On their debut EP, Boston rapper Billy Dean Thomas expresses unique struggles with a smart, distinctive, and queer voice.

In 2015, Billy Dean Thomas rapped over classical guitarist Ben Verdery’s interpretation of Bach’s “Prelude, Fugue and Allegro.” The result, titled “Black Bach,” is strikingly self-conscious, melodic, and fresh. In other words, it is strikingly Billy Dean Thomas.

Last year, the Boston rapper released their debut EP, Rocky Barboa. The six-song project is smart and energetic hip-hop with a sparse electronic sound. Each track weaves together the many strands of Thomas’s identity; they are queer, black, highly educated, and much more. What Rocky Barboa sometimes lacks in professional production it makes up in charismatic flows, catchy hooks, and witty personal and political lyrics.

The most exciting songs on the EP embrace Thomas’s complex identity. In the title track, Thomas raps over a beat that blends samples of crowds and bongos into a retro sound that would be at home on the Space Jam soundtrack. Against this sporty backdrop, Thomas inhabits the character of Rocky Barboa – a rhetorical boxer armed with verses about navigating queerness as a black person and struggling to succeed as a recent college graduate from a disadvantaged background. Memorably, Thomas subverts rap tropes to address their unusual millennial experience, threatening to “come into your city like a clothing store pop up.”

The EP has plenty of other highlights. “Freeman” is a ballad built around low-fi keys and a ghostly sample of an R&B singer crooning “Freeman, freeman don’t lie.” On the track, Thomas explores the implications of the term “freeman,” reflecting on their family’s slave history and questioning whether they are truly free, even today. “Jab” is an aggressive reprise of the themes of the title track. Over a glitchy, almost 8-bit beat, the Rocky Barboa character is back, throwing punches about growing up in Harlem as the child of a felon father and a 16-year-old mother.

That said, Rocky Barboa has one weakness: its sometimes awkward production. “Show Too Much / Show No Love” buries what could have been a hypnotic beat under a suffocating low-pass filter. “Of Course” is bass and treble heavy, yet almost completely silent in the mid-range. Even the project’s strongest tracks suffer from production issues. On the title track, for instance, the drums and bass feel muddled, overlapping and stifling each other. One exception, however, is “Don,” a track that layers strings, guitars, and groovy 80s synths to create a sound reminiscent of early Kendrick Lamar.

But Billy Dean Thomas has a sharp and effortless charisma that shines through even their roughest tracks. The rap scene needs more queer artists, and Thomas is smart, bold, and ambitious. Rocky Barboa is an imperfect first project, but it is still impressive. And Thomas recently won $12,500 grant from Live Arts Boston, which will presumably go towards giving their next album the polish their lyricism deserves. Whatever Thomas makes next, the rap world ought to watch out for the “Black Bach.”

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