People fear not knowing who they are,” rapper Romaro Franceswa says as we sit in Queen Anne’s Mecca Café. “I don’t want kids to fear that anymore. Nah. Who I am is a developing human being. I’m figuring it out and putting the pieces together to make up who I am. We’re all puzzle pieces.”
The intricately arranged black-and-white-tiled floor in the cafe seems to echo his words. The Federal Way native’s new LP Mirror, out now on Seattle’s Black Umbrella label, is a sonic document of that ongoing identity puzzle—one Franceswa gets closer and closer to fully assembling with each record.
Franceswa’s last LP, 2015’s Balance, centered on the different forces in his life pulling him toward two distinct extremes—the church and the streets. Along with parsing that polarized dynamic, Franceswa also took time on the record to question his place in the framework of Seattle’s hierarchal hip-hop scene. On the title track, a haunting voice claims he falls short in comparison to well-known local artists like Porter Ray, Gifted Gab, and Black Umbrella’s Raz Simone. While Balance was simply his attempt to join Seattle’s hip-hop canon, Mirror propels him toward its upper echelon. He brings a new level of confidence and takes strides away from classic boom-bap to incorporate more complex instrumentals and vocal dexterity, including impressive harmonies.
“The transition from Balance to Mirror was me now knowing my place in hip-hop, and being self-reflective of my place,” Franceswa says. “This who I am, and these are the things that made me who I am. Whether it’s being intense, vulnerable, or just rapping. That transition is what I wanted to bring out.”
With Mirror, Franceswa delivers a complex analysis of himself from all angles. On “Never Been Late,” the opening track, featuring Ariana Deboo and Parisalexa, Franceswa dives into a verse bringing the multiple layers of his being into perspective: “Keep them grades up, even though now’days a degree don’t mean much/But you never know when that piece of paper will come clutch, good advice from a nigga that push white in a glove.”
Franceswa, whose parents both hold master’s degrees, was briefly a student at Highline Community College. “I got kicked out of high school my junior year,” he explains. “They had this program, Running Start. They said this usually didn’t happen for kids that got expelled, but I had good enough grades to get in so I caught a loophole. They said I could go to college early. So at 16, I was going to Highline Community College.”
At Federal Way High School, Franceswa was in the top 30 in a class of 500, and taking AP courses at the time he was expelled. He had a 3.3 GPA at Highline before dropping out when his girlfriend at the time became pregnant. At the end of “Never Been Late,” his friend Mike AKA The Kid Philosopher laughs as he explains that Franceswa went “from getting kicked out of school to going back to school to getting kicked back out of school to going to college early.”
Mirror deals with more than Franceswa’s failed attempts at degrees and diplomas. A recurring theme on the record is the balance he still maintains between church and the streets, a topical return to his last LP. On “Right Now,” he raps “Church and dope is all I’ve known my whole life.” While he still plays the drums in church and keeps strong relationships with the congregation, life on the streets remains a big part of his reality.
“My church … it was a Christian restoration center,” he says. “It was based off recovering addicts. So I was seeing people trying to get off dope. Not just people trying to find good spirit feel—no, it’s like ‘I need help. I’m in here right now looking for Jesus and if I don’t find him, I’ll be out there smoking and selling dope.’ So I was seeing fiends my whole life.”
Franceswa is also a dreamer. On “No No No,” another song featuring Ariana Deboo, he talks about following your heart and not allowing anyone to stop you from reaching your goals. The airy track features Deboo’s harmonies, but the most powerful singing comes from Franceswa as he croons “I just want to see you alive, I don’t want to see you die.” He speaks to the youth and acknowledges that “OG’s taught us to be stupid” and counters that with his message that the “sky’s not the limit with your goals.”
I ask him if he wants his own daughters to get their college degrees, and he jokingly tells me his main goal is to keep them “off the pole” before getting serious. “Do what you love. And if you good at it, tell them to pay yo’ ass.” Romaro Franceswa Album Release with Warm Gun and Nyles Davis. Barboza, 925 E Pike St., thebarboza.com. $12. 21 and up. 8 p.m. Weds., Nov 23.