Naledge Credit: John Sturdy

A couple weeks ago the “urban culture” site Ruby Hornet threw a private party at the James Hotel’s posh and futuristic J Bar in River North. The occasion was the release of Chicago Picasso (Duck Down), the first solo mix tape from Kidz in the Hall MC Naledge, and a fair cross section of the local hip-hop scene turned out. The mirrored partitions in the bar’s seating area—actually panels of one-way glass concealing flat-screen monitors—displayed a video slide show that was mostly photos of the MC.

When I interviewed Naledge, though, it was in the tidy, well-equipped warren of basement-level rooms that make up Soundscape Recording, a studio on South Wabash that’s become an institution to the Chicago hip-hop community. He loses days at a time hanging around Soundscape, in part because it’s cut off from the day-night cycle, like a casino: “There aren’t any windows in here,” he says. During the hour we spent talking, studio owner Michael Kolar checked in twice about a Kidz song in progress, even though the group hadn’t booked any time at the studio that day. Naledge and his partner in the Kidz in the Hall, producer Double-0, are total workaholics, to be sure, but he even comes around just to hang out with rappers who are tracking their own material. “This is like the barbershop to me,” he says.

Naledge met Double-0 while they were both students at Penn, but an Ivy League diploma doesn’t necessarily confer the same advantages in hip-hop that it might elsewhere. The Kidz have had to lean pretty hard on their work ethic, and they’ve been scuffling for long enough that Naledge is starting to worry they might never break out. “Our path has been a lot more blue-collar,” he says, “and that’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on, but also something that we’ve strived to shake.”

Naledge and Double-0 have also been trying to shake their reputation as a “conscious” hip-hop act—it’s commercial poison. Listening to Naledge’s meticulous, unshowy flow, you can hear why people might figure he’s a backpacker—he certainly doesn’t carry on about the thug life—but it’s not an entirely fair tag. “I come from a two-parent home,” he says, “so I’m thinking my momma gonna hear this, my dad’s gonna hear this—what are they gonna think? Most rappers don’t have that in their minds at all when they write raps. A lot of rappers don’t even have fathers.”

Admittedly the Kidz devoted part of their 2006 debut, School Was My Hustle, to poetic sociopolitical observations and throwback soul beats, and their Obama anthem “Work to Do” earned them not only the acknowledgment of the campaign but also a verse from Talib Kweli on a remixed version of the track. But they’ve also been mentored by platinum-selling producer Just Blaze, who used Double-0’s “Don’t Stop” beat as the foundation for Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got.” The single “Drivin’ Down the Block,” from their 2008 album The In Crowd, features cameos from Bun B of UGK, Pusha T from Clipse, and Def Jux head El-P. And their remake of Special Ed’s 1989 track “I Got It Made” got a big push from Reebok’s Classic Remix promotion.

This crossover attempt seems to be driven mostly by Naledge, who’s been on a pop tear lately. In the past few months he’s dropped the radio-friendly Internet single “Cake-a-Holic” (which features a synth-heavy beat from Chicago producer Mr. Mile High Club and verses from local MCs Young Chris and D.O.E Boy), a Chi-centric take on LMFAO’s electro-pop hit “I’m in Miami Bitch” (which got aired on B96’s weekend Street Mix), and of course Chicago Picasso.

“I’m in Chicago Bitch” might not seem like a song you’d want to spend time analyzing—or for that matter a song your parents would be telling their friends about—but while it’s admittedly a bit of a throwaway, it’s also an excellent demonstration of Naledge’s pop potential. He raps over the “Miami” beat with the kind of self-assured flow that separates rappers who can get by on their mike skills from the ones who need gimmicks—like, say, the guys in LMFAO, who dress like they just found out about “hipster-hop” yesterday and really want to catch up. And though Naledge’s lyrics stay true to the original track’s dumbed-down hedonistic vibe, his idea of a hot night out is a little more down-to-earth than naked Twister in a hotel room: “Drink all day / Juke all night / Grab some tacos / Then fuck till the morning light / We in Chicago, bitch.” If any other MC has summed up the feel of Chicago club life so succinctly, I haven’t heard it.

“Just because I have a degree on the wall doesn’t negate the fact that I have a dick,” Naledge says. “Let’s be real. I can be thoughtful. I can be sensitive. But there’s moments where I’m ignorant, and moments where I want to be ignorant. But it’s still going to have some layer of intelligence.”

The fact that a rapper angling for crossover success would bring up his college education is welcome evidence that gangsta narratives are losing their hold on mainstream hip-hop. Kanye West, Asher Roth, and Drake have landed songs based in middle-class experience on the rap and pop charts, and Naledge thinks this indicates a sea change in the popular perception of hip-hop.

“For so long it hasn’t been looked at as an art form,” he says. “It was looked at as something born out of economic deprivation, like ‘Oh, these are these street kids who don’t have anything else to turn to, so they beat on tables and make street music. They can’t sing, so they rap—they talk over these beats.’ Nah, this is an art form. You have kids in the suburbs who are shunning the flute and the violin to rap. Hip-hop is the voice of the youth, not just the voice of the ghetto.”

Naledge may have added Internet tactics to his hustle like a typical rapper—rhyming over pop-rap beats, making mix tapes, leaking tracks to blogs—but he’s still dedicated to the kind of unglamorous grind that ruled the day in the seemingly distant past, pre-Soulja Boy, when nobody planned on being an overnight sensation and hip-hop artists thought further ahead than their next YouTube video. Chicago Picasso isn’t some tossed-off mix—it was months in the making—and he’s selling it, not just posting it everywhere for free. He approaches hip-hop as a craft, not a get-rich-quick scheme. He hopes to have a group release from his Brainiac Society crew out early next year, followed shortly by his first proper solo record.

But before that there’s another Kidz in the Hall album to put together—The Land of Make Believe, due this fall—and he has some notes on a new track from Double-0 to go over. Looks like he’ll be spending another night in the studio.