Your new album Unsung sounds great. Are you getting the feedback you expected from it?
I think it’s right around where I expected it to be. It’s interesting because I feel like what I didn’t get to get through on my debut album was the raps and me spitting, a little bit of bragging, some more organic production, just something different from what I did with my album. So I kind of figured that I would give a lot of people that I didn’t capture before but at the same time I wasn’t sure because I like music and I like to do stuff that’s soulful. I like telling stories and I like painting pictures and I didn’t do that a lot on this CD.
If this is your first time hearing me you might lump me in the regular group of rappers that talk about themselves and what’s going on in the game and all of that. I still think I managed to differentiate myself and let people know that I’m a gifted writer and the feedback has been pretty good. A lot of people are definitely hitting me up saying they loved it or copped it or they was feeling what I was doing. It’s right around what I expected. The video I just dropped got a lot of views real quick. That shows that people still care. I’m happy about that.
With so many songs on Unsung, do you think about some of your music getting skipped over?
Yes. That is one of my biggest fears. I tried to cut a lot of stuff out and I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t happen. Making a CD is a tough thing, I’ll tell you. There were certain records that I thought I could probably leave off but I wanted to give a full spectrum of what I was thinking and I didn’t want to leave anything out. At the time you never know what’s going to be filler and what people are going to like. You read reviews and some people say a song is terrible that I thought was good. I don’t read reviews no more. You kind of just gotta do what you feel and sometimes I do get concerned that things will get overlooked. You never know what people are going to say or how they take stuff. You could rack your brain all day trying to make a classic album but a lot of times, you just gotta go in and just make music that you feel, man and pray it all works out. It’s rare that I do a CD with no singing, no real deep instrumentation, just rapping. This’ll probably be the last time I do it. I don’t even think I like rap anymore but fuck it, people dug it so I’m happy.
Despite a lot of dope lyrics, you sound like you’re starting to get burned out from the game.
Umm, the game itself? Probably. Probably. But at the same time, it’s like I don’t feel like I’m a victim to it anymore. If somebody tells me I gotta do something, I don’t feel that pressure anymore. I don’t feel the need to pick out a single at all. I didn’t feel the need to try to get radio and to me, that’s such a big burden lifted off of my shoulders. When I was on Virgin Records, it was all about the single and it was all about the formula. You gotta drop this strategically and everything has to coincide. There’s just a lot of stuff where they follow industry guidelines and now you don’t gotta follow no rules at all. You can just do what you feel and that’s a beautiful thing.
Sometimes I feel burned out because I’ve been around for so long and following industry protocol and going from this place to that place to keep myself buzzing. I’m beyond that at this point. Just to be rapping and for somebody to care is a beautiful thing.
On “The Stir” you talk about how people told you to change your style. How do you take those criticisms?
Initially when I first started doing this, I think people just wanted to be able to categorize what I was doing so one of the initial things I heard was the comparisons to Jay, being that I’m 6’3” and brown-skinned and I’m talking in a conversational tone. People want to be able to categorize it and then as you go further on, they want to find a way to market what I’m doing. It’s not that they want me to change, they want to be able to say I’m a conscious rapper or a thug. And that’s tough because as an artist you don’t go into the booth thinking about your marketing plan. As time goes on, people think about how they can make money off you and they want to get you on radio. They have their own formula and if you don’t know who you are as an artist, you will change your style and I can be a pro at adapting my style to fit whatever the radio format was but you lose yourself.
I could say at this point, I don’t mind if people say I need to do something to get it popping because that’s what they’ve seen before. That’s what they think works in the game. But more and more you’re seeing people do things that haven’t been done before. My thing is to hope that I can not talk about the industry anymore and just be who I am and represent for people out there who are going through things, tell my stories and still be able to spit with some dexterity and skill that makes you think I’m pretty good with the words. That’s pretty much it. I’m trying to get over the industry.
That freedom has to be nice.
Yeah, especially in this age with the blogs and the comments. Once you put something out there, it’s open season.
