The Twin Cities hip hop duo Villa Rosa stands out for a couple of reasons. It features two emcees, Maria Isa and Muja Messiah, who both have established identities as solo artists. They're also a male and female tandem who share equally in songwriting duties, and that's something rare in rap. The pair's new album is called "Blue Diamond Island," which they will showcase tomorrow night at First Avenue.
Maria Isa first met Muja Messiah when they shared a gig five years ago, but she didn't know what to expect.
Messiah had a reputation as a tough, streetwise, woman-objectifying rapper with a flair for profanity-laced braggadocio. But after the show, Isa was impressed with the way he expressed an interest in her work.
"He wanted to buy my CD, instead of saying 'Give me your CD,' " she said. "And that always stuck with me."
Eventually Messiah asked Isa if she would collaborate on a song, but he wasn't looking for a backup singer.
"I didn't call her in just to do a little hook," Messiah said.
"Yah," said Isa. "He didn't call me just to sing a hook. And that's something that, you know, at the time I was 20-years-old and trying to get respect as not just being the rapper in the B-Girl scene, but just a rapper."
From the beginning, both rappers saw their artistic partnership as an equal playing field. The 24-year-old Isa admired Messiah's rhymes for their humor and political satire, and the 34-year-old Messiah was bowled over by Isa's musical talent.
"Maria can freestyle just as good as any of the fellas," he said. "She can write just as good as any of the fellas, but she can come up with the melodies and the hooks better than the fellas, you know what I mean? So it's like the total package and more."
Muja Messiah is a biracial, socially-aware rapper from Brooklyn Park who lost his older brother to gun violence. Maria Isa is a St. Paul native who's deeply knowledgeable about her Puerto Rican heritage. So it's not surprising their new album "Blue Diamond Island" is as much a political as a party record.
The songs contain references to slavery, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Puerto Rico's ambiguous status as an island nation or 51st state. There's even a song about the dangerously unhealthy diets of poor people.
Muja Messiah said he wanted the album to be a reflection of our recessionary times, something people might hear years from now to understand what life in 2011 was like.
"All over, people are going through the same thing," he said. "And money's tight right now.
"And we try to depict that on the album to a certain extent, as far as America damn near on the verge of being a third world country, we wanted to express that pain." "This project reflects on the human rights movement," said Maria Isa. "We both come from it. We both were born into it. And it just describes that we still find ourselves struggling with this. And we're trying to figure out how do we break these chains? And the best way I know how to break these chains is through music and lyricism."
At points on the new album, a listener might wonder if the two emcees are romantically entwined. Messiah dismisses that notion.
"It's not an album based on love," he said. "You know it's me and a female just going back and forth, just rhyming about daily life."
But the infrequency with which that male/female exchange happens in the context of an actual group, makes Villa Rosa an anomaly in hip hop.