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Sitting across from Jacob Rodriguez, it's easy to be taken aback by his well-spoken demeanor and baby-faced good charm. Although he plays hip-hop under the name Accomplice and has, in the past, written lyrics as violent and sexist as just about any rapper, Rodriguez comes across as a likable softie. But he has a jaded history, a story of a troubled youth, a stay in prison and an unlikely redemption that he tells through his music.
"I know that I am now facing the roller coaster of being an adult," says the 25-year-old Rodriguez. "I am married, not in the streets, a different lifestyle."
Just a few years ago, this lifestyle would have been extremely improbable; Rodriguez spent much of his youth avoiding the law. He attended eight different schools in Denton, Salina and Little Elm, not making it past ninth grade, and accumulated a long record of petty theft, breaking and entering, and trespassing. At 16, he was caught with two pistols on a campus and a year later he was charged as an adult for selling guns and sent to prison in Oklahoma.
While in prison Rodriguez discovered a talent that he had never known: writing.
"Inside those walls, you still have to survive," he says. "And I would write these poems for guys who wanted to impress pen pals on the outside."
Trading poems for cans of chili and soup, Rodriguez thought he had found his calling. Now all he had to do was bide his time and see if his newfound gift could reap benefits in the outside world.
"After writing poems and helping guys write letters to spouses and mothers, I got out and found that rapping and freestyling came naturally to me," says Rodriguez.
Always a fan of Tupac, Big Pun and Jodeci, Rodriguez channeled his influences and began composing songs. He is certain that his early life and time in prison helped him discover his talents.
"If I wouldn't have been through everything, 100 percent, I wouldn't be the man that I am," says Rodriguez. "Now, I express my emotions through music. I don't get crazy and flip out."
Shortly after being released, Rodriguez decided on the stage name Accomplice and released his debut, Show Me the Money, in 2004. Total Silence followed in 2005. Both efforts feature the standard braggadocio common to current hip-hop, showing that Rodriguez could mimic his inspirations but rarely transcend them. Songs such as "New Breed Entourage," "#1 Contender" and "Them Boyz," although demonstrating a lyrical sophistication bordering on genuine poetry, were held back by generic beats, slick synthesizers and the typical sexist, angry baggage that seems to be hip-hop's stock in trade.
"You've done pissed off the wrong motherfucking dude," Accomplice raps on "Fired Up," dishing out the same banter as his deceased heroes Tupac and Biggie Smalls. But halfway through Total Silence, Accomplice starts to divert from the path, as both "Mi Corillo" and "Move Your Body" demonstrate an interesting rhythm and blues bent, something that would be successfully pursued on the recently released My Life My Music.
"I've evolved as an artist so much between Silence and the new one," says Rodriguez. "I've definitely found my style."
Indeed, songs such as "Unborn Child" and "No Llores" offer painfully honest looks at issues not commonly addressed in hip-hop and are pushed along with music that is rhythmically diverse and compositionally challenging.
"I am gonna do everything I can to make sure that they don't suffer/Everything I can so that they don't miss a supper," Rodriguez sings about his wife and baby on "Unborn Child" as the music locks in on a mellow groove that suits the theme perfectly.
Another interesting perspective is shown on "Karma," a song about being dumped by a girl, not exactly a common admission among hip-hop artists.
"I am not some player or a pimp," says Rodriguez. "I consider myself a leader, and I wanted to go in new directions."
Rodriguez's altering of his style is already paying off. My Life My Music has sold an impressive 10,000 units, and "No Llores" has made its way onto the top 100 urban dance charts. At a recent KNON benefit performance, Rodriguez claims the crowd was upward of 15,000.
As his music moves more and more in a rhythm and blues direction, Accomplice has heard from several detractors, folks who fear he has somehow betrayed his roots.
"I don't see genres of music," says Rodriguez in answer to his critics. "I just see everyone as artists, and I don't make distinctions between rap, hip-hop and R&B."
As his music moves in new directions, the obvious hostility of earlier efforts is definitely replaced by love and understanding on the newest CD. The references to bitches and motherfuckers have given way to autobiographical philosophy ("Would You Label Me a Crook") and romantic declarations ("Can't Wait to Get Home").
"I am not going to write a song that says this girl is a bitch or telling anyone to slap his mama," says Rodriguez. "I don't do that anymore in my music because I have better things to write about."
Yet Rodriguez still sees value in using profanity for emphasis. "There is a big difference in telling a kid 'don't do drugs' and telling him 'don't do fucking drugs,'" he says. "If I need to hit the point, then the message dictates the word choice."