After F.Stokes finished his post-Christmas show in Madison last year, he hopped a plane to London to record with alt-rock act Bastille. It wasn't long before that band got big, setting the tone for one of the most important years in the hip-hop artist's career.
Now the Madison native, whom some locals know as West High grad Rodney Lucas, has returned for another after-Christmas show. It runs for two nights at the Frequency: Thursday, Dec. 26, with Dirty Disco Kidz and Radish, and Friday, Dec. 27, with VO5 and Foshizzle Family, plus a different set by Radish. This will be the eighth edition of the event.
Stokes' debut full-length, Fearless Beauty, came out this year after a successful Kickstarter campaign. He calls the 10-track album his most "aggressive" work yet.
"This was like my N.W.A. This was like my fuckin' Get Rich or Die Tryin' moment," Stokes says. "The last EP, Love Always, was good, but I felt like it was a bit soft. The fans and even myself [were] aching to do some real hard hip-hop shit."
Stokes says he wanted to dig into some of the grittier things happening on the Chicago's South Side, another one of the places he grew up. And he wanted to keep this discussion as raw and honest as possible.
In addition to filming the video for the track "Shaka Zulu" in Chicago, Stokes went to a house he used to live in to write some of the lyrics. It was the first writing he had done in that house, which is now owned by his uncle, in more than 10 years.
"I write about these experiences, and to be in the same house where they happened, I almost had to step outside of Rodney. I had to witness it more as a voyeur than an actual acting participant," he says.
That sense comes through on tracks like "Mission" and "Chicago Slim Sermon." The latter finds Stokes using free-flowing poetry and highlighting details like going to 59th Street to pick out Air Jordans.
When it came time to find a producer, Stokes sought out Paper Tiger from Doomtree because he admires the Twin Cities hip-hop collective's live shows.
"I wanted the bass to hit as hard as their live shows hit, and he came through," Stokes says.
That bass rumbles through the album, whether underneath the guitar-loop swing of "F.B.I. (Forever Being Ill)" or the playful soul sampling on "Grown Folks."
After invigorating Fearless Beauty with head-shaking boom-bap realism, Stokes embarked on a project that relied on encouragement and inspiration: working as a coach on an upcoming episode of MTV's Made. The gig took him to Oregon, a ways from Chicago and his current home in New York City.
After auditioning but losing to Killer Mike, Stokes received a call from the show's producers. They offered him a chance to appear in a different episode and connected him with Oregon student Amos Lachman, a sharp MC with some trepidation about performing.
"It was a challenge at times," Stokes says. "I was in a town outside of Eugene, Ore., and it's a month obligation. It was just me and the mountains for a long period of time. [I was] lucky I had someone who was down, [who] bought into the system."
Stokes admits that the family atmosphere and joy of the experience were far from his preconceived ideas about reality television. In October, after the episode wrapped, Lachman and Stokes played the University of Oregon's homecoming. They've stayed in touch, too.
"What kept us both going is that... we want to see each other be successful," Stokes says. "I knew that Made was a great shot for Amos to be heard and be seen on an international level. And he knew that Made was a great show for F.Stokes."
That spirit of community will also spill over into this year's after-Christmas festivities. With the help of sponsors like Vans, Stokes is bringing along a family from the same Madison shelter where he and his family stayed when he was younger. He plans to shower them with gifts.
"I'm more excited about that than I am the actual show," he says.