Joshua Quattlebaum, the 21-year-old MC and producer better known by his stage handle, Jay Cue, can describe skateboarding tricks in the exacting tone of a person reading a beginner’s primer: “Pop-shove-it,” he says, letting each monosyllable sputter. “That’s when you pop the board and rotate the end where your back foot is, so the nose is now the tail.” Combine that with a kick flip, he says, and you’ll get an impressive “varial”: part pop, part spin, part pirouette.
Switch feet and the trick becomes twice as difficult, Jay Cue says, because then you’re popping with a bad, awkward foot and keeping your good one firmly planted at the nose. That’s called riding “fakey,” a skill at which the emcee is evidently quite adept. “Anything I can do regular I can do fakey,” he boasts.
Cue learned to skateboard in high school, around the same time he learned to make beats on a computer. He grew up in a quiet bedroom community in Potter Springs, Georgia, roughly a four-hour drive from the state’s capital and epicenter for hip hop. Though Jay Cue certainly wasn’t immune to the trends that sprang from Atlanta – he says he was enamored of the “snap” era, when everyone wore tent-sized T-Shirts and bopped to crisp 808s – he also listened to grunge rock, R&B crooners, and the blues. His mother had been a beauty pageant queen, his father an omnivorous consumer of pop music. Jay Cue was a soft-spoken kid who would eventually find his voice on the fringes of hip hop.
As a teen, Jay Cue joined the NRK Collective (“NRK” stands for “Nobody Really Knows”), a loose consortium of beat-makers who wove songs with darker, stranger, edgier tones, and plumped their lyrics with references to outer space. The group’s nine other members taught Cue how to cobble a track on software and play chords on a synthesizer. They also taught him how to roll around on a deck with two wheels. Once the young emcee cast off his inhibitions, he began minting tracks that veered just a little to the edge of what was popular in contemporary hip-hop. His raps were gritty and aggressive, his beats languid and loungey.
Jay Cue’s new album, Visions of Utopia, drops this week under the Potholes Music imprimatur. The title befits a religious text or a high school student’s aspirational poetry; its sound is redolent of basement jam sessions – the chords, often drawn out with synth pads, create an underlying scrim of downtown cool. The raps, in contrast, are rough and sometimes temperamental. In “Something Missing (Maybe)” he eschews romantic relationships, portraying them as a long parade of cloying text messages, lovers’ spats and smiley-faced emoticons. “Someone to make me smile? Wait wow – what am I thinking? I need to stop it right now,” he raps, in a tone of self-reprobation.
In other songs such as “Gps,” which features a droney cameo from fellow rapper Pyramid Vritra, Jay Cue paints himself as more of a ladies’ man, inviting a female listener to follow him down the road. Singing woozy three-part harmonies over a crude piano arpeggio, Cue paints the kind of fantasy that only exists in pop ballads: a coupe with the top down, a pocket square in his blazer, bottles of champagne being uncorked. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the song comes right after its more acid counterpart, “Something Missing.” At 21, Jay Cue still hasn’t decided what image he wants to project to the world.
Visions of Utopia is a promising, jaggedly experimental, relatively unrestrained debut from a rapper who flits between personae – he’s a ruminative mystic in “Falling Stars,” a barrio Lothario in “Sample Cup,” and a self-disciplined striver in “Keep Focus.” And his delivery style varies as much as his behind-the-mic character changes – from rhyming triplet figures, to singing hooks in a slinky alto and creating layered harmonies, Jay Cue’s voice is unique among rappers.
Yet Jay Cue will certainly produce an even more interesting sophomore effort, if he approaches music with the same degree of rigor he’s applied to skateboarding. “I’m a hands-on learner,” the MC says, explaining that once someone shows him how to do something, he’ll internalize it. “I grew up on my dad playing A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and Nirvana … and when I was really small my mom would hum melodies and I would hum them back. Then NRK introduced me to skateboarding.”
In other words, Jay Cue learned to fakey-ollie by watching friends. He learned to sing because his mother, a former Miss Black Teenage Jacksonville, sang to him in the womb. Jay Cue lets each discipline inform the other, knowing that over time, he’ll master both.