Tucked into a booth, the man born Lorenzo Zenteno sits inside the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge on a sunny spring afternoon.
Although he’s better known as rapper and producer Smoothvega, it’s been seven years since he released any substantial amount of music.
Clad all in black, down to the Ray-Bans tight on his face, the Fort Worth native is talking about that gap, one that has been anything but idle.
“I was listening to a Ludacris interview where he was saying, ‘Why has it been five years since my last album? Because I had to live life to be able to talk about new experiences,’ ” Smoothvega says. “I didn’t anticipate it would be this long, but I’m almost glad it did take this long, because I’m in a far more mature state of mind than I ever would’ve been at 27.”
Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, the 30-year-old Zenteno speaks candidly, striking the table for emphasis as he discusses Exclamation Point, his first studio album since 2008’s 3.10.85.
“I’ve always wanted to be the artist that connects,” he says. “I didn’t want to be other rappers’ favorite rapper. I always wanted to be someone the public could connect to.
“It’s a necessity at this point — if I’m going to be creating music, it has to be based off what I’m living and who I am. I’m not a thug; I’m not a gangster. I don’t make that type of music — so I wanted to eliminate any misconceptions.”
Smoothvega has wiped out those misconceptions with his music, but also with his varied roles — creator, mentor, godfather to the Fort Worth hip-hop community — and a dogged work ethic, fueling his desire to leave behind more than just a catalog of songs, but an enduring legacy.
Almost every local artist throws an album release party, a celebration marking the accomplishment of creating something new and sharing it with the world (Smoothvega’s is Friday at the Live Oak, part of an evening headlined by Joe Budden) — but more than most, Smoothvega’s feels particularly well-earned.
He and his family have weathered tremendous pain in the years between records: the death of a prematurely born child, the loss of his mother.
“Those personal experiences — [they are] the best source for doing great, timeless music,” Smoothvega says. “[They have] definitely shaped me into the artist that I am.”
He has enjoyed incredible success, including helping groom major-label signees like Snow Tha Product and the suddenly ubiquitous Leon Bridges, as well as collaborating with Paul Wall, Frankie J and Lil’ Flip, hosting annual toy drives with sports stars like Terrell Owens and Nelson Cruz, launching a national concert promotion venture, and helping Fort Worth hip-hop enjoy its current renaissance.
Fort Worth rapper Cris Nova sums it up this way: “On the north side of Fort Worth, there lies a predominately Hispanic neighborhood called Diamond Hill which Vega, as well as I, grew up in. This fact is what came to be my ultimate inspiration: Even if you’re a brown kid from ‘The Hill,’ no matter who you are or where you’re from, anything is possible.”
All that life is packed into Exclamation Point, generous at 63 minutes, and which unfolds in three distinct sections: the man, the mogul and the grieving son.
With his husky snarl all but reaching out of the speakers and slapping you across the face, Smoothvega deftly reconciles hostility with humility, bridging the gap between aggression and vulnerability (“Emotionally, I’m a mess,” he raps on the Pink Floyd-sampling Call It How I See It).
The final third of the album is a miniature masterpiece of feeling, as Vega (the nickname employed by nearly all who know him) wrestles with his relationship with Angela, his wife of 10 years ( Send Me An Angel; You & Me); reels from the loss of his mother, whose image adorns Point’s CD booklet ( Mom); and asserts his place at the table ( Forever Self Made).
It’s a tricky blend of emotions, reflecting the tumult of his existence, but one conveyed with an admirable clarity.
Executive-produced by Vega in collaboration with Suarez, Tawaine Hall, Certified Bangerz and others, Exclamation Point is a powerful piece of work, and one affirming Smoothvega’s place in the fragmented but fulsome Fort Worth hip-hop scene.
Befitting his “self-made to the grave” ethos, Vega isn’t resting on his laurels.
Most artists finish an album, release it and then take their foot off the gas a little, letting the music breathe.
Smoothvega is flooring it, using Exclamation Point to make up for lost time as well as helping launch a concert promotion company, which allows him to book spot dates across the country, relying on himself as an opening act.
