Charlotte’s hip-hop and R&B communities are having a moment.
Mavi, a Queen City hip-hop stalwart, is reverberating nationwide, selling out shows around the country and landing profiles from major media outlets like NPR and Rolling Stone. Dexter Jordan, a staple of Charlotte R&B, sang alongside Ari Lennox in her Charlotte tour stop earlier this year.
Reuben Vincent, the understudy of super-producer 9th Wonder, recently signed a deal with Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation, becoming only the third North Carolinian to join the storied hip-hop label.
Don’t call it a come up. Don’t call it a comeback. But something is in the water in Charlotte.
Cyanca, a beloved and revered figure in the scene — dubbed Charlotte’s Queen of Neo-Soul by Queen City Nerve in 2020 — is ready to ensure that her name is included in this dynamic roster.
On the cusp of releasing her fourth EP — her first project since 2021’s Fast Times — Cyanca has been grappling with her relationship to the local scene.
“I’m just really trying to find my way as a Black woman, just really trying to stand on that,” Cyanca told Queen City Nerve. “And really push … especially in a very male-dominated industry.”
Her new EP Late 2 the Party, which drops on Sept. 29 with a release show scheduled that night at the Evening Muse, wrestles with the anxiety of feeling simultaneously behind and forgotten in the industry. A mixture of old releases and new, she maintains the familiar laid-back, braggadocious persona, but importantly, she begins to unmoor from the aura of detached cool that has marked her career so far.
“Idk,” the opening track and only single from the seven-track EP thus far, pulls down Cyanca’s iconic shades to reveal the doubts swirling behind them.
“Have to figure out if I want to be an artist…” she murmurs as her voice echoes over melancholic layered synths. “I don’t know what’s really good with me/ but I do know that I got big dreams…”
Produced by Durham duo Foreign Specimen, the undulating beat materializes the doldrums that have trapped Cyanca, complete with the warped vinyl warble so iconic of her output thus far.
“The EP is a very, super ‘I’m talking shit’ vibe,’” Cyanca reflected. “But I wanted to include [‘Idk’] anyway because I wanted to show the soft side of me … I wanted to tell you all that shit up front, raw like, ‘Yo, I’m really questioning this shit,’ then I’m like ‘Alright,’ and I enter into my alter ego.”
Indeed, just as “Idk” concludes its chilly refrain, Cyanca seems to swell back to her self-confident persona with “PB&J.” Originally released on Fast Times in 2021, “PB&J” jolts the listener back into Cyanca’s alter ego over the glowing warmth of brassy horns.
“Yeah, I saw your message, but I left that shit on read…” she sings dismissively, “My bad, this my jim jam. Stop calling my phone, I’m not answering…”
For fans that might be late to the party, Cyanca peppers in two other previously released tracks on the EP. The inclusion of the top two streaming songs in her oeuvre — “EAT” and the 2017 hit “New Phone, Who Dis?” — represent a shift in strategy for her and her team. As she gains new fans, she wants to make sure that her hits don’t get lost in the saturated streaming market.
“Even though I’ve had these bursts of hype moments, I’m still emerging,” she said.
It’s paying off. Drake’s OVO Sound radio station recently spun “New Phone,” which serves as the finale of Late 2 the Party. While she’s ready to move forward in both style and strategy, these shit-talking records reintroduce her persona as she shifts toward more vulnerable explorations like “Idk.”
The newly recorded tracks on the project likewise develop her undeniably cool performance persona. “Badazz” lives up to its name, carrying the only feature on the album with veteran Charlotte rapper Deniro Farrar delivering a buttery diatribe to set up Cyanca later in the track. The two found themselves together in the studio three years ago and Cyanca jumped on her chance to get Farrar on one of her records.
“Just go on the track and talk shit,” she instructed him.
And talk shit he does. Described by Cyanca as conjuring the spirit of ODB (mixed with slick-talking West Coast emcee Suga Free, in this writer’s opinion) Deniro intones: “I’m gonna let y’all ni**as know what you need to know and everything that I’m going to let you know is on a need-to-know basis, you understand me?”
The track seeps confidence from its pores, with jangling bells keeping time for a bassline that sounds like it could be the soundtrack for an ’80s arcade game.
In line with her reflections in “Idk,” however, Cyanca sat on the record due to self-doubt.
“Everything that I do is healing … healing for me,” she explains. “Badazz” felt inauthentic to her struggles back when she recorded it. Now, however, she’s ready to step back into that confidence donning, as she croons in her first line on the record, “kitty cat glasses with some Reeboks, baby…”
The final novel track on the record, “Ugly,” extends the minute-and-a-half shit-talking on “Badazz” into a full statement. Over a chopped warbling sample that sounds like a record whose grooves have been lovingly worn down with age, Cyanca brings the detached confidence of a good old-fashioned hip-hop diss record, albeit with sparse but poignant lyricism.
