Throwaway Style: On Porter Ray and How to Respond to Trauma and Setbacks with Grace

Throwaway Style, Local Music, Album Reviews
Martin Douglas

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

Porter Ray Sullivan, the bard of Seattle’s Central District, began writing rhymes as a therapeutic means to sort through the grief of his 18-year-old brother, taking a blind shot in the head through a car window. His father died when he was younger, naturally changing the course of his life to an adolescence of street life to help pay the bills. His music — spearheaded by a trio of stellar mixtapes, BLK GLD, WHT GLD, and RSE GLD — eventually caught fire in the city, and neighborhood acquaintance and mentor Ishmael Butler, who just so happens to be an A&R representative for Sub Pop Records, would eventually play a part in helping him get signed to the legendary Seattle label.

Juggling a burgeoning music career and single parenthood, Porter signed to Sub Pop in 2014 and finally released his full-length debut Watercolor three years later. The long layover resulted in an immaculately crafted hip-hop album, bursting with perspective and artfully structured verses.

Death hangs over Watercolor like the proverbial albatross, just as it does in life. It’s part of the human condition, right? The idea has been presented many times, that what separates humans from most other life forms are both the way we feel emotions and our understanding of death. We love people, then we lose them and they never come back.

Throughout the album, Porter is wracked with survivor’s remorse and the weight of people close to him locked behind bars, dwelling in this psychic strain over the backdrop of beats painted with a soft brush as panoramic backgrounds.

As people get murdered or otherwise shuffle off this mortal coil, babies are born. The circle of life. “Unprotected sex got my name across her necklace,” he says on the sublime “Navi Truck,” a sterling portrait of Porter’s interior world and example of his mastery of autobiographical writing. A long-distance, not-exactly-monogamous relationship splinters under the several pounds and ounces of a newborn baby. A woman is on the lam for boosting from clothing stores, condoms break, birthdays are spent in the booking office on the same night Porter loses his younger brother to murder.

Beneath the legal troubles and unexpected pregnancies, “Navi Truck” is essentially a box of love letters, returned to sender and graphed in song, as complicated and overstuffed with external forces as love often is. The harmonic, sparkling keys and hard-hitting kicks of the beat (a very effective mode of transportation for the grace of Porter’s words) perfectly augments his often soft-spoken, frequently conversational vocals.

Alongside mortality — perhaps in its natural course of themes regarding being alive — family is a thread running through Watercolor. Of course, there are allusions to the birth of his firstborn son; the phone call with the mother singing to father and child; the date of his brother’s murder. As someone who has lost family to a shooting, the timestamp, weather, and general tone of the following hours are difficult to forget. The day is seared into memory, no matter how hard a person tries to forget. I sat on the backyard patio of my father’s house the morning following his murder. The sky was a thick sheet of grey, and my mouth was dry, no matter how much ice water I drank. When Porter raps about his brother getting shot, you can feel the heat of summer rising off of the hood of cars nearby.

“My Mother’s Words” is bookended by, as I’m sure you could guess, advice from Porter’s mother, with a breezy and soothing track pushing through the undercurrent. Porter weaves in and out of the drum patterns evoking images of him and his mom seated in the pews of a church, the blinding light of good fortune and hard work, and the apple basking in the glow of original sin.

His mother congratulates him on the hard-earned wisdom of self-education and offers a warning of the allure of relationships: “There are those women who are more interested in themselves than you. And they will use you. Simple as that.”

Porter’s writing is laden with imagery and pathos — par for the course when dealing with the trauma of witnessing the swift hand of death and the long arm of the law over and over again — dabbled in extralegal activity but approaches his work mostly as a witness when it comes to the life of outlaws. His songs are littered with grams of narcotics and stolen designer bags, steel-bodied Chevrolets, and boxes of Pampers. The way Porter navigates a beat is exactly what people mean when they talk about flow; a stream of a stream of consciousness, words spilling out steadily, its force depending on the current.

“East Seattle” is capped on both sides by the clattering of shaken dice and idle chit-chat; what happens in between serves as what could very well be Porter’s signature track. The violence streaking through his neighborhood makes way for hospital chats with friends suffering stomach wounds and the image of his brother’s skull breaking from a 9mm bullet. He watches as the cops storm the blocks he grew up on. But as life moves on, his talent makes way for exchanging pounds for Polo garments.

There are various phone calls from friends and family as a symbol of the community of people surrounding Porter and his talent; homies from the phone line in jail offering encouragement, his son’s mother’s singing before saying good night, Ish sending tidings from the Czech Republic. The latter is one of the many details littered into Eye of the Beholder opener “Be Not Afraid” and its shimmering ambient dancehall beat. Budgets and contracts; European tours and champagne; the Commodores playing while rising from sleep on the hard floor of his mother’s house; razorblades, plates, and baggies; “bullets dumping out the Taurus.”

