For our interview, Caleborate asked to meet up at Bear's Lair — the UC Berkeley campus pub. At first, it seemed like an unlikely venue, considering that non-students typically tend to avoid it. But when I got there, the rapper was all smiles as he sat at a bar stool between grad students and faculty members enjoying afternoon brews.
It was clear that the 23-year-old rapper never lost the excitement he's had about Berkeley since he moved there five years ago from Sacramento. After all, Berkeley was the first place where Caleborate truly felt at home.
"I lived out of a bag my whole ass life," he said. Growing up, he split his time between homes, living with his mom in Sac during the school week, with his dad in Pittsburg on weekends, and frequently staying with his grandmothers in Oakland and Berkeley. He never quite felt settled, or like he fit into his Sacramento surroundings — hence the name of his label TBKTR, or "The Black Kid That Raps," which alludes to his former outsider status.
But when Caleborate finally moved to Berkeley, he said, he was able to truly find himself amid a community of creative folks that shared his interests in music, fashion, and other DIY forms of self-expression. And even though he's based in Richmond now, he holds Berkeley dear. Getting a master's degree from Cal is on his bucket list after he finishes his B.A. in communications at San Francisco Academy of Art — though, so far, his budding rap career has kept him too busy to resume his education.
Even if some locals act too cool for the typical Berkeley attractions catering to tourists and students, Caleborate isn't shy about showcasing his earnest appreciation for everything the city offers. And that same unabashed sincerity and enthusiasm is what makes his music so relatable.
On Hella Good, Caleborate's 2015 debut album that propelled him to local acclaim and garnered some national press, he didn't attempt a hyperbolic cool-guy persona in his lyrics. Instead, his rhymes come across as honest and poetic in way that feels incidental rather than overly thought out. He offers new lenses for viewing the mundane, reaching into his day-to-day experiences to find life lessons.
An admirer of J. Cole and early College Dropout-era Kanye West, Caleborate's vulnerability is his greatest strength as a songwriter. Shortly after dropping Hella Good, he had his first big gig at The New Parish last year. During a particularly emotional moment of gratitude to fans, he dropped to his knees and shed a few joyful tears on stage. Opening for Timbaland protégé Tink at the Mezzanine a few months later, he told fans about how he worked at Levi's down the street to make ends meet while creating the album that put him on that stage.
This down-to-earth demeanor is a key reason why Caleborate's music resonates with so many. He's garnered a strong local following, and his recent accomplishments have positioned him as a top Bay Area artist to watch. His new track featuring East Bay superstar G-Eazy, "Want It All," has an impressive three-million-plus plays on SoundCloud, and his past few singles have been getting praise in national music blogs like The FADER and Pigeons & Planes. He's also on the bill for Oakland's annual Labor Day music festival, Hiero Day.
It's no secret that music listeners' habits and attitudes have changed in recent years because of social media. Many rappers have taken up the approach of pumping out unquantifiable mixtapes and singles — that inevitably vary in quality — to keep up with their audiences' thirst for something new. But Caleborate prefers a slower, more meticulous process for both listening and creating. Even though the boundaries between the definition of mixtape and album have largely dissolved in rap, he insists on calling his projects albums. And all summer, he's been putting finishing touches on his next one, 1993, which drops August 29.
"I worry because so much of the industry and so much of music right now is focused on giving the people what they want, and the people like instant gratification," he said. "I don't think we place as much importance anymore on people creating catalogs."
1993 is a truly polished work that showcases Caleborate's gift for both melody and lyricism. With standout production from Mikos Da Gawd, Julia Lewis, and Wax Roof — who have largely been architecting the current wave of soulful, melodic Bay Area rap — the album combines the organic feel of live instruments such as guitar, bass, and keys with understated house beats and ebullient electro-pop synths.
While a lot of rap that opts for a similarly soulful sonic palette takes on a fully vintage, Nineties-indebted feel, 1993's electronic undercurrents make it sound fresh. Its tempo switches and layered melodies allow Caleborate to try on a variety of flows. Musically, it's more polished and elaborate than Hella Good, though it contains similarly humble lyrics. But 1993 also shows Caleborate growing as a poet and storyteller.
"I know I can rap pretty well, that's like — it's a given if you've been doing anything for six years. But I pushed myself, singing," he said. "I tried to become a better writer. Telling a story of where you currently are is easier than delving back or looking forward. With this project, I was able to delve back a little better and really get in touch with how I became the person I am."