Don't be fooled by the slick duds and white stretch limo. Urban Mystic, the Fort Lauderdale native rising fast on the national R&B scene, hasn't let success go to his 19-year-old head just yet. "I try to keep it straight, let the homies know I'm from the 'hood," he says, kicking back during the 45-minute ride from Fort Lauderdale to Liberty City. "I'm still doing the same old thing, just a little bit more civilized."
Civilized is right. It's Martin Luther King Day, and Urban Mystic is decked out in amber shades, calfskin jacket, and tweed fedora. He's one of the featured performers in both cities' MLK birthday celebrations, and he and his crew -- three backup singers and two of his three brothers, plus a couple of friends and his business manager -- have a full day ahead. Despite the plush whip and rock-star itinerary, the mood in the car is more Inside the Studio than Girls Gone Wild.
On first meeting Urban Mystic -- born Brandon Williams, called Urban by his friends -- it's hard to not be a little shocked by his size. Album covers and their contents can be deceiving: A peek at Ghetto Revelations, his debut on Miami's SOBE Entertainment label, reveals a sly, narrow-eyed player looking out at the world the way a cheetah sizes up a gazelle. In person, though, he's about five-foot-five and baby-faced, far smaller than I imagined.
Before the limo ride, I met Williams around noon at Fort Lauderdale's Sunland Park Elementary. It's the finish line for Broward's massive MLK Day parade, and Williams is scheduled for a 1 p.m. appearance.
"It's funny, because I was just telling my friends I went to school here, and my mom worked here," he says. "The first time I learned to swim was in that pool." And here, backstage, I'm thinking that wasn't too long ago. After a gushing introduction and a cheer from the field of onlookers, he takes the stage, and everything changes.
Old soul are the only words to describe what emerges when he moves in front of the crowd. Williams handles the mic like one shakes hands with a familiar friend, slipping right into his set flanked by three young backup vocalists and an instrumental track. His sound is almost timeless -- pure libidinous R&B delivered with a streetwise, hip-hop sensibility that renders it smooth and rugged at the same time. A couple of midtempo songs; a cover of his idol, '70s R&B master Bobby Womack's "Woman's Gotta Have It"; and then Williams drops the bomb: the first single off Ghetto Revelations, "Where Were You."
Folks recognize this one, and they should. Written by Mystic and his veteran production partner, Kaygee (formerly of hip-hop hitmakers Naughty by Nature and who also produced New Jersey crooner Jaheim's Ghetto Love), "Where Were You" has been getting airplay all over 99 JAMZ and HOT 105. And, even after its debut in November, the video is still getting ranked on BET's 106 and Park top ten countdown. Like an R&B "American Pie," the song strives for a kind of timelessness, pinning passing youth to an unforgettable moment.
"Where were you/When you first heard Biggie and Pac and knew you were blessed with the best of hip-hop/When your team came back with the ring/With your crew rolling through, you could do anything."
Williams closes the set, thanks the hometown crowd, and we hustle to the waiting limo. A woman and her 5-year-old daughter tail us for blocks, chasing us down at an intersection. Williams leans out the window, smiling, and signs an autograph for the little girl.
"I'm looking for 'Where Were You' to be one of those classics, you know?" he says as we pull onto I-95. The old soul he brandished on stage moments ago is gone, replaced by a young man laughing easily with his friends, cruising in a pimp ride.
"Oh yeah, I've gotten used to these," he says of the ride. "They pick me up from my mom's house in the limo at 5 a.m. to get on the airplane. I don't care if it's a limo or not; I still don't wanna get up at 5 a.m."
Since his album dropped in November, Williams has toured from L.A. to Atlanta to St. Louis to New York, "literally living out of a suitcase," he says. It's tiring work, but he understands it's necessary to get where he wants to be. "We brought the album out last quarter last year, so that gives us four quarters to work with before the new album," he says, plotting his market attack. "That means at least three or four singles." Each of those singles will have been written and produced by a different team, including pop-soul legend El Debarge, Kaygee, and Williams himself.
"But I'm thinking in the long term," he says. "I'm already thinking about the next album. We're working on that similar sound but with more of my production. More features, more guests, more producers. I wanna work with Jazzy Pha, Divine Mill. Work with everyone. You know, 'I help you eat; you help me eat. '" Of the 60-some songs he recorded during the Ghetto Revelations sessions in New Jersey, 11 are featured on the album, and the rest are fodder for the follow-up.
