ALOE BLACC'S West Adams bedroom recording studio is so makeshift that the closet doubling as a vocal booth isn't even a closet. It's a dresser cloaked by jerry-built curtains, where a professional microphone dangles next to empty hangers. Across the room, next to the unmade bed, there's an open laptop in mid-rip of a Sam Cooke CD, a Triton keyboard shrouded in a tapestry and a plate of half-eaten scrambled eggs.
"It might be hard to believe, but this is where I recorded pretty much the whole thing," Blacc says of "Shine Through," his chameleonic solo debut for local hip-hop label Stones Throw Records. "It makes it easier. I have all these songs that just pour out of me and I've got to do something. I'm glad I can pick up a guitar or touch the keys or pick up the trumpet and figure them out right here."
"Shine Through" might be homegrown, but it's also one of the year's most sophisticated and ambitious hip-hop albums -- in part because it treats hip-hop not as a commercial formula but as an aesthetic launching pad for creative explorations in soul, folk and salsa.
On the album's moody beat-lulled opener, Blacc invokes a musical worldview that name-checks Marvin Gaye and Antonio Carlos Jobim. On "Busking," he sings an a cappella blues while waiting for a bus (recorded at the bus stop around the corner from his house). "Bailar -- Scene 1," built around a sample from Brazilian singer Joyce, turns an average club night into a bilingual dance floor come-on. There's also a reworking of Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "Gente Ordinaria," Blacc's Spanish-language makeover of John Legend's "Ordinary People."
"It took me so long to get to this mixture," says the 27-year-old singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist whose real name is Nathaniel Dawkins.
"The first version of this album was digital soul. I was thinking business-wise: It has a nice character, it's packaged, it makes sense, it fits, there's a place for this in the market.
"But then I realized that I was trying to present something that wasn't honestly me. By the end of any given day, I'll probably come up with three songs in three different genres, from folk to Latin to hip-hop. The market trains you to choose -- you know, if Superman changed colors every time you saw him, he wouldn't be Superman. Luckily, though, Stones Throw allowed me to not have to choose."
In fact, it was Blacc's moves beyond hip-hop convention that made him a natural fit for the label.
"It isn't easy being a label known for left-of-center hip-hop releases to jump into releasing left-of-center soul music," says Stones Throw General Manager Eothen "Egon" Alapatt. "But we believe that the music fits into the Stones Throw mold perfectly, and Aloe is willing to go above and beyond what most musicians will do to get his music out to the people who will love it."
Blacc's work ethic and marketing chops come with a resume. After graduating from USC with a joint degree in linguistic psychology and communications, he spent three years as a business consultant for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Even after he left the company to devote himself to music, his experience with corporate analysis affected his approach to writing and producing.
"I did a statistical analysis of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo,' " says Blacc, previously best known in hip-hop circles as the MC half of Emanon (his partnership with Mission Viejo's DJ Exile). "I counted how many songs were about courtship and sex and relationships. It was only two out of 15 songs. The album I had started putting together had 13 out of 15. So I went back to the drawing board."
The process took him back to his Orange County upbringing as the son of Spanish-speaking Panamanian immigrants. Blacc was born at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (where he learned to break dance at age 4) and reared in the mostly white environs of Laguna Hills, always aware of the racial and cultural worlds he was juggling.
"My experiences are common among many first-generation Americans," he says. "The variety of my music exemplifies the diversity of my upbringing. Having Latin parents but going to school where kids see me as a black kid. At home, I'm black but my parents are speaking Spanish. We don't eat collard greens and fatback, we eat \o7arroz con pollo\f7 and \o7yucca frita\f7."
Part of Blacc's goal with "Shine Through" was to pay tribute to that world of his parents. "Patria Mia" is a rousing funk ode to Panama, and the album closes with a nearly note-by-note cover of a song he heard throughout his childhood, "Severa," a salsa party classic by Puerto Rican legend Ismael Rivera. While both went over well with his family, Blacc had a harder time with his Spanish translation of Legend's "Ordinary People."
"My dad wanted me to change the chorus," he explains. "To him, \o7gente ordinaria \f7didn't mean ordinary or common, but trash. He wanted it to be \o7muy comun, \f7but I was like, it just didn't fall right. I needed to hit the rhythm and cadence. He was bent about it, but I had to do what was best for the song."
Blacc ejects the Sam Cooke CD, takes a beat, then reconsiders.
"I did change it though, just once, at the very end. That was for my dad."
Stones Throw showcase
What: Indie label's Chrome Children Tour featuring Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf, J. Rocc, Percee P, Aloe Blacc and others
Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Info: (323) 936-6400; www.theelrey.com