Local rapper Sol is about to step into evening traffic on Capitol Hill, and since this is Seattle, even though he isn’t standing at a crosswalk, a motorist brakes and waves him across Pike Street.
“I’m not used to that,” he says, smiling, breaking into a light jog.
Sol — pronounced “Saul,” his full name is Sol Moravia-Rosenberg, though fans call him “Solzilla” — is readjusting to being home, fresh off a yearlong University of Washington Bonderman Travel Fellowship in India, Africa and his mom’s homeland of Haiti, among other locales.
A veteran of the local hip-hop scene who’s been performing for more than a decade, he returns with a fresh perspective and new creative juice. His new, socially conscious EP, “Eyes Open,” written mostly while he was abroad, could very well be his big break, especially now that fellow rapper Macklemore has become the biggest Seattle music star in 20 years and major record labels are grasping for “the next Macklemore.” Though there are obvious problems with that kind of thinking, Sol, who headlines Showbox at the Market on Wednesday, is first on the labels’ list.
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“I was at Bumbershoot when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis played [in 2011],” says booking agent Joshua Dick, who works for the Agency Group (which also manages Macklemore) and has worldwide plans for Sol. “In between sets, I saw fans freaking out wanting to take a picture with the guy standing next to me. I asked someone else who it was, and they told me ‘Solzilla.’ It made an impression.”
In July, tastemaking hip-hop magazine XXL singled out Sol in a new group of “budding MCs to keep your eye on.”
Sol, 24, hails from Shoreline and comes from a family of teachers. As a young hip-hop fanatic he first rapped seriously at Kellogg Middle School with his cousin Ben Fodor. (Fun fact: Fodor would later become briefly famous as the citizen crime fighter “superhero” Phoenix Jones.) Sol apprenticed at North Seattle’s Undercaste Studios and eventually found his voice: peppy and subtly New York-accented, perhaps by osmosis, from listening to so much rap.
At UW he developed a following with songs about rapping well and being high, then showed he was deeper when he organized a benefit concert for Doctors Without Borders after the Haitian earthquake in 2010, generating $7,000. Sol evolved into a more emotional songwriter on the 2012 album “Yours Truly,” and keeps the momentum going on “Eyes Open,” referring several times to personal reinvention, dedicating a whole song to the topic, “Old Him.”
Like Macklemore, Sol crosses polished pop with sober, socially conscious raps: no self-aggrandizement or drug talk, but rather bouquets of synthesizers and guitars. One song talks about the Port-au-Prince commune Cité Soleil, “where the kids kill kids in the middle of the day.”
Talking with Sol is an energizing experience. A breezy dude with a birdlike affect, he’s positive and enthusiastic, wears button-up shirts and aviator glasses.
Speaking of his new direction away from rapping about weed, he says, “You start thinking about your legacy.”
Inside the streetwear store Alive & Well on Pike, Sol schmoozes for hours with fans who upload smartphone photos to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They call him “Solzilla” and tell him they missed him while he was gone. A few days later, he drives up and down the West Coast and Colorado on his first headlining tour, selling out venues in San Francisco, San Diego and Bellingham, coming close in Portland and Vancouver, B.C.
To create “Eyes Open” while he was on the road, Sol worked with producers Elan Wright and Nima Skeemz, who emailed tracks from their studio in Greenwood. Listening on headphones, Sol would write lyrics wherever he was, mixing travelogue with personal insights. He recorded at studios in Chennai, India, and Kingston, Jamaica, with engineers he found through Twitter, networking or good luck.
Wright and Skeemz are a big reason “Eyes Open” and “Yours Truly” sound so full and open. They come from rock backgrounds, like Lewis (their studio is Lewis’ old one, where M & RL’s “The Heist” was recorded), and their style is to add more to a track — more arrangement, more instrumentation, more guitar, drums, horns. Then they sculpt it smooth.
The songwriting was a group thing, but Sol thrived on isolation, too, like when he was off the grid in Haiti for three weeks near Les Abricots, an overnight boat trip and three-hour Jeep ride from Port-au-Prince.
“Port-au-Prince is dog-eat-dog,” he says. “People don’t smile, don’t look at you. It’s one of the most dangerous places in the world. But in the village, people welcome you into their home and make you food, even though they don’t have much at all. One meal a day, no running water.”
There, meditating in his aunt’s backyard, he wrote “Too Cool,” the finale of “Eyes Open,” about how his perspective changed when he stepped out of the box geographically.
Openheartedness is what Sol is all about and what makes him most similar to Macklemore, with his earnest desire to uplift. He is also following Mack’s business example: perfect your live show, control your business, build your fan base. He says he has already walked away from “three of the four” major recording labels.
But there is only one Macklemore, and Sol is on his own trip. He’s still figuring out who he is, but, unlike so many rappers, he knows he wants to be a conduit for something greater than his own glorification.
“There’s been a shift in my priorities,” he says. “Because if I invest this energy into my career, it can’t just be about myself.”
Andrew Matson: on Twitter @andrewmatson