In South Florida's crunk-hungry market, Williams' respect for R&B is unique and not easy to maintain. A disciple of icons like the Temptations, the O'Jays, Al Green, Sam Cooke, and Womack, he got his start singing in church when he was 5 years old. Since then, he's developed his vocal style to incorporate gospel's rapturous power and husky tonality. Revelations incorporates the old school but also nods toward Nellyesque soul-pop with a club-friendly bump.
"I used to wanna rap all the time, but I'm gonna stick with [singing] for my first album," he says. "We'll do a couple rap songs eventually, but I wanted to show my [vocal] skills first; then I'll branch off on the second or third album and start rapping."
He still drops in at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale whenever he's in town. "Every Sunday, I'm in church, even when I'm on the road. I let it be known that I go, so fans that might wanna see me that bad know I'll be in church, and so will they. That's a good thing."
That churchgoing, reverent side of Urban Mystic is the one that penned and produced "Mama's Song," an ode to his mother's strength (Williams' father died when he was 17). "She cried the first time she heard me do that," he remembers. Seems like the opposing side to the sexed-up loverman who moans the racily titled "F*ck Song," but not so.
"My dad used to explain that life is like a battery," Mystic says. "You can't work a battery with two negatives or two positives. You need both to make it work. [My mom] knows about that song, and when people ask her, she says she knows her son and he's just making good music."
We arrive in Liberty City, the afternoon balmy and breezy, and a huge crowd is gathered at the corner of MLK Boulevard and NW 17th Avenue. The music is running a little late, so Williams and his crew grab Cuban sandwiches and sodas at a corner store. As he mingles with the movers and shakers backstage, Williams' compact profile is dwarfed by massive dudes in oversized camo jackets and jerseys, dreadlocks exploding off their heads. His diminutive size and around-the-way demeanor render him instantly likable and easily approachable.
The crowd is mostly young black women here to see the main act, Miami rapper Pitbull. Williams and his crew take the stage as the pre-headliners, and the audience -- at least those paying attention -- begins to sway. Williams goes into "Givin' It Up," a sort of anti-bling love song about making sacrifices for his woman's love:
"Now the chronic, I ain't even gonna lie. I love it/But I put it aside for you, you're worth it/You know what, I'll even stop cursing/Listen, I'll give up the streets and start working."
"Please hurry up," a girl says behind me. "I wanna see Pitbull." Then Williams goes into the hit, and at the first notes of "Where Were You," the crowd buzzes in recognition.
"Oh shit, I know this one!" the girl squeals. "I love this one!" Williams makes it count, his voice glistening but still coarse where it needs to be. His singers play it up too, punctuating their harmonies with choreographed hand moves. The sun is dipping low and casting long shadows across the crowd while bright MLK banners snap in the breeze. It's a pristine moment, one mirrored perfectly by the song.
A crowd of well-wishers is waiting backstage as Williams and the band make their exit. One of the fans is Betty Wright, an original South Florida soul sister and the mother of Asher Williams, one of Williams' backup singers.
"It's got that throwback feeling," she says of his music. "Throwback, not throwaway." She looks around at the crowd gathered, kids looking for autographs, friends saying hello. "He's not fazed by any of [the success] right now, and if he can stay that way, there's nowhere to go but up."
Back in the limo, we pull away from the crowd and edge onto NW 62nd Street. The sidewalks are lined with people, families barbecuing in the warm evening twilight, teenagers hanging in packs on the corners. A single file of gleaming, bubble-gum-colored Impalas creeps past while a noisy stream of young dudes roars by on motocross bikes, go-karts, crotch rockets, pocket bikes, and scooters. It's a wild scene, but true to Wright's remark, the limo riders gaze out the windows with mild interest.
"It's funny because it's his day," Williams says as we make our way through the festivities back to the highway. "Martin Luther King is definitely one of my heroes, watching what he did and where he came from. He definitely inspired me to know whatever I wanna do, I can do it. It's all about believing, achieving, and succeeding."
On the radio, the 99 Jamz DJ gives a shout-out from the party we just left, name-checking Betty Wright, thanking Pitbull, and giving props to Urban Mystic for rocking the crowd. The group in the limo laughs a little, turns up the stereo, and bumps it all the way back to Fort Lauderdale.
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