has to offer. But it shouldn't be very long before people start paying attention. The Detroit native, officially born Derek Cooper 28 years ago, has been paying dues in this city's competitive hip-hop scene for years now. And his new album, A Pipe Dream and a Promise — although released on the Bay Area-based Interdependent Media indie rap label — boasts distribution by industry heavyweight Universal Music Group, as well as production by a who's who of hip-hop's top producers.
"I came up with all those dudes," Finale says of his fellow Michigan emcees. "I'm not looking at them as my competition. I feel like I'm just part of the new regime."
While Detroit is Finale's hometown and his primary source of musical inspiration, much of his early rap career was based outside the Mitten. He was always into music, but his hip-hop journey formally began while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta. His penchant for freestyling rhymes off the top of his head led him to an Atlanta-based crew named Divine Mind Entertainment. It was with them that he began writing rhymes, learning basic song structure and developing his novel approach.
Finale returned to Michigan before scoring his degree. He subsequently attended Wayne County Community College, worked in automotive engineering, and began rhyming at open mics in Pontiac and Detroit. In those scenes, he rubbed shoulders with some staples of the state's indie hip-hop scene, including One Be Lo and his Subterraneous Records crew (that group's Decompozed would be the first Detroit producer to work with Finale), as well as Guilty Simpson. He established friendships, nabbing cameos on various local projects. Meanwhile, he began releasing music on overseas labels, including records in Scotland, Australia and London. And he got rave reviews in those foreign lands.
"In the beginning, I was just so nervous about releasing my music," he confesses. "So a lot of the stuff was just done for free exposure. And I didn't have a problem doing it. I'm not saying it's easier to put something out over there than it is over here. But it was all about learning the process and getting used to it, all in preparation to put something out [in America]. So it was all kind of like a training ground for me."
In 2008, that training started to pay off. He teamed up with Brooklyn producer Spier1200 — whom he first met through close friend, fellow Detroit emcee and past MT cover subject, Invincible — to record his debut album, Develop. (The album is actually credited to both artists.) The duo established a chemistry that was apparent on every one of the disc's 14 tracks. And guest spots from the likes of such indie greats as Elzhi (of Slum Village), the aforementioned Invincible and Wordsworth helped push the rapper over the hump. The album was critically acclaimed and then selected as one of the Rawkus 50, a "who's who of the hottest underground artists in hip-hop today," according to Rawkus Records, a golden-era label known for releasing early projects by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, among others.
"I've always said I really liked the connection I had with Spier's beats on that record," he says of the debut. "It had a certain sound. But I knew even back then that every record I'm going to release is going to sound totally different."
Although the album did relatively well, the 12 months following its release almost made him give up the rap game. He simply mentions "business drama," highlighted by the hassle of getting out of a contract with a manager whose negative reputation preceded him, especially when Finale discovered several of his emcee friends had already had bad experiences with the guy.
"The business of hip hop can really make you hate hip hop and want to just put it down and give up," he says, the frustration still evident and fresh in his voice. "So it held me up for a minute. Some contracts I signed felt bad and I knew I had to get out of them. And so I got out of them. Then I was ready to make the new album. I think this one is going to push the door a little bit more, to get people kind of familiar with me."
The final result is A Pipe Dream and a Promise and it appears to already be doing the trick for him. A 15-track opus that showcases his impeccable skill, it also showcases some of the most sought-after producers in independent hip hop today. Hometown hero Black Milk contributes "One Man Show" and "Motor Music," the former serving as a confident announcement of Finale's "do-it-yourself" career ethos. And Virginia-based knob-twister Nottz (known for the beats he's delivered for 50 Cent, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg) laces both "Jumper Cables" and "Brother's Keeper."
Of the latter track, Finale says only that members of his family have blamed him for his brother landing in prison for a six-year stint, and that "Brother's Keeper" was written as a personal letter to his sibling, who became a free man a week after Finale's birthday last year.
"I don't want to get into what he did," he says of his sibling's incarceration, "but I was blamed for it because I went away to school. And then when I got back home, I was working, doing music and school at the same time. So I was kind of MIA."
The track "Paid Homage," meanwhile, honors deceased Detroit legend J Dilla, offering Finale's account of how he first met the hip-hop legend. The song's beat, provided by Flying Lotus, flips one of Dilla's own most familiar samples. Other soundbeds on the disc are also supplied by the late Dilla, along with beats from Oddisee and Khrysis, among others. The only real guest verses here, though, come from Invincible. Aside from a few spoken interludes by rap pioneers like Detroit's Awesome Dre and Cold Crush's Prince Whippa Whip, this is a solo project. And it's definitely a strong addition to the hip-hop canon, local or not. A Pipe Dream and a Promise is already one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year. And his reputation is rapidly spreading, with venues all over the country — including several spots in New York City — bringing him in to perform.
"Develop is still technically my first album," he reflects, "but I look at that one as more of a collage. Spier had a big hand in it, so it was really a 50-50 kind of deal. We went in and we talked about the sound of the album and then collaborated. This new one, though, is all about me. So if this one flopped, it's all on my shoulders. It's cool, though. This way, I can't blame anything on nobody else but me."
William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Finale plays Saturday, June 27, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. With One Be Lo, 5 Ela and Big A.