In person, Oompa doesn’t come off as one of the most buzzed-about musicians in Boston—even though she absolutely is. At the listening party earlier this month for her sophomore gem, Cleo, the Roxbury rapper filled the bunker beneath Newbury Comics in Back Bay, with fellow artists like Jefe Replay in the building to support her along with aisles full of fans and friends.
Inspired by the 1996 movie Set It Off, in which the main character, Cleo, is played by the legend Queen Latifah (the film also stars Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise), Oompa’s latest is both fantastical and autobiographical. In the classic heist flick, the characters face hardships brought on by the death of family members; to make ends meet, they rob banks—sometimes in spectacular fashion. As Oompa noted at Newbury Comics, Set It Off—and Cleo in particular—was among the few pop culture mirrors in which she saw her reflection as a kid. In this elaborate and layered tribute, she illustrates her real life struggle in no-holds-barred fashion, all while applying the lessons she has learned for those on the receiving end of her bars.
Like one of Brother Ali’s early efforts, Cleo is an intimate and impassioned project by somebody with the world upon their shoulders, but who rose to the occasion and above much hate and pain. It’s more than just an album; for anybody caught up in the crosshairs of oppression, a lot of these songs can amount to therapy. As Oompa rhymes on the prophetic “Order My Steps,” for example, “To my queer babies / Can’t say the world is better / But it’s better with you in it / So please never let up.”
Each joint on Cleo has its own unique dynamic, with a versatile vibe across the track list. Oompa opens up about various aspects of her travels through the journey, depicting trials she has overcome, as well as situations she’s still trying to navigate. Mental health is front and center, a rarity in hip-hop, but not surprising considering her overall maturity.
There are vivid pictures placed at every rotation and turn on Cleo, and they’re overwhelmingly positive, even as the star of the show breaks down the pangs of family strife, the nightmare of housing insecurity and eviction, and instability in general. Through the darkness there’s a light shining as bright as Oompa’s natural talent, with the protagonist leaving toxic nonsense and affiliations from her past behind her. She’s focused on bettering herself, as well as those around her, and there are several gifted cats in her corral.
We are living in a new era of Boston hip-hop, one in which artists appear to be supportive of each other in ways that once seemed unfathomable. The love has spread through generations, and Boston hip-hop maestro Arcitype even stepped in to engineer and in a few cases play music on and assist cuts that were produced by the likes of D’Artizt, Blu Majic Beats, and Oompa herself. The cameos are plentiful as well, but don’t in any way seem forced; rather, it’s as if the rising scene—Grimey Gurt, Brandie Blaze, Giday and Quis, Cheve, Levea Grace, Phree, Troy DaDurden, Anjimile, Anson Rap$, Lea Grace, Moe Pope, Cheve, Levea Grace, Troy DaDurden—came through to help a friend execute a long-festering vision.
“I’m interested in seeing the opportunities that come from Cleo, and to see where it takes Oompa,” Brandon Matthews, our pal from the Hub music site KillerBoomBox, said at the listening event. Previewing what would be her storied release party at the Sinclair just days after the Newbury Comics appearance, Matthews added, “People have an amazing experience at her shows. It’s not just Oompa with a mic and a DJ—she has her own band, wardrobe changes, merch, she knows her own range.
“She has something for everyone on this tape. She really opened up.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.