P.A. Flex awakens the solo artist within on 'Sleeping Giant'

Andy Downing

Early in his musical journey, rapper P.A. Flex realized he could operate as a hip-hop chameleon, adopting the lyrical patterns, cadence and tone of a diverse range of MCs. 

“It started when I was a kid … when I’d be upstairs with my Walkman on, listening to Busta Rhymes. And I’m up there listening to the same song 40 times in a row, just practicing and going through the histrionics of how it would look performing onstage,” said Flex, born Albert Matthews. “And I came to find as I got older that if I listened to enough Method Man, or if I listened to enough Black Thought, that I could mimic what they were doing. … I could step into that vibe of how they talk, how they express themselves, their mannerisms. Almost like stepping into their being. I was able to channel spirits.”

Combined with his natural affinity for collaboration, which exhibits itself in everything from his early group recordings with the 3rd Power to the range of artists featured on his long-in-the works new solo album,Sleeping Giant (released digitally on New Year’s Day viaNorth City Music Group), this has made it a challenge for Flex to hit upon his own artistic voice. “It’s hard, sometimes, for me to think about myself,” he said.

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So when the rapper started to conceive of Sleeping Giant in 2018, he initially envisioned it as a grand coming out, brainstorming plans for an expansive double-album. One side would be a more socially conscious affair dubbed Black Gold and recorded with friend and producer Rashad, and the other a more personal, eclectic collection under the name Sleeping Giant

Eventually, Flex scaled back from these plans, if only slightly, delivering a dense, 18-track record that alternates between personal turns (the autobiographical “PTSD” traces his North Side roots as a “street kid … [who was] never a street kid/I was just always in the street where street shit lived”) and cuts more reflective of his character-embodying creative roots. Witness “edistuO,” on which the rapper steps into the shoes of a woman hustling to get ahead.

Still other tracks are more politically and socially charged, such as “Spartacus,” on which Flex takes aim at a failing, treasonous president who has continually mismanaged a pandemic, and the title track, on which the MC wrestles with the painful reality that the lives of Black men are too often cut short by violence. “The life of a Black man is sort of like a running back,” he raps, making reference to the notoriously brief careers of NFL runners. 

“As an artist, I wanted to branch out more. I wanted people to understand more who I was, and not just get caught in this bubble of, ‘Well, all they talk about is socio-political stuff,’” Flex said. “I want people to know who I am. I want you to know I have [three] kids. Some rappers get caught up in that idea of machismo, or in wanting to sound a certain way. I have a lot of dimensions to me, and I wanted to be able to put all of that into the music.”

For that reason, Flex doesn’t shy from offering up a softer side, paying tribute to his mom on “PTSD,” a woman with whom he shares a number of personality traits. “We’re both really performance-based people, like, my mom did some performing back in the day, which I never knew until I did a little digging,” said Flex, who traced this late discovery to another characteristic shared by the two. “We both also have the ability to be very cold.”

At times, Flex said, he’ll lean into this chillier side of his personality, particularly if he’s lost in thought and doesn’t want to be bothered. “I’m a thinker, and sometimes an overthinker, and sometimes you can just have that look when you don’t want people to come up to you,” Flex said. “I’m going to be honest with you, there are all of these Black man stereotypes, and there are times you like to fit the description, like you walk around looking intimidating so people leave you alone, because you’re in that space and don’t want anybody to be around you. It’s almost like a defense mechanism to keep people away.”

“The Black man experience is very, very interesting,” Flex continued. “It’s beautiful. It’s dangerous. It’s fun. And that’s whySleeping Giant is what it is, because I want people to understand every dimension of it.”

P.A. Flex