“Everybody’s got a gun-jam story,” Avenue raps on the title track of his gripping May release Mass Ave & Lenox. He’s got a few. Born James Fitzpatrick, he grew up at that junction of the South End and Lower Roxbury, hustling on the basketball court, where he helped Cathedral High School win a 2009 state championship, and on the street, experience that fuels his second full-length album, which includes gritty vignettes about the drug trade.
“The project symbolically was just a way to pay an ode to how the neighborhood was,” Avenue says. “For me, it was just community, a community that would stick together. Everybody knew everybody.” That dynamic has shifted, however, due to gentrification. “A lot of the same things go on, a lot of the same tensions, but for the most part, it has changed a lot,” says Avenue, who moved south of town to raise his young son but regularly returns to his old stomping grounds.
The track “27 Reasons” refers to a raid where 27 people—many of them his friends—were arrested for gang activity. “I always had something that I thought the people in the street didn’t have, that provided another outlet,” Avenue says, “whether it was school or success from basketball.” He pursued both at Merrimack College but was kicked out for selling marijuana.
But music offered an outlet too. His father, who has his own stories about addiction and dealing but now counsels at local prisons, imparted a love for Motown, and he was drawn to Michael Jackson’s soulful early music as a kid. Then came the influence of harder-edged storytelling from Jay-Z’s 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. “Music was one of those things that I’d play with, but I wouldn’t really let people know that I did music,” Avenue says. “I was writing poetry as a kid.”
His mesmerizing roll matches Mass Ave & Lenox’s dark, cinematic music layered with soul and jazz samples. Largely produced by the Cooking to Kill team of Frank the Butcher and the Arcitype, the album also features guest rappers from Royce Da 5’9” to Avenue’s childhood friend Mwase.
“It’s a mixture of a lot of the music I grew up with,” Avenue says, acknowledging its contrast with what’s popular today. “With Boston rap, I feel like we have artists that are starting to gain their own identity. For the longest time, that was our struggle.”