It should come as little surprise to anyone that Celsius 7 — aka Jacob Battersby — spent part of his childhood doing make-believe renditions of West Side Story with his older sister. He still carries himself like a Jet: gold neck chain, bowler hat, vague hint of a New York accent, even though he grew up in Alameda. For a rapper, he's unusually theatrical — someone who doesn't shy away from dressing up in drag for a music video, or flaunting his biceps in a mesh shirt (as he did in the low-budget secret agent movie Night Moves, directed by his friend Prozack Turner), or waltz around in the guise of his alter ego, a Seventies-style libertine named Smooth Rick the Chosen. Celsius so enjoys hamming it up that it's occasionally hard to see the rapper as he sees himself: a serious, meticulous, introspective, borderline-perfectionist artist who puts incredible care into his creative process. He says his new album, Life Well Spent, reflects that side of his personality. With a little luck, it may change the way he's perceived by audiences.
"I might even hire a publicist this time," the rapper said, over a meal of Parmesan fries and beer at Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill, which is just a stone's throw from his apartment. Traditionally, he's handled all the management and booking for three hip-hop acts, and, unlike most artists, he was pretty good at it. (Before going solo, he rapped in the party-oriented group Psychokinetics, and he still raps, as Smooth Rick, in the parody outfit Kalri$$ian.) Battersby the businessman is a guy who answers e-mails right away, types smiley emoticons at the end of his sentences, and promotes his work in a way that's not painfully self-aggrandizing. Offstage, he does publicity for a video game music symphony, so he has loads of experience in that realm.
But now his attention lies elsewhere: consolidating his rap career, cultivating a larger fan base, and, to a certain extent, proving himself. Life Well Spent is actually the 36-year-old emcee's second solo effort — he debuted with the 2008 release Wanderlust. That one was tongue-in-cheek, breezy, and sometimes a little unfocused. (Its most famous track, "Manners," is a long and hilarious catalog of personal pet peeves.) This one is more of a lyricist's album, he says. It includes several featured guests (Baby Jaymes, Dub Esquire, Foreign Legion, and Dirt Nasty, alongside producers Hi Right, E-Train, Chronic and Chrome, and the typographically adventurous iLL MEDiA) but retains tonal consistency and a distinctive voice throughout. He began writing it three years ago, while riding the subway from Queens to Manhattan on a bitingly cold winter day. "It was depressing," he said. "I was looking out the window and I thought up a melody in my head."
The song, "Love with Love," is a self-pitying break-up ballad with a hook by singer Shannon Curtis. It's written in a minor key and contains notes about the winter cold, which becomes a metaphor for the rapper's inner landscape. Despite such pedestrian imagery, the song still seems sincere and heartfelt: In the first verse, Celsius periodically checks his non-ringing cell phone and gripes about the people who haven't called. To a modern listener, nothing says "you're a loser" like a silent wireless communication device.
"Love with Love" is actually the last track on Life Well Spent, and it's an odd way to close an album that's largely about personal growth. But Celsius thinks it's one of his stronger tracks, anyway. Indeed, much of Life is about bridging the gulf between Celsius the performer and Jacob Battersby the writer, and creating a seamless autobiography. It's fitting that the opener, "Minds Like Me," and second track, 'Givin' Up," are both about his 32-year relationship with hip-hop. He describes it as the defining force of his life.
"I knew the lyrics to 'Rappers Delight' when I was three years old," he bragged, recounting all the turning points in his career: discovering the Beastie Boys (which served as a gateway drug to harder hip-hop); dubbing mix tapes on a tape recorder; rapping into a karaoke machine; coinciding with Living Legends rappers the Grouch and Sunspot Jonz at College of Alameda; dabbling in music as an environmental science student at San Francisco State. He launched Psychokinetics in the mid-Nineties, and started honing his chops during what many would call a renaissance era for Bay Area hip-hop. At that time, the emphasis was on live performance, rather than overexposure on Twitter or YouTube. It was an ideal setting for a guy who enjoyed playing dress-up.
The latest iteration of Celsius 7 is more polished, more fluent with vocabulary words ("vociferous" is a new favorite), more capable of expressing emotions, and more eager to write things out ahead of time. He's also more thoughtful — both on record and offstage. Right before the Lake Chalet interview, he drove to Glenview to visit an ex-girlfriend and her new baby. The rapper text-messaged on his way back, to say he'd be a couple minutes late. "Just make sure to mention I kiss babies in the article," he wrote.