Track 3: Interlude

Track3buttonAlisha waited eagerly curbside at the airport. She arched her neck to see over the throngs of people making their way to their loved ones after long flights, business trips, or vacations. A glint of his gold chain reflected from the midday sun as he came through the sliding glass doors. It caught her eye and her heart leapt into her throat. Suddenly, she felt her pulse quicken and her temperature rise. Her cheeks flushed rosy pink even before he noticed her standing there.
      From across the way they made eye contact. Her stomach fluttered. She couldn’t control the smile that was forming. It felt like it was spreading through her entire body. It had been a hard few months apart, but she still felt the same the moment she laid eyes on him.
      Flashing lights and a couple of frenzied screams broke their connection.
      “Hey, it’s Mack!” a young girl squealed. A small group of fans quickly surrounded him asking for autographs and shoving camera phones in his face. He pulled down his large framed glasses, signed a couple, and then pushed his way through the crowd to her.
      “Let’s get in the car,” he said curtly without even stopping to kiss or hug his girlfriend.
      Too stunned to protest, she complied. The fluttering, excited high she had felt seeing him came crashing down. Her heart sank heavily in her chest, and a worried knot began to form in her stomach. He didn’t feel the same as she did. She knew that now. For some reason they had been drifting apart since he left home. She had hoped this trip would bring them back together. She had filled the last few days with wishful thoughts of how their future could be, how they could get things back to the way they once were. She could hardly contain her excitement.
      And yet, he barely even gave her a second glance. The fear crept into her head that maybe he planned this trip to break up with her. Maybe he hadn’t come home to save them but rather end them.
      She got on the freeway without a word. Mack looked anxiously out the window.
      “Can you pull over?” he asked. There was a mix of frustration and desperation in his voice she hadn’t heard before.
      “What?”
      “Pull over. Anywhere. I just need some air.”
      Alisha stopped at the closest fast food joint, parking the car at the far end of the lot. Before she could protest or ask questions, Mack reached over, grabbed her face and kissed her like everything depended on it. It was frantic and hungry. He breathed heavily as he fell back into his seat and grabbed his forehead.
      “You okay?” Alisha said shocked.
      As he looked her over, it was as though he had never left. He had never gone on tour with Lion and his single had never made it on the iTunes top 100 list. People everywhere didn’t know his name. He was still just a kid who liked to rap and sing in his friend’s basement with his high school sweetheart at his side.
      He thought about the ring. The one he had used his whole album advance to buy. It was a small diamond, laughable buy rapper standards, but it was all he could afford. The damn thing was practically burning a hole in his back pocket, begging for him to pull it out.
      The phone conversation with his Uncle Frank repeated in his head. He had called for advice on what exactly cut and color meant but got more than he had bargained for. Frank wasn’t shy about his opinion and told him it was a bad decision; that they were too young to marry. Mack understood where he was coming from but still couldn’t shake the fact that he needed her by his side. He was better with her. On some level, he knew that their relationship might not survive a prolonged distance. A couple months apart and he could already feel her slipping away. He just needed one big gesture to show that he was in this as much as she was. There had to be something to bring them back to good.
      “Baby, what’s wrong? What has gotten into you?” Her face was awash with concern.
      He might not have agreed with Frank, but he couldn’t shake the warning entirely. He chose not to reach for the box. Perhaps a different sort of proposal would suffice, he thought. “Come on tour with me.”
      “What?” This hadn’t been what she had expected to hear. Then again, everything had taken a strange turn from the moment she picked him up. He wasn’t acting like himself.
      “I’m gunna to be opening some shows while we get the word out there about the album. Come with me.”
      “What about school?” It was her freshman year, and she couldn’t afford to drop everything to follow him on tour.
      “It’s a week away from winter break.”
      She thought about his proposal, and it made sense. She had a month off between the fall and spring semesters. Things had been changing quickly since Mack’s fame started to grow. Overnight his picture was everywhere, pictures of them together and even pictures of him with other women. She couldn’t stand the thought of losing him. Maybe following was the best use of her break. She had planned on picking up extra shifts at the coffee shop, but saving their relationship felt more urgent.
      “Okay,” she whispered finally.
      “Okay? Sweet. I’ll call Mary and have her add you to the flight.” Mack’s tone was hesitant but hopeful. He’d marry her someday. He was sure of that, but now he just needed a little more time to get things going with his album. When he had a more stable career, when he knew he could give her the future she deserved, he’d ask her. He made a promise to himself as she got back on the highway, and they headed for her apartment.

Track 2: Shut It Down

track2button“Maybe you should just go alone. It’s your event. You don’t even need me there.” Alisha adjusted the hem of her skirt as she shifted her weight anxiously. She wiped her palms on the worn-out car upholstery trying to both dry the sweat and calm her nerves.
