The sun is setting as Kaleem Muhammed, AKA Phresh James, sips a glass of Cabernet at an outdoor café near Little Haiti.
Relaxing after dropping his kids home from school, the Carol City born rapper pauses to chat with two girls as they walk past. Keeping the conversation light yet engaging, he is a ladies man and has a natural way for words.
"My mom was an English teacher," explains Phresh. "I studied English at Miami-Dade College, but it wasn't for me. I still read, though. The last book I read was a wisdom book on love."
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Lyrical yet able to relate to the average listener, Phresh's rhymes reflect what goes on in his day-to-day life.
On his last album, Universal Love Period, relationships were a central theme. Tracks like "Lonely" showed him moving on from a tough breakup.
Fast-forward two years and he has matured, resulting in the upcoming album, The Greater Good.
"Transition from boy to man that's what this album represents," the rapper says. "From intro to the end, you're getting me looking myself in the mirror, coping, and telling it from then on."
Growing up, Phresh was more into his books than rapping. He favored science and English, thinking about a career in architecture or business management. It wasn't until after high school when he met up with Lil Champ, his partner on the mixtape M.i.aliens, that chose the hip-hop path.
"I got into the studio when Champ was recording," Phresh recalls. "Made a freestyle over a Young Buck beat, put it on MySpace, and Champ gave me encouragement, like, 'You should take this more seriously.' Ever since that day, rapping was something I knew I wanted to do."
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As a teenager, Phresh listened to Trick Daddy, Outkast, and Nas among others. On Sundays, Sade, Anita Baker, and the Isley Brothers played when his family cleaned the house. File-sharing sites like Kazaa and Soulseek were big, and the first song he remembers being into was "Black Ice" by Goodie Mob. Though his brother and friends were putting him onto music, he was developing his own taste from a young age.
On Universal Love Period, he channeled all those influcences and drew on a wide-ranging cast of collaborators. But this time around, Phresh has relied more on himself and one main producer, DJ Manuvers. At 12 tracks in length, The Greater Good picks up where ULP left off and speeds into a new direction.
"I came in heartbroken, then it's like I'm flexin'," he explains. "Me being a drinker, but a father. My parents being Muslim. You're getting everything now. This is an album, a story."
In short, James is embracing both personal and artistic evolution.
Seeing his three young children, Mariyah, Kaleem II, and Laila grow up has given him balance. In the last year, James has dedicated himself to music. He's also hit a steady creative stride, putting out projects like Super Tunes From the Amazon and No Force Necessary while collaborating on tracks with friends J Nics and Prez P.
"A lot more people are starting to understand me as lyrical. Back in the day, people were like, 'You're too conscious." Now I can come in on anything. These days, I'm maturing as an artist. I'm all about becoming a better person, the greater good is the man."
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But maturing no longer means discarding the Phresh James name. For a time, he considered retiring that moniker and switching to Kaleem Mohammed. But after a second thought, the rapper now insists that Phresh is here to stay.
"For a second, I felt people weren't grasping to Phresh. When I tried to change the name it was like, 'You got to stick with what you're doing.' I just want people to feel what I'm putting out."
-- Bernard Hacker