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Sophomore album fuels the second rise of Suarez

Tae Andrews | Monday, January 21, 2008

Notre Dame graduate-turned-rapper Napoleon Suarez cites two sources of inspiration for his second album, “American Scholar:” actor Denzel Washington and rapper Jay-Z. The pair recently collaborated on the critically acclaimed blockbuster film “American Gangster,” with Washington providing the on-screen brilliance and Jay-Z supplying an album by the same name. The film depicts the rise to fame, fortune and ultimate fall of Frank Lucas, a heroin kingpin in Harlem during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“I am a huge Jay-Z fan and I appreciated the album for what it was,” Suarez said. “I felt it was a glamorization of the life of a gangster. His lyrics offered genuine insight into the life of a hustler who rose from nothing to something. He touched on the drugs, the money, the women, and ‘the life.’ Jay painted such a beautiful picture of an American gangster that it seemed almost like a hustler’s American dream.”

Much like Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Lucas, Suarez’s dream of rising from nothing to something has pushed him throughout his career, although he has taken a different channel to success than the back alleys Lucas took in his rise to prominence.

As a 2000 graduate of Notre Dame, Suarez mentioned how his college education here in South Bend separates him from many other rappers, who attended the school of hard knocks while living on the mean streets of America’s ghettos.

“Along with millions of other people such as myself, I felt that I couldn’t relate because my life went along a different path,” he said. “School was my hustle. Instead of being in the streets hustling, I was in the classroom studying. I always dreamt of having the finer things in life, but I had a different way to get them. So I wanted to glamorize the life of a scholar. I wanted young kids to look up to me the same way the young kids looked up to Frank Lucas in the movie. Just as Jay Z did in his album by speaking on the heaven and hell of his lifestyle, I tried to do the same in my album.

“I speak on the good: having money, being respected, having benefits, and freedom/stability. But I also speak on the bad: being in cubicle all day, working long hours, and just basically having to grow up and be responsible. I wanted a complete picture to be painted and I think I did a good job of that.”

Although he describes his first album, “Napoleon Dynamite,” as “more personal” than his second CD, Suarez notes that “American Scholar” marks his progress as a creative artist.

“[The first album] was me and only me. I had my whole life to create it,” he said. “The second album is my best work by far. My lyrics are so much more complex.

“I had to step outside the box and not just speak about my life as an American scholar, but incorporate the life of other scholars as well. I wanted it to be a collage of different points of views and events. It is definitely edgier. I took a lot more chances on the album as well. I wanted to put an album out and not care if people would like it or not.”

Suarez also collaborates with a few different artists on “Scholar,” including his friend and fellow performer Lawrence Santiago, also of former Notre Dame fame due to his involvement with the band Bajawalla. Santiago puts in an appearance on “Scholar,” singing on one of the songs on the album. “It came out incredible,” Suarez said.

Napoleon Suarez also said that he plans on spending less time worrying this year and more time working on his craft.

“I really stressed myself in ’07 worrying about getting a record deal and getting my foot in the door,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t a good artist because I wasn’t signed. I now know that I don’t need a deal to prove my talent.” Suarez said that positive feedback from friends and fans alike continues to spur his efforts on.

“That type of feedback is what drives me and makes me want to be in the studio until two in the morning when I have to wake up at six for work,” he said. “Having a deal would be nice, but I know I’m good at what I do.”

Suarez also said that he has a few new projects in the works, including collaborating with both Notre Dame’s own “Da Natural” Jeffery Stephens and some acts from his hometown. “You are going to hear a lot of music from me this year,” he said, “but more from the production side.”

Suarez says that “Eastside High” is his favorite single from “American Scholar,” although he finds that his personal favorites often do not align with his fans’ favorites. “When I make music, my favorite song is always everyone’s least favorite,” he said, “even when I produce beats for other artists. It’s funny how that works out sometimes.”

Suarez is currently in the midst of a college tour, intended as a gesture of appreciation for his fans. Part of that tour included a stop at Legends November 15 of last year. “My alma mater has always been my biggest supporter,” he said. “The people are why we do the music in the first place. I guess you can call it a thank you for everyone showing us support.”