Porter Ray is a Seattle rapper who has long been heralded in local circles, but is just now breaking through in the national mainstream via his much-anticipated debut album Watercolor in early March. Today we’re premiering the third single off the record, “Lightro,” which features Stas THEE Boss of THEESatisfacton. Over a wafting cloud of synthy production Ray tackles the grimness of death and the fleeting nature of life, before the track bleeds into Stas’ starlit harmonies. Listen above, but while you listen, read more of Ray’s fascinating backstory.
After signing with local indie heavyweights Sub Pop Records — known for working the experimental rappers like Clipping., Shabazz Palaces, etc — Ray released the 2015 EP Nightfall, a collection of tracks made during the recording process for Watercolor, and last summer’s collaborative Electric Rain EP, which he recorded with producer Tele Fresco.
Specifically, it was Ishmael Butler of Shabazz and Digable Planets who was drawn to Ray’s woozy, eclectic production style and quick-lip rapping, and enthusiastically brought him into the Sub Pop fold. That kind of co-sign can be a lot to live up to, but considering Ray got started long before that, he easily shouldered the mantle. Ray had already self-released a number of projects on his own via Bandcamp — even before his last couple of EPs — and the new label deal gave his pre-established artistic confidence the platform it needed to build momentum.
Like plenty of other musicians before him, especially in the rainy, grey and therefore often depressing confines of the Pacific Northwest, Ray got into making music to escape personal loss. When he was a teenager, his father succumbed to severe illness, which spun him into a dark period that eventually led him to drop out of high school without graduating. A couple years later, his brother was killed in a highly-publicized gun violence incident, and several of his friends — along with the mother of his son — landed in jail on various charges with long sentences. To parse his grief, Ray began to write, and out of those experiences came first BLK Gold in spring of 2013, then WHT Gold and RSE Gold that fall. 2014’s Fundamentals was his next release, and it was later that year that Butler discovered Ray and called him Sub Pop’s new “Golden Child.”
Though he doesn’t sound like Digable Planets or Shabazz Palaces, it’s easy to hear why Butler was so moved by Ray’s musical proclivities. He hews close to the same sparkling yet gritty, experimental and melodic balances that Butler so often uses in his own work — and Ray is a master of his own flow in much the same way that Butler is. When he starts spitting, you know it’s him immediately. He runs through various cadences and countless rhythms like it’s nothing to change up, but never loses a sense of cohesion in his rapping.
Building off this wealth of material, but more concerned with refining and honing his craft for this debut, Watercolor sees Ray rapping at the top of his game, surrounded by like-minded artists who are eager to contribute to his first official record. Stas THEE Boss of THEESatisfacton shows up not just on today’s premiere of “Lightro,” but also on album’s second single “Arithmetic,” which also features Infinite (of Narkotik and Tribal Productions). Butler himself guests on the record’s lead-off track “Sacred Geometry [Constellation Mix],” along with The Palaceer and Ray’s own childhood friend Cashtro.
Those collaborators alone would be impressive, but the list continues with production from B-Roc, Dez Anthony, Kmtk and Tele Fresco and mixing by Erik Blood. Other guests include Nate Jack, and Jus Moni and of also of Fly Guy Dai Shabazz Palaces. In many ways, Watercolors is a distillation of Northwest rap told through the region’s most promising newcomer. While many other parts of the country are finally getting their due in the rap game, the Northwest is an area that is still often overlooked, and arguably is still yet to produce a true star. Perhaps, on Watercolor, Ray will be tossing his name out into the universe for just that role. But whether the commercial realm responds or not, this album is one well worth hearing for any rap fan keeping track of 2017’s twists and turns. Listen to the glistening “Lightro” above, and watch for Porter Ray’s debut out 3/10 via Sub Pop Records. Pre-order it here.