D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy celebrates a decade of music at the Howard Theatre

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A decade ago, hip-hop was at an inflection point. The “blog era” — wherein rap blogs had anointed guys like Drake, J. Cole and Wiz Khalifa as leaders of the new school — was over, and something different was bubbling up around the country, especially in the South.

A staple of hip-hop culture for years, mixtapes were back in a big way, with upstarts uploading studio-grade albums to sites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes at a prodigious clip, changing the sound of rap and laying foundations for legacies.

Young Thug and Migos were leading the way; as Atlanta went, so did the nation. Kevin Gates and Kodak Black were courting controversy and baring their souls in Louisiana and Florida, respectively. In D.C., youngins like Fat Trel and GoldLink were walking through the door Wale had opened for the city’s rappers.

But the D.C. talent to watch was Shy Glizzy. At the start of 2014, he was just 21 years old with a handful of mixtapes to his name. His song “Awwsome” was starting to bubble up in the online-offline rap underground by checking the boxes of contemporary trap rap — a skittering, bass-heavy beat, lived-in bluster and bravado — but with a distinct vocal tone and a world-weariness beyond his years.

“That was the beginning,” the rapper recalls. “Being hungry, coming out of Washington, D.C., as one of the first young guys to be able to carry it on his back and showcase to the world what the city was about — what we doing out here.”

When the books closed on 2014, Glizzy had released two mixtapes that remain highlights of his catalogue — “Young Jefe” and “Law 3: Now or Never” — and was on his way to a larger national spotlight. It’s a period he remembers as a “lighter time,” before he learned firsthand that “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” It’s a moment he will celebrate with a 10-year anniversary show at the Howard Theatre.

“It’s 10 years later, so I’ve experienced everything,” he says. “I have a lot of responsibility. I have a kid, I have different things going on in my life that I didn’t have at that time. At that time, it was just all about fun.”

His son is 9 years old now and is his dad’s “number one supporter.” But Glizzy also credits a “cult fan base” that has kept him driven and inspired, throughout a decade-plus in a changing music industry that is particularly unforgiving to young rappers.

“In the times where I’m not making music constantly, they remind me, ‘We need you, keep doing this,’ and so those are the people that I do it for,” he says. “As long as that flame is lit, we can continue to add fuel to the fire.”

In recent years, Glizzy has fanned the flames by staying true to what he does best. In 2023, he released “Flowers,” an album full of the melodious flow and heart-on-sleeve lyrics that electrify his best songs. At a few moments on the album, he pondered his place in rap, asking for his flowers while he can still smell them.

“You don’t really hear people throwing my name out there for whatever reason,” he says. “I guess that’s why I’m still here” — to prove doubters wrong and turn haters into motivators.

On “Flowers,” he asserts he’s made peace with being underrated — at least he’s a “moneymaker.” And whether he’s hot or cold to hip-hop heads, he always has his hometown in his back pocket. That love, he says, is restorative, and it keeps his “engine running,” as do his interests outside music: He’s been getting into art “heavy,” exploring galleries and museums, and he might launch a clothing brand that he’s been quietly working on for years. He’s even thought about starting a nonprofit to give back to the community.

“I want to give back to the kids and inspire them in a way that I wasn’t inspired,” he says.

Glizzy has rapped about “thuggin’ at a young age,” a life he survived while some of his peers didn’t. The specter of death looms large in street rap, and one of Glizzy’s best songs, 2014’s “Funeral,” is a gospel-powered fantasy of his homegoing. But for now, the opportunity to perform at the Howard — a concert he expects will be sold out by showtime, as he says all his D.C.-area shows have been — means everything to him.

“I’m overwhelmed by the joy that the city has given me,” he says. “I couldn’t be more grateful for these platforms and the people. … Everyone loves me, everywhere I go around the city. … I can’t even explain the feeling of love.”

Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. thehowardtheatre.com. $200.

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