The hip-hop tradition of myth-making is a strong one, from Wu-Tang Clan’s famous use of kung fu references and audio samples to Eminem’s provocative Slim Shady persona. Rarely has it been done so directly and introspectively as by Justin Daniels, aka H3RO, the Columbia-turned-Greenville rapper.
The resulting records from his approach have been thrilling, as Daniels manages to combine battle-rap boasting, nerd-rap asides, deeply conceptual comic book narrative storytelling, and genuine emotional vulnerability into a seamless package, pointedly refusing to be easily pigeonholed. On Daniel’s new album “Between the Panels II,” a triumphant sequel to his 2015 debut, he explores the layers of that persona even further by zeroing in on Columbia.
“I started coming up with concepts that were influenced by relationships that were all created in Columbia. So the project is called ‘Between the Panels II: Hometown H3RO’ because it reflects the hometown all of those experiences,” he said.
In the liner notes to the new album, the rapper gives further details on the genesis of his comic book identity. Daniels references the indie film "Super" as heavily influential on his H3RO persona.
The film features a darkly comic tale of a short-order cook who becomes a superhero without any special abilities as a way to combat depression and rescue the narrative of his own life. Daniels pointed to a scene in the film where the star’s superhero character is asked about being bored and he responds "that’s what happens between the panels."
“In the comics, you see all the action and the glorious side of things that happen, but what you don't see are the struggles, the pain, the personal life, the smoke breaks. So it's kind of like my personal life is peeking through this H3RO persona,” Daniels explained.
Over time, Daniels’ personal life has seen a lot of change since his 2015 debut. The Columbia rapper relocated to Greenville in 2019 for a job promotion and to try out a new music scene after a decade in the Midlands.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it led to an artistic slowdown that put more than three years between his new record and his last full-length project, despite having multiple efforts in the works. You can see him working through these topics in both the heavy H3RO mythologies of the opening numbers as well as on introspective, family-focused tracks like “My Loliloquy.”
Daniels was working on “Between the Panels II” project well before COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic actually led him to spending more time working on it. He fleshed out features and got feedback from other songwriters to sharpen the project.
The features read like a who’s who in the current generation of independent hip-hop and R&B in Columbia, with hooks sung by Katera, Death Ray Robin and Kate Vera and guest verses from the likes of comrades in arms PatX, Lite Gray and Cypher T. That, combined with the coherent narrative, lush production and H3RO’s omnivorous flow and themes, make this effort the rapper’s most complete statement to date.
Daniels has a couple more music videos planned for this album cycle, and he has ongoing projects with both Columbia beatmaker MidiMARC and another with the New York-based J57, a mentee of prominent producers DJ Premier and DJ Eclipse, who also owns a record label called FiveSe7en Collective.
“I'm happy about the strides that I have made in my music career,” he said. “But the thing is, I’m always looking at it and saying, is there something I am missing? What do I need to take this to the next level?”
The answer to that question may stray further away from his signature, eponymous persona.
“I don't feel the urge to stay in the superhero (mode) anymore,” he contended. “I think I can move beyond that concept, the gimmick per se, and it can be meaningful and I can just be a dope rapper.”