When Yo Gotti comes to Baltimore, he feels at home. The 30-year-old rapper from Memphis, Tenn., says Charm City reminds him of his gritty hometown.
"I like what the city stands for," said Gotti, who performs at Baltimore Soundstage on Sunday. "It's real people doing real [things]. It's no Hollywood" stuff.
For any rap fan that has followed Yo Gotti's career — which began in 2000 with the independent rap album "From Da Dope Game 2 Da Rap Game" — his blue collar attitude should come as no surprise.
Often compared to Young Jeezy, Gotti has built a career on street cred. His first major-label album, January's "Live From the Kitchen," is a reference to manufacturing crack cocaine. His trademark mixtape series is called "Cocaine Muzik," a thinly veiled metaphor for his addictive brand of rap.
Gotti says it's his job to make music that connects with the communities similar to North Memphis' Ridge Crest Apartments, the notoriously rough area where he grew up.
"No matter how strict they get on laws, no matter how many police they hire, you're never going to stop [hustlers] from being in the street," Gotti said. "I'm not saying that's how I want society to be, but people are still going to take that chance regardless."
While growing up, Gotti saw family members taking those chances. In third grade, Gotti (born Mario Mims) watched federal agents raid his house, which resulted in his mother and aunts serving 10-15 years for refusing to cooperate with police.
"Memphis is just like any other city," he said. "I'm pretty sure it's like the streets of Baltimore, with your hoods and traps."
Rather than go down a similar path, Gotti focused on a rap career. After releasing a handful of independent albums on now-defunct TVT Records, Gotti saw his word-of-mouth buzz reach new heights through free mixtapes.
Major labels came calling, and Gotti eventually landed at RCA. His first proper album, "Live From the Kitchen," was supposed to be Gotti's crowning moment, but it lost momentum after its songs leaked early. The release date was pushed back several times.
When "Kitchen" finally came out, its Nicki Minaj-featuring lead single from May 2009, "5 Star Remix," had long fizzled. "Kitchen" only sold 16,000 copies in its first week.
The 30-year-old rapper blames his label's low expectations — he says RCA anticipated a flop and only shipped 17,000 CDs in the first week.
"You can't sell what's not on the shelf," he said. "It wasn't no Yo Gotti CDs in Memphis, where you could have sold 10,000 in days."
Rather than grow bitter at "Kitchen's" disappointing sales, Gotti did what came naturally — he hustled by hitting the road for a 40-date tour.
The "Road to Riches Tour" seems aptly titled for Gotti: his riches won't come from a hot mainstream single but rather through his continued connection to the streets. This tour will hit major markets but also smaller cities other rappers typically skip over. Whether it's Baltimore, Wichita, Kan. or Omaha, Neb., Gotti says his rap will continue to appeal to hustlers.
"The same principle and rules of the street are everywhere," Gotti said. "That's the part I grew up in, so I'm able to adapt in any city that I touch down because I understand them. I am one of them."
If you go
Yo Gotti performs Sunday at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place. Doors open at 6 p.m. $17 in advance, $20 day of show. Call 410-244-0057 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.