      “Babe, we talked about this. I need you there. You’re my ride or die chick. Geez, the song is even about you. How am I going to roll up in there without my girl, looking like a fool?” He gave her knee a small squeeze, hoping she would stop shaking. Her mood was starting to rub off on him and this was not an event he could afford to blow. Tonight, of all nights, he needed to be on top of his game.
      “I’m not going to fit in. I’m a student. What am I going to talk about with music producers, radio DJs, and magazine editors?”
      He glanced at her in the passenger seat. The neon colored lights of the downtown Atlanta strip were reflecting off her soft almond skin. She looked like a movie star tonight, dressed in a low cut purple dress she had borrowed from her roommate. He couldn’t wait until he could buy her something nice of her own. She deserved everything she wanted. The streetlights made her deep grape colored gloss sparkle as she bit her lip. The gold flecks of eye shadow glistened. She looked amazing.
      “Mack?” Alisha gave him a looked that asked if he was even listening to her.
      He shook himself out of his trance.
      “You’re the star. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Just—” he paused and took a deep breath, “—just stand by my side. I got you.”
      He took her hand and instantly she felt more relaxed.
      “It’s my first industry party, too, you know,” he consoled her.
      “Yea, but at least you know everyone here.”
      “So do you. You know Big Man.”
      “No, I know of him. I know him from the radio like everyone else.”
      “It doesn’t even matter. You’ll do great. You ready?” He looked at her with an arched eyebrow.
      Before she could respond, her door was opened from the outside by a mountain-sized man in a black on black suit. His head looked like a bowling ball resting on a gorilla. Hesitantly, she took his hand and stepped out of the car on to the sidewalk in front of the club. Her ankle buckled awkwardly, her high heel slipped, and she tumbled into the doorman. Flash bulbs went off from somewhere adding to her disorientation.
      “You okay, ma’am?” he asked as he righted her with ease.
      She shook it off and adjusted her dress. Before she knew it, Mack was at her side, hooking their arms together for support. Alisha plastered a smile on her face to hide the pain, both from her twisted ankle and the embarrassment.
      “Let’s get it,” he said excitedly as they entered the club.

      Club Trap was in full swing as the couple entered. The bass could be felt even from the street as the DJ blasted tracks from Atlanta’s finest underground artists and mixed them with his own blend of southern house beats. The dance floor, bar, and VIP section were teeming with young hot clientele. The women looked like they were making a rap video. Their exaggerated coke-bottle bodies were covered by strategically placed, barely-there clothing. Their hair was perfect, nails well-manicured, and they moved effortlessly in their staggering six-inch heels. Opposite them, the men donned simple, oversized white t-shirts, baggy jeans, fresh white sneakers, and piles of gold chains around their necks. They bounced slightly to the rhythm of the music as the women worked hard grinding it out on the dance floor.
      “Hey, yo, kid!” a slim guy called from behind the velvet ropes as Alisha and Mack passed by.
      “Ey!” Mack answered back.
      The bouncer guarding the VIP selection lifted the rope letting them in. Mack and the strange looking man exchanged a series of complicated handshakes ending with a one armed hug.
      “Big Man, I want you to meet my girl. This is Alisha.” He stepped aside so the two could exchange greetings.
      “Ah, so you’re the one I’ve heard so much about. The girl who launched a career,” Big Man said as he smiled widely, revealing a mouthful of silver and diamonds. His grill gave him a robotic feeling that added to his already unusual appearance. Manuel Samson, known to his friends as Manny and to the rap world as Big Man, was short and slender with a head full of long, thin dreads that nearly reached the small of his back. For shows he would have his stylist work them into elaborate headpieces, weaving them like a crown. Tonight he had it tied back in a simple ponytail.
      “Big Man. It’s an honor to meet you.”
      “It’s Manny, girl. You’re in the Wild ‘n’ Rich family now.”
      Alisha smiled and nodded, overwhelmed to be surrounded by such big names in music. Manny never traveled alone. He brought most of the crew out for the night from his small record label. There was Amika Ross, the only female rapper on the scene these days. Her ass seemed to be as big a star as she was. No one could deny her raw talent and unbelievable skills. Next to Amika was Lavonte Smith, a rapper Manny signed more than two years ago. He was working hard, putting in his time, guesting on a ton of other artists’ tracks, but had yet to have a big hit himself.
      Also with them was the artist known as Lion. Lion was the biggest earner at Wild ‘n’ Rich Records, the label that Manny ran. His super fans called themselves the Cubs and when he guested on an album it was known as him leaving his paw-print. Lion was as big as they came in the industry. The fact he had showed up in Atlanta for a listening session at a club meant major publicity for Mack’s album release.
      Before they could ask for anything, champagne glasses were placed in Mack and Alisha’s hands.
      “To the future,” Manny offered as they toasted.
