Baltimore Robinson goes to lengths for his art that few would dare to go. When the 24-year-old rapper, producer and songwriter graduated from Shadow Ridge High School in 2007, he was told he had to leave the house, get a job and stand on his own feet. A reasonable person might have sought a steady check and a comfortable bed. Not Robinson.
“If I wasn’t into music and was like, fuck it, I’ll just work in a call center in a cubicle, I wouldn’t have to go through this,” he says.
For the past six years, Robinson’s gotten by on his own unconventional terms.
When family bailed on him after graduation, he became a nomad, storing his belongings in the trunk of his car, sleeping in his 2003 Ford Taurus, crashing on friends’ floors and staying in hotels. Since then, he’s held various day jobs—he worked at a dry cleaner until he got fired for sleeping there after hours and, most recently, was a retail clerk at Kidrobot at the Cosmopolitan—but only so he could save enough money to buy studio time and make CDs, and then quit. He says the 9-to-5 grind distracts him from his purpose. “It just limits my creativity,” he says. “I get it: I have to have a job. That’s why I need to push the music so I can get a job as a songwriter while I do my own shit.”
When the local music community counted him out—he says he asked to collaborate with other artists and pleaded to get on the bill for shows but would be ignored—he closed his circle, working solely with his best friend and engineer Royce Lagarde. And when record labels teased him with offers and never called back, he did it on his own.
In June, with just a handful of songs on Soundcloud and a disorienting video for his single “Reckless,” Robinson caught the attention of a talent scout in Los Angeles who set up a meeting with a record label rep to discuss a $200,000 publishing deal. During the meeting, the suits played Robinson’s music and rapped along to his songs.
“They knew all the words. It was crazy. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m almost there,’” Robinson says.
“My biggest mistake was waiting for something to happen,” he says. “Now if I have a meeting with someone, that’s cool, but I’m still gonna hit the studio tomorrow.”
Robinson released Audra, named after his older sister, independently on July 2. It’s not a six-figure payout, but the move has yielded some rewards.
With the release, Robinson’s rap moniker Love at First Sound is buzzing on hip-hop websites around the world. His chosen stage name was prophetic in a way. Audra has enamored listeners since its release. Without a marketing or publicity machine, he’s managed to get noticed by national online music magazines Hypetrak, Earmilk and Complex Magazine-owned Pigeons & Planes, along with blogs in the U.K., Spain and New Zealand. He’s received support from established artists including Australian producer Ta-Ku, who told Robinson in a text that Audra “is super inspiring.” New York rapper Mickey Factz was so impressed with Robinson’s beats that Factz’ next album will feature production solely by Robinson. “He’s very progressive with his sound,” Factz told Los Angeles’ Power 106 FM.
That sound wasn’t created overnight. Audra has been in the works for four years with a majority of the songs recorded in 2012 and 2013, Robinson says. He wasn’t comfortable with his own voice and wasn’t happy with how his music sounded, so he worked on his vocals, learned how to sing, and rewrote and reproduced songs until he got it right.
The result is a moody record, somber and gravely emotional at times with flourishes of braggadocio and bold, experimental production. But it’s far from an easy listen. Audra is deeply personal, with songs about depression and breakdowns, each held together by real voice messages from the eponymous sister. While Robinson doesn’t shy from the weighty topics, his sister’s words paint a far bleaker portrait of the young artist. One notable take is from “Apartment 222,” where she pleads with her brother not to commit suicide.
Robinson says he was so passionate about his music that any ounce of rejection would launch him into a state of dejection. He never harmed himself, but admits to thinking about it. “Nothing in life is too serious for someone to have those thoughts, but anyone who’s suicidal, it’s because they’re very passionate people who want to change the world but can’t. If I can’t change the world, why should I live?” he says.
Already living in his car and struggling to get his music heard, Robinson felt insecure, isolated and unloved by those around him when he was working on Audra. “I got 100 numbers in my phone but can’t call anyone to talk to. That’s the worst feeling,” he says.
One of the few he could count on was his sister, who served as a voice of reason in his darkest moments.
“My sister is my consistency, my guardian angel, my god,” he says. “I didn’t release this project to gain fans or to get a radio single or to get signed. This shit was my therapy. All these voice mails would be on my iTunes, and I’d listen to it like music.
“It’s hard listening to Audra. I don’t think there will be a day I’ll be able to listen to it all the way through,” he adds.
It’s even harder for the album’s namesake.
A Minneapolis native with a different mother than Robinson—neither likes to use the term “half”—Audra moved to Las Vegas to attend UNLV. Now 44, she was 18 when Robinson was born during her freshman year. She treated him like a son. “I’d take him to class with me. People thought I had a baby by a white man because that’s how much I had him,” she says. “To this day, my friends always ask, how’s little B doing?”
Although Audra returned to Minneapolis when Robinson was 13, the two have maintained a close relationship. They keep in touch with frequent visits and, as evident by Audra, phone calls.
A few days after the album’s release, Audra had yet to listen because of how prevalent her voice is on the record. “It’s difficult. I left those [messages] for him to encourage him. It’s personal,” she says.
When Audra finally gave the album a listen, she says she was overwhelmed with joy. “I cried. He did a great job, and I’m proud,” she says. “My kid brother has talent … Watch out, world!”
Strangers have also reacted passionately. Robinson’s Soundcloud and Instagram are full of messages from listeners as far as South Africa. One in New York was so touched by Audra (and Audra) that she sent him this note: “You can’t imagine how much this album has helped me. Your sister has a heart of gold. I wish I had a sibling that spoke to me the way she speaks to you. The things she says on all of your songs is exactly what I needed to hear today … and your writing is so healing and inspiring.”
“That’s what the purpose was: to help. It wasn’t so I could make it onto a blog or magazine. It was just supposed to exist and help,” Robinson says. “That’s cooler than money.”
Although he says he’s fulfilled with the response and attention he’s received so far, Robinson isn’t close to where he wants to be.
“I’m open to being signed. I would love a platform to share my story and really change the game,” he says. “I don’t want to just make it to the playoffs.”
With that in mind, Robinson’s already preparing his next project. He says it’s almost ready; he just wants to add more structure and layers, as he’s gotten better at songwriting and production. He’s kicked around various names for it, but after being inspired by a recent trip to Disneyland—his first ever—he wants to call it Coloring Outside the Lines. “It’s gonna be more experimental,” he says.
With one album under his belt, Robinson plans to spend the next two months in Minneapolis with his sister and visit New York. After that, he’s got his sights set on L.A. While it might be tough to catch a break in a city where everyone’s trying to make it, Robinson is ready for the challenge.
“People are scared to go to L.A. They say, ‘Oh, there’s too much competition,’” he says. “Well, if you’re thinking that, then you already lost.”