Musically, Eye of the Beholder, sneaking into 2018 just before its send-off, comes with an even lighter touch than Watercolor and its effects give way to a dreamlike float. Its imagistic lyrics cycle through like a Kodak wheel of photographs, evoking the sort of dreams where everything is still part of a collective whole but still moves through its symbols at a rapid pace. Short films with quick cuts.

“Mask of Control” belies the smooth, polyrhythmic shuffle of its beat with an existence populated with television screens glowing with the faces of politicians, blow-dwelling tough guys turned snitches, and flashbacks to adolescence and the deteriorating health of Porter’s father.

On “The Gift” — titled after an observation Porter’s uncle used to say about his facility with words — Porter moves through an environment full of tapped phones and house visits from ATF officers and arguing with his god while the familiar hand of death takes that same uncle in his sleep while Astro King Phoenix bursts with ideas deploying a semi-automatic cadence (rivers flowing through boots, “rear-ending anything that cruise”) and Stas THEE Boss references Master P (the first of two on this project) and taunts trolls with the sure-handed deftness of a pickpocket.

The pair of tracks closing the album are guested by Tacoma’s Bruce Leroy — maybe the most underrated rapper in all of the Northwest — deploying his subtle and writerly wit and sense of imagery as a parallel to that of Porter’s. On the penultimate track “Prism Within,” he observes the high serotonin levels of dudes with thick chains and the “magnolias and frowns” of the funeral scene that eventually comes after. “Beyond the Mirror” finds Leroy and Porter trading verses while posing the question, “What motivates you to do what you do?”

Along with the aforementioned softer touch of the beats, Porter’s voice is at most points more diaphanous to augment the feel of the accompanying music. It’s a very interesting way to offset the words being delivered by the soothing lilt; Porter is no stranger to the ideas of trauma and discord, and the brutality of his eldest son's mother dying in a car crash, more friends dwelling in incarceration, and potential for another World War in today’s political climate appear as visages along with the hypnagogic feel of the project.

That’s not to say his writing is steely-textured. “MultiColourSexLoveFrequency” is sky-bound and sensual, keys pulsating through a room made of white sheets. The twinkling, twilit keys of “The Mountain and the Moon” gives way for Porter’s words at their most sparse, creating an impressionistic scene laden with promethazine syrup, teenage mothers, healthcare and welfare forms scattered on the table.

The writing on Eye of the Beholder is scaled down to a series of fine points, Porter’s writing more economical but still as evocative as anything on his catalog prior, like an essayist trying their hand at minimal poetry; the images, emotion, intimacy, and the destructive forces Porter tries to shut out for salvation reveal themselves just as clearly.

Some writers just have that gift.

Porter Ray will be celebrating the release of Eye of the Beholder along with JusMoni, Bruce Leroy, and Nate Jackson at Chop Suey on Sunday, January 13th. Tickets are available here.

New and News

Araless Shares New Video for "Just Breathe"

Submerged in water and a pinkish, lavender glow, Filthy Fingers United producer/Black Magic Noize MC/animator and all-around artistic polymath Araless shines with a new video for a highlight from his Something About You: Summer project, "Just Breathe." He sings of heartbreak and the reckoning and self-care and perspective that comes after over a headnod-worthy beat, replete with synths playing the background and soul-piercing harmonies taking center stage. The Steven Trueba-directed video finds Araless bathed in light and submerging from a swim in psychedelic resplendence.

Live and Loud: This Week's Recommended Shows

January 10: All Star Opera, Kung Foo Grip, Chris King & the Gutterballs, and Marshall Law Band at The Crocodile

January 11: Seattle Freeze Fest (featuring Weep Wave, Razor Clam, Seacats, and more) at Lo-Fi, Black Lodge, and Victory Lounge

January 11: Shelby Earl and Matty Gervais at The Triple Door

January 12: Freeway Park, Sun Tunnels and Levi Fuller & the Library at Parliament Tavern

January 12: Breaks and Swells, Mirrorgloss, and Soultanz at Neumos

January 12: Constant Lovers, SSDD, and Bad Blood at Screwdriver Bar

January 16: Warbly Jets, Monsterwatch, and Actionese at Barboza

January 16: Hibou, Snuff Redux, and Senor Fin at Chop Suey

Related News & Reviews

Rewind Sub Pop 30 Local Music

A Hood Pedigree of Syndicates and Felonies: A Look at Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty

In this edition of Rewind, Martin Douglas explores Shabazz Palaces' odyssey-like sophomore album, which surveys its environment with more street savvy than the group is often given credit for.

Read More
Upstream Music Fest + Summit

Upstream Music Fest + Summit, Day 1: Porter Ray

15 minutes before Seattle hip hop artist Porter Ray's set at the KEXP Occidental Park Stage on Thursday night, things weren't looking good.

Read More