A creative slump-busting exercise became Seattle rapper Porter Ray's new digital-only album, "Eye of the Beholder," released through Sub Pop last month.
It was supposed to be a joyous time. After bubbling in Seattle for several years, rapper Porter Ray Sullivan released his proper debut album on Sub Pop during the spring of 2017, with a slate of tour dates — including a late summer run with Shabazz Palaces — to follow.
Then while at South by Southwest a week after his kaleidoscopic “Watercolor” dropped, Sullivan got word that the mother of his eldest son — one of his best friends he’s known since high school — had died in a car crash. In some ways, touring life was like a Band-Aid, he says, at least keeping him busy during a traumatic period. But whatever reprieve the fan recognition and free booze each new city on his first big tour provided ended when he got home, an awakening thud he compares to an anvil dropping to the ground.
“It was like this dreamland where everyone recognizes you,” Sullivan says of the tour. “Coming back, I’m just Porter Sullivan from down the street. I’m just dad taking care of my kids. There isn’t this ego stroke going on all the time, which isn’t real.”
As Sullivan, who performs as Porter Ray, was dealing with the loss and navigating single-parenthood, he was also feeling pressure to top “Watercolor” — a record dealing with the deaths of his brother and father — and make a follow-up worthy of placement within Sub Pop’s distinguished canon. After the initial push around the album faded, show requests dried up and without his co-parent, money and time grew tighter. Sullivan left the Beacon Hill house where he kept his studio to move back in with his mother. The weight of it all threw the introspective artist into a personal and creative funk.
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It wasn’t until a close friend challenged him to complete a project — 10 songs, if only for himself — that Sullivan was able to break through. Last month, Sub Pop issued the resulting digital-only album, “Eye of the Beholder,” which Sullivan christens with a release show Sunday, Jan. 13, at Chop Suey. “To see it out was me overcoming that struggle,” he says.
The cerebral 35-minute set is far more than a slump-buster or the intermittent release before his official official follow-up to “Watercolor” (aimed for sometime this year) Sullivan initially thought it to be. The free-flowing emcee drapes his signature velvety rhymes over dank, occasionally jazz-hued beats that glisten through life’s drizzle. Sullivan splices together real-life vignettes that flicker like reflections in Central District sidewalk puddles, bringing listeners along in fleeting moments as he recalls staring at his father in a wheelchair or his son’s mother singing through a prison phone while she was incarcerated. Those brief glimpses into Sullivan’s world, at times seeking flashes of beauty in his struggle, dissipate into a mist of gripping metaphors that grow more resonant with each play.
For all those intimate snippets, “Eye of the Beholder” is Sullivan’s most outward-looking work to date. “Mask of Control” captures the anxiety of life in a divided world, while searching for commonality through personal and emotional trials. Over the gently tapping beat on the standout “The Diamond That Cuts Thru Illusion,” the 30-year-old rapper addresses growing up post-9/11, equating the experiences of military friends losing comrades in battle to the deaths and struggles of people around him back home, while finding sanity through the chaos.
“I didn’t want to lose the personal [aspects] or that intimacy,” he says, contrasting the new album with its more direct predecessor, “but I didn’t want to sound like this kid who was screaming his story to the world.”
The montage effect on “Eye of the Beholder” was partially by design, but also stemmed from the fact that Sullivan was still processing everything he was going through during its creation. The album’s recording was a mostly solitary endeavor, with Sullivan teaching himself Pro Tools and holing up in a sparsely furnished Rainier Beach house currently serving as his studio. Unlike with his past releases, he recorded bits and pieces of songs at a time, before they were fully written, stitching them together over time. The liberating process led to more experimentation and helped him push past “what I thought a traditional rap record — or any music — should sound like and just make what came to me,” he says.
Monkey off his back, it seems “Eye of the Beholder” has kick-started a fertile creative period for Sullivan, who hopes to complete his next album in the coming months.
“There’s so much growth that came out of this project,” he says with a humble sense of pride.
Porter Ray “Eye of the Beholder” release show. 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13; Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle; $15-$18, chopsuey.com.