H3RO, Misfits 4 (self-released)
Find It: yourh3ro.com
On a 2017 episode of the YouTube series Hot Ones, hip-hop journalist Sean Evans asked TV and radio personality, comic-book aficionado and native Charlestonian Charlamagne tha God: Why aren’t emcees influenced by superheroes any more? Back in the day, Charlamange reasoned, artists were more creative; emcees would rap about “anything and everything.”
Hence The Sugar Hill Gang chirping Superman in “Rapper’s Delight,” Lupe Fiasco name-dropping Silver Surfer in “No Problems,” The Last Emperor writing not one but two epics inspired by Marvel’s Secret Wars saga. Hence rappers making superheroes integral parts of their personas: Dennis Coles is Ghostface Killah and Tony Starks, a corruption of Tony Stark, Iron Man’s true identity. Clifford Smith is Method Man a.k.a. Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider. Lavell Crump is David Banner, the mild-mannered scientist who turns into the Incredible Hulk.
“Now,” Charlamagne said, “everything’s about the trap. Ain’t nobody reading comic books in the trap.”
Comics and hip-hop culture, writes Afropunk, share roots, in that they carry the DNA of their earliest years, when considered cheaply produced, low-brow entertainment, yet have achieved great economic success and cultural relevance. Justin Daniels, who uses H3RO as his superpowered alterego, understands this implicitly.
On his latest mixtape, he betrays no particular fondness for any one character, nor any one publishing house: In the first few bars of “Black SuperH3RO Music,” he references DC Comics stalwart Batman and Marvel favorite Spider-Man, and later namechecks Black Panther. References to the Infinity Stones and Avengers: Endgame abound.
But these aren’t idle remarks, no brummagem panderings to countercultural crowds. Rather, Daniels has embraced the hero’s journey as a metaphor for struggle, perseverance and, ultimately, triumph.
Consider “Endgame.” Largely bereft of explicit comic references, it still follows a classic narrative arc: Supervillains harangue H3RO as cynics slag his hip-hop dreams and racists “don’t want to see us win” — “us” being the “black boys” who end up on CNN as casualties. Even if it’s low art, it’s high-message.
But Daniels’ skills aren’t limited to superheroic posturing. “Sincerely Yours” rides a glistening beat that straddles the line between Floating Points’ Rhodes-centric electro-jazz and STLNDRMS beats-and-chill vibe; it’s a tender, broken-hearted ballad with a sweetly sung hook. The strutting, triumphant “Faithful” buries under persiflage an ode to mentorship and friendship.
Daniels’s penchant for Technicolor palettes and sophisticated lyricism puts him at odds with the triplet- and Scotch snap-heavy rap that dominates the South. Were this the Nas-controlled mid-’90s, maybe Daniels would have a clearer path to reigning over Metropolis, but this is the time of Lil Nas X.
Maybe that just makes him the hero Columbia deserves, if not the one it needs right now.