He smoothly speaks of leveraging social media, and tosses out phrases like “keying in on certain demos” as calmly as he discusses the songs on Point. (His first such venture, with embattled rapper DMX, is set for June 27 in Pittsburgh.)
“We’re thinking long-term … [and] we’re looking at Snoop Dogg and up,” Smoothvega says. “Some of these shows are going to come to fruition in the near future. The idea is get it to where we’re doing events once a month. The tentative project title is Premiere Live Events, like a Live Nation on a smaller scale.”
As with everything else Vega tackles, he speaks with the conviction of someone who knows it’s a matter of when, not if, this idea will flourish.
In many ways, Zenteno, born and raised in Diamond Hill, has been playing the long game when it comes to his hip-hop career. (He’s been making music for half his life, first forming rhymes around age 13.)
“I feel a certain responsibility to represent the Hispanics in my city in a positive light,” Smoothvega says. “I have always been driven to inspire the next generation of people, not only from Diamond Hill, but from my city. I’m scheduled to speak at Career Day at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Diamond Hill in May — crazy, huh? The same way I see Yovani Gallardo of the Texas Rangers being that inspiration, I too strive to be amongst that class.”
He holds down a day job as a retail store manager for Amtel. His tenacious work ethic — Smoothvega, in what I promise is a rarity among musicians, actually handled the logistics of his own photo shoot before I could make a single phone call — and his generous spirit, the twin engines of his career, have their roots in his upbringing.
“I inherited my dad’s hustle,” Smoothvega says. “My dad would sell anybody anything — he’d sell ice to an Eskimo, you know? … My mom owned an independent record shop up until I was 12 years old. I grew up around [music, but] even beyond that, my mom had a big heart.”
That generosity of spirit extends to much of the Fort Worth hip-hop community.
“I’m always trying to gain experience, and I’ll lend a hand to those I feel, not so much that are worth lending a hand, but would care to take the hand, because there are a lot of people who say they want it, but they don’t really want it,” Smoothvega says. “I’ve had my fair share of artists I’ve worked with — I’ve utilized my resources — and they get a little scared. It’s not all fun — it’s work; it’s hard work.
“If you don’t have thick skin, this isn’t necessarily the best place for you — especially hip-hop.”
Indeed, he’s willing to counsel a wide variety of artists — from vocalists like Nadiya Sol (who recently made a nationally broadcast appearance, singing the national anthem before a boxing match, thanks to Smoothvega’s connections) to fellow rappers like Da Deputy, Lou Charle$ and Cris Nova.
“In an industry full of artists constantly being taken advantage of, Smoothvega exhibits selflessness and philanthropy,” Nova says via email. “Whether it’s shows that feature big name acts, local artist events, charity drives or other projects, he is always giving back to his community.”
Da Deputy concurs: “He doesn’t really express how much he’s really done for the city, but I can truly say that he’s opened the doors for not only myself but almost ALL Fort Worth hip-hop artists,” the rapper writes via email. “His knowledge of the grind, the game and just life in general, is really interesting. He looks at things completely different than most.”
Focus on the future
And on this spring afternoon, moving from his family — Vega has three children, Maria (named for his mother), Adriel and Ariana,with Angela; “I grind because my kids depend on me,” he growls on Intro (History) — to his music and back again, there is a sense Smoothvega is just warming up, revving his engine.
The coming months will be busy: Along with Friday’s show at the Live Oak, Smoothvega aims to book several concerts locally and nationally, with songs that didn’t make it onto Exclamation Point finding their way into the world soon.
But at the tender age of 30, this man in black is also ruminating on what it means to express himself, in every sense of that phrase.
It took a long time and a lot of living to reach this moment, reflecting on all that led up to Exclamation Point, but there is no growth, no forward movement, without struggle.
As he himself pointed out, it’s not all fun.
There is a lot of hard work — work he never shies away from — involved in making yourself heard.
“You do have to be selfish whenever you’re going after what you want,” Smoothvega says. “You have to be a motivated person. But at the same time, I was asked last week, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ and I was the only one who stood up and said, ‘I do it for legacy.’ At this point, what happens when I’m no longer here? I want to be able to have that long-lasting legacy.
“I’m chasing a lifetime achievement award — that is my goal.”