On the Beat

Double Life: Lexicon, the legal rapper

For Lex-Jordan Ibegbu, law as a career seemed like a natural choice – even though, as he notes, “I didn’t see too many lawyers around when I was growing up.”

That was Southeast Raleigh, where Ibegbu (now 25 years old) was turning heads rapping in talent shows before he was even a teenager. Eventually, he adopted the stage name Lexicon. Lawyer seemed like a short step from what he was already doing as a performer.

“Being a rapper, I was onstage, talking and communicating,” he said. “And when I was growing up in church, they’d get me up to talk, give the message. It seemed like all the people I aspired to be like were using law as a steppingstone, like the salsa singer Rueben Blades – who went to Harvard Law and used that to become even more active in the community.

“That’s the career trajectory I want.”

His story

Ibegbu is the son of a Nigerian immigrant father, one of eight kids. He was born and raised in Raleigh, and he was 11 years old when hometown rapper Petey Pablo filmed his 2001 hit video for “Raise Up” not far from where he grew up.

But Ibegbu was actually more into rock and skateboarding back then, citing AC/DC, Prince and Jimi Hendrix as particular favorites of his youth. That was especially the case after his sister gave him a guitar.

“I played it every day, doing Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ out on the porch,” he said with a laugh. “Some people would say, ‘Shut that up!’ But others would like it: ‘Whassup, you’re making that guitar talk!’”

Even during his rocker days, however, Ibegbu’s older brother was also exposing him to hip-hop, and it did not take long for Ibegbu to start making recordings of his own. By the time Ibegbu got to Cary Academy on scholarship for high school, he was putting out his own mix-tape CDs.

“The aspect of Lex I remember most was his spirit in terms of working as hard as he could,” said Vic Quesada Herrera, who taught him intermediate Spanish in 10th grade at Cary Academy. “He really did focus on learning and improving, and he played us a couple of his songs that he was very proud of. He was also very receptive and willing to take criticism.”

Ibegbu kept on recording while earning a political science degree on scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill, followed by the University of Miami law school. Even though he just released a new album, “The Rising Sun,” music is currently on hold while he crams for the North Carolina bar exam. Ibegbu will take that in February to earn his law license.

“He’s very versatile because of his personality,” Herrera said. “I imagine him being an awesome lawyer but also a producer of music. Maybe he’ll represent other singers, too.”

What pays the bills

By the time Ibegbu graduated from UNC in 2012, he was ready to get out of North Carolina for a while. That led to Miami, a city that suited him quite well.

“Being around all that music down there was amazing, the chance to touch people,” he said. “You can only do so much of that in North Carolina, but you could touch some big names down there. Like I’d work out at the gym and see Jon Secada, a huge pop star from the ’90s who sold 20 million records. I’d go up to him and say, ‘You need to let me write you a record.’ And he’d say he’d think about it. Of course he didn’t, but he never snapped at me.”

While in law school, Ibegbu worked as a clerk at a firm that did a lot of lobbying and government work; he jokingly likens himself to Remy Danton, the chief-of-staff character on the political series “House of Cards.” Once he gets his law license, politics might wind up being a future career path for Ibegbu.

“Optimally, I’d like to be in music or governmental lobbying,” he said. “But this is not the same legal environment as the late ’80s and early ’90s, when you could come out of school and do mostly what you wanted. You’ve got to be hungry now, open to doing whatever.”

What feeds the soul

Ibegbu started selling his music during high school, issuing a steady stream of mix tapes where he’d freestyle over recordings. His first time taking the pre-college SAT test didn’t go well, so he said he came up with the $150 needed to buy SAT study books by burning and selling 50 mix CDs at $3 each.

Over time, his recordings have grown more sophisticated, culminating with his latest album, “The Rising Sun.” The music has traces of worldly Afrobeat, blues, salsa and funk, combining skitter beats and a down-home Southern vibe.

“I wanted something that sounds like North Carolina,” he said. “Something that sounds like you went to Durham and heard blues, then country at some UNC frat party, then soul in downtown Raleigh. I want it to feel like that – like your mama’s fried okra at a Friday night fish fry.”

Lexicon’s drawl often sounds like a more easygoing version of Cypress Hill’s B-Real’s rising and falling staccato delivery, and his songs tackle weighty topics including gentrification (“My City Burnin’”) and unfortunate choices (“So Much Promise”).

“The title ‘The Rising Sun’ means a lot of things, light and dark,” Ibegbu said. “Jimi Hendrix’s last album before he died was ‘First Rays of the New Rising Sun.’ And there’s the melanin of my people. Only the sun comes out of darkness. Out of dark places, we walk into that light. The album talks about some dark things, but it’s uplifting at the same time.

“God did not get me here for nothing,” he added. “When I was 14, I didn’t even think I’d graduate from high school. I’d see people dropping out and when you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing anything, how do you know to do it? If the country only portrays you as a thief, how do you know if you’re supposed to be the king?”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi