Last July, H.W. (short for “Hazardous Wastes”) released one of Boston hip-hop’s most literate, emotionally complex albums of the year in “Wall Papered Exit Wounds.” Delivered in the lyrically dense and raw personal style that has become his signature, the record quietly distinguished itself from the crowded local marketplace by vividly exposing its author’s titular emotional wounds for all to see, allowing listeners to eavesdrop on his internal struggle for peace of mind. It’s occasionally jarring and hardly uplifting stuff, but his gift for articulating pain is a rare one.
Yet there’s an important piece of context to note with “Exit Wounds”: The material was recorded six years ago, and the H.W. whose emotional turmoil fueled that record is not the same one who’ll be performing on June 5 at The Sinclair in Harvard Square.
“I hated that record,” H.W., born Josh DeCosta, says bluntly over a midday beer at a bar in Central Square. “The only reason I released it is because people told me it was good and I should put it out.”
Naturally, an intensely introspective album in which he struggles to find scraps of optimism within darkness would understandably be difficult to embrace in the same way that a detached listener might. But this isn’t his first release in that vein: “Exit Wounds” built on the foundation of 2009’s “A Year’s Worth of Worry,” where songs like “The End of the Line” established his reputation as a sensitive, emotional lyricist fueled by tumultuous romantic relationships that often ended in heartbreak. In 2013, that’s the reputation he’s working to change.
“It’s unbearable in a way,” says the Fall River native. “I was the guy who did songs about ex-girlfriends, and that’s all it was. And it got sickening being that person. It bothers me in the sense that there are so many more aspects of my personal life. If people talk to me they know that I’m not that person, I’m not that guy who goes home and cries every night and hates myself. I needed something to write about other than that.”
For someone whose creative output was so closely linked to his state of mind, shifting directions musically first necessitated a change in mentality.
“I based my worth on who I dated, and because of that every relationship was the end-all, be-all. So when those ended, it was devastating to the point that it destroyed by self-esteem. I eventually slowly realized that life doesn’t revolve around relationships. These girls, or these moments in time, as important as they may feel at the moment, are just that. It took a long time for me to understand what I cared about and how to write about what I cared about.”
“I’ve seen him grow and mature as a rapper and a performer drastically,” says longtime friend and DJ Emoh Bettah. “Most, if not all, of his earlier songs were about relationships gone sour or about friendships with ex-girlfriends, and I’d often joke with him about it but since then he’s been writing songs about other topics. His music may be too personal for some, but he does what he does well. All of his songs tell a story and he is just being himself, which is what I think people love about him.”
Yet for a rapper with a highly technical lyrical style and no shortage of things to say (“I think I’m way too personal in general, I’m just an over-sharer,” he admits), it’s surprising H.W.’s output isn’t more prodigious: case in point being the long gap between the recording and release of “Exit Wounds.” Rather than adhering to the modern rap marketing scheme of flooding the Internet with new material via social media in search of approval, he takes his work direct to live audiences.
“On stage, there’s something that clicks within me and I am the person who I am with my closest friends,” he says of his shows, which often find him performing unreleased or incomplete songs and interacting with the audience. “I love that feeling, maybe because it’s the sense of self-gratification that I’ve always sought from everything in life. In the studio I’m hyperly critical and constantly tweaking stuff, while on stage I don’t have enough time to think about it like that.”
That said, you’re more likely to hear H.W.’s musical evolution at an upcoming show before you can get it on iTunes. His next release will be the conceptual album “I Only Exist on the Internet,” targeted for late June release, which should show glimpses of the broader material he's seeking to explore: topics like politics, environmental issues, and yes, maybe even a party jam. It's not so much a rejection of the melancholic raps of the past, but an appreciation for their role in getting him to this new, more optimistic place in life and music.
“I’m not the best rapper ever,” he says. “I just would like to be able to display all aspects of myself. There are way more important things to talk about than my feelings on this one person I care about. The world is crumbling around me; there should be something else I’m able to share. A lot of this new album is about liking life, because I actually like life right now. ”
Your mind isn’t playing tricks on you: That really is the Geto Boys you see confirmed for a first-ever Boston gig at the Middle East on June 29. After being booed lustily upon visiting New York during their early ’90s heyday, something tells us that Bushwick Bill, Willie D, and Scarface will receive a much different reception this time around. . . . On the other hand, Mobb Deep has been one of East Coast rap’s institutions (save for their head-scratching temporary “breakup” at the end of last year) for nearly two decades. Assuming Prodigy and Havoc don’t relapse into strife in the next few weeks, they’ll celebrate 20 years together on June 7 at the Middle East. . . . Boston’s hip-hop community rallies in support of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings with an all-star benefit concert on May 31 at the Middle East Downstairs, featuring performances by Akrobatik, Termanology, Rite Hook, Virtuoso, and others, including H.W.Martín Caballero can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.