Hustling has always been synonymous with hip-hop: not in the slang sense of the word, though that also has its place, but in the general idea that relentless self-promotion and a ubiquitous presence within the scene are basic requirements for contemporary success. From a distance, Dutch ReBelle might seem a paragon of those virtues. In the past year, the Haiti-born, Milton-raised rapper has quickly risen from promising newcomer to legitimate star, headlining local shows and notching a Boston Music Award nomination, while also playing venues outside New England and drawing national attention from the likes of MTV and XXL magazine.
With the release this week of her new album, "ReBelle Diaries," the spotlight, and the pressure to live up to it, seem certain to grow brighter. ReBelle's hustle has earned her a place on the precipice — but, as with all her work, it's come on her own terms.
"I'm learning about balance and I'm learning about awareness," says ReBelle, shortly before her private album-listening event kicks off on a Monday night at the Bridge Sound & Stage studio in Cambridge. "As far as being out [in the local scene], I'll go to the cookout or the weird private listening party, or the house party. I like to do that kind of stuff because I like genuine interaction, just talking and shooting the [breeze] and hanging out. If I'm at every event, then you kind of just think that I'm that type. But come see me and kick it with me at the restaurant, you know? Do you recognize me? Then come sit down with me and my mom, we're talking trash. I'm just having a lot more fun. At this point, I'm going to say what I want, I'm going to put out what I want, and you're going to like it or you don't."
That's not a bad way to deal with the expectations that inevitably resurface every time the scene produces a hot new prospect who is, by default, tasked with pushing Boston back to hip-hop's forefront. ReBelle addresses the topic on "Diaries" with "I Know," giving a glimpse of her current mind-state: "Know I should have been left, this city too stressed/ They say I'm going to be the one to fix it, because I never ever let 'em pass, no blitz."
"I do strongly believe that the city does feel like I can change things," she says, while admitting that further success could prompt her to relocate. "I do believe I will change people's perspective about waiting for the industry to come to Massachusetts. It's not going to happen. If you wanna be known, you gotta go everywhere."
The new album reflects ReBelle's hectic life at the moment, which she compares to being "on a roller coaster with my hands up." Over Gwen Stefani's aching vocals from No Doubt's cover of "It's My Life," ReBelle articulates her winner's mentality with an incisive and convincing flow ("y'all can see it in me, I'm confident/ your approval to me is no accomplishment . . . living life like I'm supposed to do because I'm the one they keep toasting to"). "Stop It" and the aggressive bounce of lead single "Yen," featuring Millyz, represent the album's high-energy, club-ready side, but ReBelle points out that she never writes songs with a specific audience in mind.
"I love any record that I cut that I think most women are going to respond to, and it ends up being the guys that love it," she says, pointing to "Goddess" as an example. "Anytime that happens, that's so weird and dope. It being something that females can sing to and guys like it, that works. And it's important only because I hate when girls don't listen to hip-hop at all. I don't need you to be a girl who is out buying every CD and memorizing lyrics, but just listen."
Those tracks are the exception to an album mostly ensconced in a mellow, contemplative vibe, exemplified by "All on Me" and "Love Is," a confessional expose of a tumultuous relationship, with all its flaws.
"I think that my family and my friends are picking up on the fact that I'm going to be very literal and specific, because it helps tell the story," ReBelle says. "I haven't really put anyone on blast in a negative sense, but it's coming. And I feel like they know it, because it's my life; I can't make it up. If I choose to not say the person's name, it's an easy way to do that, but people who grew up with me know who I'm talking about. They are more interested in the way that I explain it. It's kind of like a form of therapy."
As the listening event gets underway, ReBelle's personal approach to the hustle becomes apparent. A small group of invited members from the city's hip-hop community arrives and mingles, while ReBelle's friends stock a refreshment table with homemade sangria and platters of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Before dropping the needle on "Diaries," she's working the room, catching up with people at an easy pace. Even as she anticipates bigger and better things on the horizon, she has no issue with keeping both feet on the ground.
"I love that people are connecting with what I'm saying," she says. "The only part that I don't like is I do feel the bigger-than-life thing starting to happen, and I'm thinking, Please, don't do that to me. I do feel there are a lot of people that are hesitant to speak to me now. People are feeling like they can't approach me as much, and that's not the case. So I think that with 'Diaries,' that's my point. People are feeling more comfortable with me, so I want them to feel more comfortable with where I come from."
Two local heavyweights celebrate landmark releases this month with shows at the Middle East Downstairs. On Saturday night, Edo G looks back at his two decades in the game (while also looking ahead to the future, naturally) with "After All These Years," his Kickstarter-funded 11th LP, and he'll be joined by proteges G. Dot and Born, who impressed with their album "Confidence" earlier this year. Exactly one week later, Slaine is due for his coronation as "The King of Everything Else," marking his newest solo effort with a concert featuring longtime cohorts Termanology and Rite Hook.