In the album skits, you talk about putting out “Clap At Ya” on Virgin. It sounds like you still have some regrets over that single.
It’s funny. I don’t know if it’s really regrets. But when you think about being in that spot, and for the people that don’t know me, it’s like you get on a team and you’re willing to just do whatever to make it. That song that I did, “Clap At Ya,” was written for someone else and I was just showing how good I was and how capable I was of doing whatever they asked me. I got signed to Virgin through ghostwriting. I told them I would do whatever they needed. I would have done “This is why I’m Hot.” Once I saw my name on that board with the release date, I would have went in any direction. When they said Virgin loved it and it was the leak record, I was happy. I didn’t know they were going to press up vinyl and push it to radio. I didn’t have any understanding of that because if I did, I would have wanted to push something to my fanbase that I had already accumulated. I was already getting spins with the Punjabi MC record and then “Clap At Ya” had me as a murderer where I’m shooting shit up and you’re like, ‘Who the hell is this guy that’s supposed to be a nice rapper? I don’t get it.’ And truthfully, I would have been baffled if I had heard me. I wouldn’t say it’s regrets, but I was talking to people out there who might not know how this game works. You come into this music business thinking you need to get a hot single and I was just trying to say to be who you are from the door, whatever that is.
How important was it to drop the anecdotes about your journey throughout Unsung?
That was my boy DJ Victorious’ idea to go along with the theme of the Unsung show that comes on TV1. The testimonials, I thought, gave it a little bit of life and to me, it was a little bit of a tutorial for people who are breaking into the game through mixtapes and don’t really know what it’s like dealing with the majors. I wanted to talk about my story without rapping people to death. You don’t know who to choose out here. A lot of rappers say they’re the best and I just wanted to give people a little bit of insight about what I’ve gone through so they don’t think I’m some new cat rapping their head off. That was really the purpose behind that. I tried not to go too far in-depth. I did all of those straight through. I just talked and Victorious sliced it up and put it where it needed to fit. I thought that was important, man.
Do you think a lot of your fans today are aware of your history?
It’s a mixture. I feel like I’m getting a lot of new ones and they’re going back and doing their history. I’ll get a couple of Facebook or Twitter messages from people who say they’ve been following me for years and how they’re really listening. That’ll change my day because I didn’t know that. But at the same time, you always get those people who say, ‘Why the hell haven’t I heard of you before? Who are you? Where did you come from? Why aren’t you popping?’ The whole kit and caboodle, I get all of that. And to be honest, I don’t care where it comes from. If it’s love and you got my phone number from the “Thinking Out Loud” song and you text me, I don’t care, man. This is one of the biggest blessings to be able to put words together and be able to put music out and touch people’s lives, whether it’s with a story or something they can identify with and have them hit you up. I couldn’t even imagine this, man. I’m fortunate.
How do you respond to the “Why aren’t you on?” comments?
(laughs) It gets a little old but I tell them I’m on, man. I’m already on. I’ve been there. I’ve had the moment, you know, that moment where you sign that deal. I’ve rubbed shoulders with Jay-Z and Kanye West. I’ve been there. I knew Nicki Minaj when she was Onika Minaj. I’m not trying to get into anybody’s office and tell them to give me a record deal. When people hear me I tell them I’m on and I’m good. I made it. There’s always more. I can sit here and be insatiable all day because my goal is really to be a household name. My whole opinion has changed. I don’t love hip-hop the way I used to. It doesn’t give me that same feeling that it used to but I still love music and I still love the gift of being able to do music.
When people hit me and ask me why aren’t I popping and why aren’t I on, I could have a whole rundown of what happened to me and why and who did what and record deals and blah, blah, blah but who cares about any of that shit? They just want some good music. If you like it, thank you, spread the word. The most that can happen is that one day I can do this full-time, free of any worry about trying to make money off of it because then it becomes really authentic. If I can get to that point with more notoriety and my popularity, then hell yeah I want more views on my videos and more hits and whatever else. But I’m good.
