CAMBRIDGE — “Conscious” is probably one of the worst words to ever be applied to hip-hop. Other genres also encompass the full range of human emotion — from politically charged fury to hedonistic euphoria to sadness and everything in between — yet rap is seemingly the only one the attempts to superficially categorize artists by a tying them to a single one: There’s the hardcore “gangsta” rapper, the party chasing “frat” rapper, the smoked-out “weed” rapper, and yes, the oft-maligned “conscious” rapper, a curious euphemism often incorrectly applied to someone making music touching on topics outside themselves.
Nathaniel “Natural” Anglin, who performs at Who’s on First on Nov. 16, just over a week after the release of his new album, “Ways to Go,” could fit into several such categories or, just as easily, into none. His music reflects his perspective on a broad spectrum of topics, from local politics to relationships to how good a rapper he is. In other words, he doesn’t fit any single myopic label, and that’s just how he likes it.
“People always ask who I sound like and where I fit,” Anglin, 28, says over a beer at a Central Square bar. “What I say is that I definitely try to not shy away from anything or coming up with certain records. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of experiences, to have spent time with a diverse group of people and navigated through different social circles. Where I fit in right now is probably more just somewhere in the niche of just being as realistic as possible.”
That broad perspective came from an early age; while his family was based in Milton, Anglin spent much of his time with relatives in Dorchester and other neighborhoods in Boston. His horizons broadened when his talent as a pitcher earned him a place on Ireland’s national baseball team (he holds dual citizenship though his grandparents) and subsequently the chance to travel through Europe for tournament play. Add his eight years of experiences working at a charter school in the city and you get the idea that Anglin probably has a lot to say about a lot of things.
But his rap career didn’t necessarily start that way. Anglin admits that his debut 2010 release, “The Bartender,” a series of braggadocio, party-oriented cuts that played off his side gig behind the bar at Beacon Hill Pub, was aimed at showing people that he had the rap skills to hold his own. By the time he began recording his next album, “20 Something,” he felt comfortable enough to tap into those aforementioned experiences.
“By the time I put ‘20 Something’ together, I had something different in mind,” he says. Without totally forgoing the flashy lyrical exercises (as in the single “Monsters”), he pushed further into more mature areas. “I wanted to make something that’s not just 12 songs of me rapping my ass off, but has different story lines and themes, things like relationships and just growing up to that phase in my life. That ended up being the stuff that people picked up on the most, which felt great as an artist.”
His new album, “Ways to Go,” which will be released as a free download on Nov. 5, continues tracking his evolution right from the opening bars of the first song “Dark Clouds”: He spits, “I’m still searching for who is me, I’m still skipping hate like classes, young truancy/ I’m hip-hop embodied, I spit fluently, still trying to make it through these moral ambiguities.”
Meanwhile, the title cut finds him reflecting on urban life in Boston, referencing racial tensions, drug abuse and crime with pointed details from his personal life.
The album’s centerpiece is the single “State of Grace,” a song written in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in April. Finding a middle ground between the horror and hope both witnessed on that day, Anglin explores the nuances in emotion that reveal more about the city’s, and particularly Dorchester’s, reaction to the tragedy than the phrase “Boston Strong” could ever encapsulate.
“Spending so much time in a tight-knit community like Dorchester, knowing a lot of people affected directly by [the attack] and seeing the acts of good will that came after helped inspire me to write the song,” he explained of the track, of which all proceeds from sales on iTunes go toward a fund set up for the family of Martin Richards, the 8-year-old killed in the bombings, whom Anglin knew personally. The Nov. 16 show is also a benefit for the family. “I think it’s an important thing to do. I’m not trying to be a role model, but I think it’s cool to find a way to give back in some way. It doesn’t matter how much it sells, it’s more the idea that hip-hop can be involved in the community, which is part of the roots of hip-hop, that I feel get left out sometimes.”
Rapper J the S, who met Anglin years ago when they were both volunteering at a Dorchester school, has watched his progression as an artist over the years, one that has mirrored his own in branching out from spitting punch lines to navigating deeper subjects.
“Nat’s in tune with the community and the world around him, and when you’ve got more on your mind, you’re going to eventually want to write that into a song,” says J the S. “Sometimes it takes some time to find how to express those ideas in a creative way, but now he’s showing that he can write stories and concepts that reflect that. You have to find your voice before you can put out that kind of music, and once you are able to do that, you find that fans can connect with you more.”
Fans and critics appear to be getting that message: In August, Anglin was featured as one of the “15 Boston Rappers You Should Know” by XXL Magazine. As he continues to develop as an artist, more attention should follow, and finding a way to label his music won’t likely get any easier.
“I feel like in the last two years, I’ve been more part of the city as part of a whole,” he says. “I’ve been trying to dig in and talk about what’s going on around me. I think especially the last year, what we’ve seen with people like Kendrick Lamar, it has shifted toward that kind of lyricism about what’s going on in his neighborhood. That type of hip-hop is where I’ve kind of found myself in.”
‘I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of experiences, to have spent time with a diverse group of people and navigated through different social circles. ’
Though best known for his solo projects and work with The Greater Good, rapper J the S will give audiences a taste of his new venture as part of the band Blue Gold with a performance on Oct. 21 at Church. . . . Termanology’s new album “G.O.Y.A.” (see “Noisy Neighbors”) gets the Middle East release party treatment, complete with guest spot from Sean Price, on Nov. 8. . . . Black EL teases an idea of his new electronic influenced sound in the recently dropped clip for “cloud control,” produced by Durkin.Martin Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_el_caballero.