Fans of the new generation of Dade County rappers, who came up during the booming internet age of Miami's underground hip-hop scene, have watched artists like N3ll grow up and discover their own claims to fame. But while other Carol City rhymers, like Denzel Curry and Yung Simmie, have gained momentum and made waves overseas, N3ll took a detour with his career, derailed by a string of arrests.
The young rhyme-slinger, who cooked up The Screw Tape in 2015, had several recent run-ins with the police, resulting in gun charges and jail time. Over the past three years, the New Era Gang rapper has been to jail twice for weapons possession. His most recent case came in 2015, just four months after he was released from jail after serving time for another offense.
"I was going through a crazy period in my life," N3ll says over the phone. "I had the Cadillac ATS and was living too fast. I was just wildin' out and going with the wave by letting people influence me to do stupid stuff."
N3ll didn't let his time behind bars faze him. In fact, the lonely days he spent in jail were enough to turn his life around for the better. N3ll got to know the inmates around him and realized that most would never again breathe the fresh air outside of the jail walls. He became familiar with the stories of those who would never return home. Meanwhile, his immediate family, including his older brother Rell, who also raps, supported him every day he was away.
Now that he's out, N3ll, which is short for Darnell, says he's dedicated to staying out of trouble. When he was released last year, he knew he had to integrate everything he learned from his cellmates into his creative process in the studio. The result is his long-awaited debut LP, Year of the Youth.
"It really taught me how to be patient with my lines and lyrics," N3ll says of his jail time. "If you listen to my song 'Cross Me,' you could hear a lot of the lyrics with extra soul in it because we had so much time to ourselves. It wasn't just a two-minute thing. It was truly meditated. It taught me how to take my craft seriously."
His new work is a significant departure from his first mixtape, Boyz n the Hood. His songs are no longer the two-minute freestyles that he frequently dropped on SoundCloud. He has broken away from the ominous raps he spat on mixtapes such as The Revolution '94. And he's shifted gears from the gun-toting visuals of his past projects, like his 2015 video for "Break Yoself 2."
These days, N3ll's sound is defined by a newfound authenticity, heard on records such as "I Don't See You" and "Break, Breaker 2," which samples the theme song for Adult Swim's Rick & Morty. Although his style is more mature in 2017, he still calls on Rell and fellow wordsmiths from his old block to create new street bangers like "Take a Ride" with Yung Simmie and "Redemption" with Denzel Curry.
But even though his music is on the rise, the past couple of months have also been filled with sorrow. In February, N3ll was in the studio when he learned that his father, Johnny McKenney III, had died in a motorcycle accident. McKenney was a big part of N3ll's life and part of his familial support system when he was locked up.
"My dad was always there for me, even when I was away," N3ll says. "He had a lot of words of wisdom for me. After he passed, I immediately felt that he's been looking over me, [helping] me get better at my craft. I started writing this one record, and my sense of urgency was so high with the stuff that I was saying. It was so deep that I felt like it was his energy flowing through me."
N3ll says he has channeled his father's energy with every performance and record he's created over the past month. After the turmoil of the past year, the release of Year of the Youth marks a much-needed bright moment. The album is set to drop independently this year via his New Era Gang imprint. With six singles already recorded, N3ll is shooting to release a 12-track album that will show his progression from his early days in the Raider Klan to his role as the frontrunner of the New Era Gang.
"I have crazy melodies on there," N3ll says. "The vibes are very unorthodox. It goes from slow to hard-core yet still has that upbeat feeling that everyone is looking for. It's going to be so great. I love every record on it so far."
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The first single off the LP will be "VooDoo Man," which is set to feature Miami "rock 'n' soul" artist and close friend Twelve'Len. Along with recording other singles with Simmie and Curry, N3ll also plans to include an unreleased single featuring Rell.
"We got so many songs I don't know which one to put on there. It's gotta be that one great song with me and my bro."
Think of it as an ode to family loyalty.