“I feel like I’m a slow burn. I feel like it takes a while for me to open up,” Cyanca told Queen City Nerve. “And I think that a lot of that has to do with the trauma that I’ve encountered from childhood. Even in my adulthood, I’m just very careful.”
We get a brief glimpse into these self-protective walls with cutting lines like, “Balling ain’t your nature but you want to layup … the fuck?”
Clearly, Cyanca is not one to be played or played with. However, her sparse lyricism, a quality found across her catalog, doesn’t need clever lines and double entendres to retain its force. With all of the plain-spoken power of the 12-bar blues, she deals the final blow to haters in her sing-song refrain: “You ain’t ugly/ You just broke…”
With Late 2 the Party, Cyanca reintroduces this shit-talking persona to set us up for what’s to come.
“This is a chapter I’m closing,” she said of the EP.
Her long-awaited forthcoming debut album, slated to be released next year, will drop some of this affect and show us a raw glimpse inside of her struggle with self-doubt, trauma, and her healing journey. Referencing the loss of her mother at 2 years old, she is ready to share the more intimate moments of her life with fans old and new alike.
“I really love this shit. And I have a story. I’ve been through so much trauma. I don’t say this lightly. I’m really doing this for me and my momma,” she said.
Cyanca’s been working on the album for more than four years, which is fairly normal for a self-described perfectionist. With her team pushing her to take more risks in her release schedule, she has been forced to confront whether or not her perfectionism is a gift or an obstacle.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” she told the Nerve. “But I think it was hindering me. In a sense of, you know, we’re living in a very digital society where things move fast.”
Part of Cyanca’s process in letting go has included embracing fluidity in her artistry. The pressures of today’s industry often force artists to try to curate a distinctive, stable brand even before they release any music. Too often creative, dynamic artists are suppressed under the rushing, relentless waters of the streaming algorithm. If artists aren’t comprehensible quickly — sometimes within the first few bars of a track — they can be cast aside.
Cyanca, however, is ready to face the fear of being, well, her.
“I may be like very tomboyish one day. Then I’ll be like, super feminine. And I’m just very fluid,” she said. “And I was scared before to like push that because I felt like I didn’t want people to be confused. But maybe it was a good thing that they’re confused. Like, ‘She’s mysterious,’ or, ‘We don’t know what we’re gonna get out of Cyanca next.’ And I’m trying to lean more into that, just trying things.”
As a true student of culture, Cyanca “just trying things” bodes well for anyone interested on shirking the shackles of the music industrial complex. Unlike many other musicians who prefer to sequester themselves in the act of creation, Cyanca often immerses herself in the sounds and sights of others.
“I love to explore. I love going to records stores. I love nostalgic things,” she explained, adding that one of her most recent music purchases was a cassette tape from 1990s girl group Xscape.
Her deep study — from sounds to sequencing to phrasing to even fonts on album covers — initially emerged from her relationship with her dad.
“My father taught me a lot about hip-hop. He used to have hundreds of CDs in alphabetical order. That’s how it was. He was very particular,” she recalled.
Within the legacy of her father’s informal training, Cyanca is an astute observer, sometimes drifting off in public or obsessing over an album until she can fully break it down in private.
Her studies, from more obvious forebears like Missy Elliot and Hype Williams to her contemporaries like Atlanta’s Ben Reilly and OMBRE, ground her work with a referential archive that never drowns out the power of her own voice.
In her attention to said archive along with her insistence on living her authenticity, fluid expression, and undeniable shit-talking power, Cyanca in many ways embodies the figure of the blueswoman. The power of the blues is far from our contemporary reductive image of a long-haired, foot-stomping white man playing a steel guitar and harmonica.
The blues, largely innovated by Black women like Ma Rainey, made it possible to articulate the inarticulable mixture of trauma, desire, loss, and love that constituted Southern Black life in the early 20th century.
Additionally, the blues was one of the only expressive forms that created space for fluid expression in both gender and sexuality, with queer women like Bessie Smith and genderfluid folks like Gladys Bentley sounding off on queer desire just under the surface of the words.
Not to mention the blues is one of the trunks of the archive, branching out in different genres from folk to funk, from rhythm and blues to rock ’n’ roll, and from the spirituals to neo-soul.
The spirit of these forbears lives on in Cyanca’s work. Her larger-than-life persona, laid back in the cut, captures audiences from the first sound that comes from her lips.
Her expression disallows her to be captured in any singularity, shapeshifting from tomboy to high femme from video to video, performance to performance. In one line she can expose her stymieing self-doubt and in the next make you forget that she is anything besides a superhero.
But ultimately, like the blueswomen before her, she uses her art to heal and uplift Black women. She puts it on for her community first, always. And for that, it’s time for Cyanca to get her due.
As she puts it: “Don’t count me out. I may be late to the party, but I’m here. The party is still going. I just got here late.”
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