It's an argument always heard in rap-talk: Where's that hip-hop with substance? Surely that question is followed with complaints about Waka Flocka Flame (seriously, his name comes up every time) and other swag/money/women-first artists. I love that type of rap, but I can understand the sentiment (yet I can't get behind the curmudgeon/"rap sucks now"/"what happened to lyrics" preaching). But there's nothing wrong with balance, and when portrait-of-a-life realism rap is done well — no finger-pointing, no hip-hop-is-dead grandstanding — it can be downright refreshing.

West Baltimore's Rome Cee just dropped his first single after aligning with E Major's Under Sound Music. "By Your Side," produced by Mizfitz Soundz' E Hill, rides a warm soul sample, an instantly grabbing entry point. Rome Cee — equipped with a cold flow and lyrics packed to their brim with engaging meditations and conflicted emotions — has no trouble with the rest.

Running Cee's verses back isn't just necessary to unpack their density — it's rewarding. Verse one: A father realizes his baby daughters will one day date, and will likely seek out a man like their father. "I hope I don't have to put my hands on these savages," he raps. Then comes the light bulb: "But somebody's daughter was coping with me / ... now that I think about it, it wasn't even that simple / ... Reminding me of what it once was / that's the anomaly that comes with every thug." The last line is the cyclical kicker: Cee acknowledges he was a thug, too, and his exes' fathers had the same questions about him. Cee wonders if the fight is worth it, or if he should accept that his daughters will ultimately do what they want. When he admits he's aware "there's more to Baltimore, Maryland" you can't help but think this guy has a hell of a lot on his mind, both large and small.

And that's just the first verse. "By Your Side" works — both the song and the black-and-white clip directed by E Major — because Rome Cee approaches heavier topics (approaching the stock market like a street hustler, keeping his daughters away from family fiends) without definitive answers, but with lived-in experience. There's a sense of wonder — both inspiring and a little sad — to his bars, which makes "By Your Side" charmingly nostalgic (which works for the unsatisfied "Golden Era" hip-hop heads) but still raw enough to sound fresh in 2011.

Rome Cee's first project for Under Sound is The Extra Mile. It drops April 18.