A couple of hours before he's scheduled to show up for an interview, Tim Gent sends a text message asking if it would be alright to bring one of his managers along. When he arrives at a Nashville deli with his videographer, Devyn Betancourt, it's immediately clear that the twenty-something rapper and singer doesn't roll with an entourage in some attempt to boost his ego and muscle-up his image. Instead, he comes off as a loyal collaborator, eager to talk up talented peers who took him seriously even back when his aspirations surpassed his skills and to share credit with fellow members of the tight-knit local hip-hop collective Experience the Culture. "It's always been a team," Gent insists.
The rapper turns to Betancourt, seated next to him in the booth, to back him up. Being in the music business often involves forging partnerships of convenience with people you've never met before, Betancourt points out. But he, Gent and the others in ETC came up together in Clarksville, Tenn.—better known for its massive Army base than its music scene—before relocating 50 miles south to Nashville.
Since then, Gent has continually broadened his circle and sharpened his craft. His tracks range from icy minimalism to jazzy, mellowed instrumental backing and bass-heavy, southern bangers. His flow is occasionally combative, but more often artfully composed or confiding. There's continuity, though, to the worldview he's fleshed out from various angles in his lyrics. It's one that draws on spiritual sources of resilience in the face of social and cultural precariousness; that's equally resolute in its realism and its optimism; that balances streetwise strutting with shouldering responsibility.
Today, World Cafe premieres "333," a coolly tuneful call to use professional hustle as a means to personal and familial liberation that's the latest single from Gent's upcoming album, Life Away From Home.
A lot of musicians get their start in church. What did that look like for you?
Tim Gent: I feel like it really molded my sound heavily growing up in church, just because when I was younger I couldn't even listen to rap music.
You mean you weren't allowed to.
Yeah. My parents didn't allow me to listen to secular music.
There is such a thing as gospel rap.
See, I wasn't hip to that back then. Really just your normal gospel music, like Kirk Franklin and stuff like that. The stuff they let me listen to outside of that was R&B. I was always in the front [of the church] singing, playing the drums, emceeing events at a very young age. So it started me off on the right path super early, like, before I even knew I wanted to do music.
You seem like you would've been the kind of kid who had a lot going on his head. Did you do any other kind of writing before songs?
I loved writing. I used to write with my grandma, like, poems. She got 'em laminated and stuff like that, from fourth grade. In middle school I used to write poems and hand 'em out to girls.
I read that you started writing song lyrics in high school, when you heard a J. Cole mixtape and Kendrick Lamar's first album and some of Big K.R.I.T.'s work. What was it about hearing those voices that lit the fire in you?
When I heard [Cole's] Friday Night Lights, I was like, "OK, I'm gonna start writing songs." I'd listened to Kanye West albums, Lil Wayne albums, Gucci Mane mixtapes, stuff like that. ... But Friday Night Lights was the first project I listened to from start to finish. Then I heard Kendrick Lamar's Section .80. ... It was me [friend and producer] Free P and a couple of my other friends packed in a [Toyota] Rav4 in an IHOP parking lot and we listened to it from start to finish. Our minds were blown. I made my first project very shortly after that.
Didn't you have friends who were also making mixtapes?
The collective came together when you were still in high school?
...I wasn't really a part of the group yet, but I knew T Clark. I had picked up an interest in writing at the same time. I was sending him [voice] memos, telling him I wanted to get with the collective they had going. T Clark was kinda shy, but once I started sending music to Case, he was like, "This guy's pretty good. Let's bring him in." Since 2011, I've just been with them heavy.
In a podcast interview, you said you felt like you were somewhat sheltered by your parents growing up. How did you use your writing to begin processing adult realities?
When I'm writing, even when it sounds like I'm speaking to you, I'm talking to myself. Pep talk, you know what I mean? When I started dealing with real life stuff like having to pay bills, dealing with girls and my friend that passed away, I used my writing to encourage myself to not get down. The biggest thing about the collective was C.H.I.E.F., the acronym that we pretty much have lived by since we've all been together. The acronym stands for "Catch Height in Every Fall" — basically find a silver lining in the dark cloud. That's what my writing has been for me.
Speaking things into existence. Manifesting things through really putting it on paper. ... I would act like I had gotten over it, and listen to it over and over until I did.
You've been really productive over the last several years, releasing loosies, EPs, full-length albums and typically giving your projects a narrative arc.
Marco Martinez [from local reggae band Roots of a Rebellion] told me that my first projects didn't sound like a conceptual idea, musically and content-wise. It didn't really flow. It was just like a bunch of songs put together. ... He doesn't understand how much that helped me.
There's an interesting arc to your 2015 project Clarksville Nights. You play the role of a guy who's been screwing up and gradually takes responsibility. You said yourself that you used to skip around and listen to individual tracks from other artists. Do you feel like fans pick up on thematic threads in your work?
Yeah, definitely. People tell me, "I hear growth throughout the project." ... It's still surreal to me sometimes when I hear how people feel about the words I put together.
Where's your head at on the new one?
The title is called Life Away From Home ... I felt like if I wrote a project [with that] title, it would propel me out of the city. That was my idea: "I'm gonna write myself out of here."
I just felt like, "By the time I drop this project, somebody's gonna hear and want to sign me and I'll be on the road." I mean, that's what I thought. Of course, it didn't happen that way.
You've got skits on there that depict you being interrupted by people while you're trying to record.
...In one skit, I'm like, "Hey bro, I'm recording. Get out." I'm just kinda hinting at things that are really going on in my life. The interruption is a metaphor for me. I feel like [with] most people there's something that they're earnestly chasing, but there are always these distractions. And the skits serve as distractions while I'm trying to create and be who I think I'm here to be. It's about focus.
Did you make a conscious decision to rap as much about shouldering down-to-earth responsibilities as you do about aspirations?
I can't write something that's not me or something I'm not personally dealing with. I've never rapped about selling no coke or nothing like that, because I've never done that. ... One thing I'll pride myself on whenever I get over the hump is that I didn't have to conform to anybody's idea of what's cool in order to be successful and do what I wanna do. I've really stayed true to myself.
Some of your earlier work has harder edges and a more aggressive vocal attack, but you've got a mellower flow and more downtempo beats on recent tracks. You've started alternating between singing and rapping. What's driving that evolution?
Even though I still rap a lot, I want to sing. I grew up singing. ... Now, I'm around Bryant Taylorr all the time and Jamiah [Hudson]. She's an artist who's singing on the project. ... And Kiya Lacey — she would give me different jazz artists that she was listening to.
I wanna sing. I want to do soul music, stuff my parents can listen to and I don't gotta bleep it out.
How connected do you feel to the Nashville music community at this point?
When I first started coming up here, I met [rapper] Petty and I met those guys and my voice wasn't as developed and my flow wasn't as tight. But they were willing to work with me. ... I'm cool with all those guys, though, for real. I can go to Petty's house and sit on his front porch and talk to his mom. BlackSon, we're going to play basketball together on Friday. Being a part of this community is cool because I feel like it's a real one.
What I've learned is that this thing is more about relationships. It's not just the music. ... I try not to make people feel like I'm using 'em, because I'm not. I don't want you to feel like I'm only contacting you because you can do something for me.