Rome Cee is counting in German.
“Eins, zwei, drei, vier …”
It’s an oppressively humid July afternoon and the 29-year-old rapper, born Jerome Carrington Jr., is dressed in black and gray, sipping a hot cup of coffee in a Fells Point shop. In between sips, the former military brat recalls buying schnitzel in Kaiserslautern, Germany “like it was yesterday.” But when Rome was 8, his father left the Marines and moved the family back to his hometown of West Baltimore. The transition wasn’t easy on Rome.
“It might seem like a small thing, but coming from Germany and then being placed directly in the heart of the city was like …,” Rome says, then trails off. “I was different and people let me know, and I’ll just put it like that.”
He’s still different, but now his unique outlook fuels his music. In the process, Rome Cee has become one of the city’s best rappers and most promising artists.
Although Sonar’s Talking Head Club is hosting the release party Saturday, the Extra Mile, Rome’s fourth effort, dropped free-of-charge online on June 28. While some blogs labeled it a mixtape, it’s a cohesive, 15-track album with only one jacked beat (De La Soul’s “Stakes is High”); the rest is all original production from local talent (E. Hill, J. Ambush) and nationally known producers (J. Cardim, Swiff D). It’s a sprawling, ambitious work with a wide sonic range: New York grit, sped-up soul, stuttering synths, even a distorted guitar breakdown a la Black Sabbath. Most rappers would drown in such a vast ocean, but Rome’s rapping always rides the wave.
A prime example comes at the end of “Mommy & Daddy.” Rome, furiously spitting, remembers his most trying time — losing his mother to Lupus.
“My mom’s on my mind / Drinking like a fish trying to calm her down / She on her death bed, hard for me to stay in the house / Keep the memories of how she was out and about / Shoulda been at her side, she woulda been at mine / I’m thinking to myself, ‘Damn, I remember the time …”
His mother’s death is a loss he’s still recovering from.
“I can say it now because it’s passed, but I kind of took the coward route when I saw my mother really start to die,” he says. “I couldn’t see her like that. I was so used to seeing my mom in her prime. It was really hard.”
Instead of being with his mom, Rome, then 16, began selling cocaine. After she passed, he dropped out of Walbrook High School. Rome masked his pain in hustling, but also in self-destructive ways. First it was drinking, then weed and ecstasy.
“I was doing E pills to the point where I couldn’t even open my mouth sometimes,” he says. “That’s how bad I used to be rolling. I think I rolled for two days straight. I was in that funk for a long time.”
Rome’s depression was not lost on Jerome Carrington Sr. He says the death of his high school sweetheart, Delise, hit his son particularly hard.
“He was a mommy’s boy,” Carrington Sr. says. “None of us have gotten over it and it’s been 12 years now. At that time, he was a mommy’s boy so he went into a shell. If you listen to a lot of his rap music, you’ll notice it mostly reflects on his mother a lot. That really devastated him.”
Rome’s hustling led to a couple months in jail, but “no hard time.” He was booked separately with marijuana poessession in 2001 and cocaine possession in 2004, according to state records. Jail can sober a person up, but Rome’s motivation to improve his life had nothing to do with cell bars.
“What really did it for me was my kids,” he says. “My oldest daughter [Cydné] is 5 and that’s how long I’ve been trying to live the straight and narrow path. And that’s more or less when I started to pursue the rap thing a little more intricate.”
Despite his new focus, Rome, who has dated his oldest daughter’s mother, Janeen Brown, off and on since 2004, still holds down a day-job as a customer service representative for the PDP Group in Hunt Valley.
“I ain’t escape corporate that much,” he says with a laugh. “I gotta pay the bills.”
In the video for the Extra Mile's "By Your Side," his two worlds of fatherhood and hip-hop combine. In the black and white clip, Rome pushes his two children — Cydné and Dana, 4 — on swings, as E. Hill's chopped soul sample plays. It's a song of inner conflict — What does it mean to be a father? Will my daughters be attracted to men like their dad, for better or worse? — that encapsulates what makes Rome a vital voice in Baltimore's rap scene.
UnderSound Music founder Ian Mattingly, aka E Major, says signing Rome was an easy decision because of his work ethic.
"For me, I didn't want to work with anyone where we had to carry them 100 percent, so Rome and I linked up at a bar in Fells, had a beer and we sat there and talked for two hours," Mattingly says. "At the end, I thought, 'OK, this could work' because I saw his drive and determination."
UnderSound releases are complete packages — cool artwork, well-shot music videos, the whole nine. That glossy sheen, paired with Rome's naturally gritty street rap, makes the Extra Mile one of the area's most accomplished works in years.
When asked which rappers inspire him, one name keeps coming up — Curren$y, the New Orleans rapper who signed a deal with Warner Bros. after building a cult-following online. But it isn't just Curren$y's grassroots approach that Rome admires. It's the fact that Curren$y found success without playing a tough-talking character, without regards for gangsta posturing and self-consciousness. For Rome, who grew up with a chip on his shoulder to dispel the notion he was "different," it's downright liberating.
"The game I'm in finally allows me to be who I am," Rome says. "The skill has always been there. I've always been nice, all that type of stuff. Just the way I present myself has changed. The skill will never change."
If you go: The Extra Mile Release Party, Talking Head Club, 407 E. Saratoga St. Saturday, 8 p.m. doors. $10, with E Major, 810 and the Black Sunn, J Berd and Children of the Stars. sonar.thundertix.com.
To stream and download Rome Cee's the Extra Mile, click here.