      The music suddenly died to a low rumble. The crowd groaned in response.
      “Hey, everybody! You having a good time tonight?” the DJ called from his booth high above the dance floor at the front of the stage. The people below cheered. “I have a very special treat for y’all. Wild ‘n’ Rich is in da building! And I am told that we have the very first copy—Is that right?—of a track by the newest, hottest, dopest artist to be signed to their label, Mack.”
      The legions of young music lovers erupted in screams as they noticed Big Man, Amika, Lavonte, and Lion, in the VIP section waving and causing a scene. Mack stood amongst them, wide-eyed and frozen. Strangely, he felt both out of place and completely at home as the center of attention.
      “Now, ya know I have the CD right here. I could just press play. But…I’m pretty sure if you holla loud enough, we could get the kid out on the stage to throw it down for you.” The DJ egged on the crowd. He gestured towards the VIP section. “Mack…Mack…Mack…” he continued.
      “Kill it,” Big Man yelled in Mack’s ear over the chanting.
      Mack could feel his lunch churning in his stomach. This hadn’t been the plan. They were supposed to play the record, hopefully people would like it, talk about it, and it would start to get some traction. He didn’t have a performance planned.
      He felt a firm squeeze on his hand. Alisha.
      “You can do this. You’ve done it a million times before,” she encouraged him.
      She was right, mostly. He had performed many times before. The album he wrapped up, the one with this single on it, was his third mix-tape to date. But when he had performed the others, it had been in small, half filled, underground clubs where no one knew him and no one cared. The club tonight was filled with record execs, members of the media, and the rest of his record label. So much more was on the line now than ever before. He couldn’t do it.
      “Just sing to me. Only me.”
      For a moment, the club melted away and Mack and Alisha were the only two people who existed. She winked at him knowingly, flashing the smile that always made him weak. It was everything he needed and more. He nodded and planted a crowd-pleasing kiss on his girl before heading for the stage.
      As he grabbed the mic, the familiar bass line kicked in. Without hesitation, Mack led off with the chorus. It didn’t take long for the dance floor to come alive. The beat was hot, and Mack’s vocals were on point. As he launched into his first rap verse, there was a moment of uncertainty. No one had been expecting him to both sing and rap. Yet, he did it effortlessly. The pause was brief, and the crowd once again was behind him. They loved it. They loved him.
      He watched as everyone in the club bounced to his music and reached out for him as if he were some big name performer. Girls pushed towards the front of the stage, trying to get his attention. All he could see was Alisha in the back of the club, dancing away like she was the only one in the room. To him, she was. She didn’t fit in with the normal crowd here. Against the backdrop of fake hair and trashy outfits, she stood out like a star.
      After his song, he pulled her to the center of the dance floor as the DJ regained control of the music selection.
      “They are all looking at you,” she said in his ear over the loud house beats.
      “Naw, they’re looking at you,” he said as he planted a kiss on her lips.

~~~

“What time is it?” Alisha’s voice was rough from the night out, screaming over the music.
      “Huh? Oh, it’s 8:30,” Mack answered distractedly. He was seated in the bed, focusing intently on his computer screen.
      “8:30? You got to be kidding me. Why didn’t you wake me up?” She leapt from the bed and started frantically pawing through the pile of clothes on the floor. “I’m late for class. Jesus. How long have you been up?”
      “Look at this,” as he turned the screen towards her. The photo of him on stage was splattered across the screen, freezing her in her tracks.
      “What’s that?”
      “Beat-Freak’s blog. She was there last night and wrote all about it. Get this,” he began reading from the website: “Hip hop mastermind Big Man may have a money maker on his hands. New artist Mack brings something to the table rarely seen before. With his unique mix of singing and rapping, he is a fresh and hopeful sound in an otherwise pitiful period in rap history. Mack threw down last night at a listening party turned showcase at Club Trap to promote his new single and mix tape expected to hit the shelves early this month. Wild ‘n’ Rich Records is said to be launching an all-out media-assault campaign to support its newest member. Label front man, rapper and producer Big Man, is seemingly putting his full support behind his young protégé. At only 18, Mack sings of deep love, tough times, and crazy success. His lyrics are beyond their years, with a sound that’s new for the ages. We here at Beat-Freaks can’t wait to hear what’s next.”
      “Wow,” Alisha said in awe. “That’s huge. Beat-Freaks posted that? Holy crap, that’s incredible!” She gushed as she jumped back into bed by his side.
      Before they could celebrate, Mack’s cell phone began vibrating on the nightstand. “Yo,” he answered. He covered the receiver and mouthed “Big Man” to Alisha, who nodded. “Yeah, I just saw it this morning. It’s awesome… Sure, I can make it there this afternoon. Yup, I’ll be there.”
      Mack hung up the phone and stared at Alisha excitedly.
      “What?” she urged him.
      “Manny wants me to come to the office this afternoon to talk about going on tour with Lion.”
      “That’s amazing, honey!”
      Mack looked deep into her eyes with boyish eagerness. “Skip class. Let’s celebrate.”
      “You know I can’t. I’m already late,” she shook her head and rolled her eyes a little.
      “Exactly. You are already late, so why bother going? Let’s get pancakes. Come on. It’s not every day your man crushes it at a nightclub and then gets offered a spot on a tour. Come on, come on, come on.” He begged as he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her in closely. He whispered in her ear, and she began to laugh and squirm.
      “Fine, one class. But I have to make it to my 11 a.m. Got it?”
      Mack kissed her and jumped out of bed. “Well then, we better get moving.”

Track 1: Best I Ever Had

Track1He fidgeted nervously in the front seat of the car just outside Alisha’s apartment building, tapping the plastic case against the steering wheel to the beat in his head. He hadn’t put in the CD yet. He didn’t want it to start until just the right moment when she was sitting next to him. That and he couldn’t bring himself to listen to it on the way over. The anxiety pulsed through Mack. He contemplated driving off. He’d just explain something came up. She could hear the track at another time.
      “This is a terrible idea,” he muttered to himself.
      What if she hated it? Everything he had been working so hard for rested heavily on this one track. Months of preparation boiled down to four minutes and thirty-two seconds.
      Alisha had to be the first to hear it. She would tell him honestly what she thought. He wasn’t sure he was ready to hear it.
      The rusty white metal door on the front of the building swung open. Alisha made her way down the stoop and through the twisted walkway in the darkness to Mack’s car waiting out front. He watched as she half jogged half walked. His heart skipped a beat. There was no turning back now.
      “Hey baby, you don’t want to come up?” she asked sweetly as she got in the car and leaned over for a kiss. Her roommates weren’t home for once. They could have the apartment to themselves.
      Mack sat silently trying to work up the courage to say something. He should explain the track before playing it. He should prepare her in some way. Suddenly the words couldn’t find him.
      “Is everything ok? You look awful.”
      The stress was written all over his face. He stopped tapping the CD and looked over at his girlfriend of a year.
      “Is that it?” she asked hopefully.
      He nodded.
      “Do I get to hear it?”
      He nodded but didn’t move, suddenly frozen with uncertainty.
      Without a word she took the plastic case from his sweaty hands, slipped out the CD, and placed it in the car stereo.
      Mack turned his focus out the front window and stared down the street. He couldn’t bring himself to watch her reaction.
      The music started. First the drums came in. They rattled the car as they pulsed repetitively. The beat flowed through the speakers, surrounding them with the music Mack had spent so much time putting together. He could feel it in his chest. Not just the bass, but the words, the feeling, and the vibe. It was a part of him, a huge part. It was all about her. It was always going to be about her.
      Alisha sat silently as she listened to Mack sing the hook and then spit the verses. He had never talked this openly about his feelings before and yet there it was for the world to hear. It was the single he was going to release, the one the record label was finally going to push, on it he told everyone that she was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. That she was better than the rest, she had his heart and no one else could compete. He was going to take her with him straight to the top. They were in this together.
      The seconds ticked down, the music faded out, filling the car with silence. She had been expecting another rap about him being the greatest of all time, like rappers often preach. This was not something she had prepared a reply for. The CD player attempted to restart, but Mack smacked the power buttoned before it had the chance.
      “I thought you liked when I wore makeup,” she commented on the line in the song.
      He smiled to himself. She had picked up on it. She was always a good listener. “Girl, you know you don’t need it.”
      She smirked at him. Mack often told her she looked better when she was bumming around the house with just him than when she got dolled up for a night out.
      “So?” he asked tentatively.
      “Eh,” she shrugged and cringed.
      “Eh? That’s all you got?” He was stunned, angry, and offended.
      “I mean, it’s alright.”
      “Alright? Are you serious? This shit is amazing.”
      “And this is the one Big Man wants to push? I guess he’s the expert. I just…eh. I don’t know, babe.” Alisha tried to hide her smile. She knew exactly how to get him worked up.
      Mack shook his head and threw his hands in the air, completely baffled by his girlfriend’s response. “You are tripping. I don’t even know right now. I can’t believe. Are you serious? Maybe you need to get out the car.”
      “Hey, don’t hate. You asked what I thought.”
      Mack crossed his arms in a huff.
      Finally, Alisha cracked a smile and let out a playful laugh; the one Mack always loved to hear. “I’m just playin’ with you. Damn, you’re sensitive. It’s amazing, boo. You’re amazing.”
      “You think so?” Mack asked cautiously.
      “I do. I’m your number one fan.”
      “You’re my number one girl,” he said lovingly and leaned in for a kiss.
      She smacked him away. “I’m your only girl.”
      “Best I ever had.”