On “Savior” you say, “You was waiting for a savior, well he’s here.” When did you feel like you could say that and mean it?
I think when I did the twelve mixtapes was around the time when I felt I could back up any braggadocios, outlandish line that I could come up with because that’s something that not your average rapper could do. Even if somebody was to say they were going to put out twelve CDs or ten or whatever in a year, with the format of the music and the way I did it and the versatility, that’s just showing you that I’m an artist with versatility. I did March on Washington prior to me even voting. I did Love Jones when it wasn’t even cool to do relationship CDs. I opened up a door. I did a CD dedicated to Stevie Wonder. These are things that people might have thought about doing but I did it all in one year. So yeah, I feel like I’m a voice for you. I’m a savior.
Will you ever be able to release that much music in one year again?
Marketing-wise, it could have been done a thousand times better because I didn’t understand the game outside of rapping words in 2008. All I knew was I knew how to rap and I can write fast and I can go in the studio and do ten songs in one session, literally. And that comes from just years and years of work. I thought about doing it again because I know I have more fans now and I would know how to promote it and make money off of it and I would have done the calendar that I wanted to do and I would have cut the number of songs down on each disc to make it more bearable. There’s a lot of things I would have done differently but I don’t think I have the hunger to do something like that again.
How does it feel seeing so many subpar mixtapes released today get so much more love than yours did?
A lot of it feels unsung, to be honest! (laughs) I feel like it’s unfair when people give a lot of other people credit for things that are just okay or regular or they’re not working as hard and I get overlooked sometimes. Sometimes it feels like that’s not fair and sometimes I snap out of it and know that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. This is the reason why you’re here and this is okay. It’s Unsung: The Garden of Eden. I feel unsung and I be wanting to say names and call people out but they’re just doing what they do. They’re doing music just like I’m doing music and people feel what they feel and I have no control over it. As much as your ego hits you and you know you’ve been doing it for this long and you’re only at this point in your life and your career, I gotta shut that shit up and just think about the fans first. My brother always tells me to think about the fans and what do they want to hear and to just do what you feel from the heart. It’s all good.
The song “Unsung” was sarcasm at its finest. What kept you from putting that on the album?
The producer had actually sold the beat. I didn’t know. I got the beat and I was trying to think of something for it and I wrote that song in about eight minutes, literally. I recorded it in my crib on my own Pro Tools because I wanted Victorious to hear it and just figure out what to do with it. And he took it and put it out the next day! We had issues with the producer. He wasn’t mad. He loved it but he had sold the rights to it. It was a touchy situation. I think we put it on as a bonus or something. If it was a regular mixtape release it would have been on there.
And people are kind of weird. I’m not saying people are slow, but a lot of people were hitting me up saying that they thought I sold out and that it was a real record. That scared me. I was like, ‘Y’all people really don’t get jokes too well.’ When you first heard it did you know I was playing around?
The first time I heard it I was doing other things on the computer so I wasn’t fully listening. Once I heard it on the iPod, distraction-free, I knew what it was. I think those reactions are indicative of how people listen to music today.
Right. Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, that was the whole story behind it. It’s the same thing that happened with my “Follow the Leader” track. I get a song that’s buzzing and I didn’t take care of the proper producer guidelines but that happens in today’s age because people send you beats all the time and it’s hard to keep everything straight and the next thing you know, somebody done sold it and you piss someone off.
That’s why you should only cop the 99 cent beats that get blasted out.
I don’t think I get those but I see some other cheap beats. I don’t even open those up, man.
What’s the lowest price you’ve ever paid for a beat besides free?
I’ve given a weak 16. That’s worth about $95. (laughs) It was a verse I thought was aight but it was probably an even trade. I don’t think I’ve paid the pennies for beats. I usually do a barter system where people look out.
What do you barter with besides verses?
I don’t have no crazy connects. I’m not good with that. The only thing I can do is a verse, man. If they need a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, that’s all I can really think of.
Throughout Unsung you talk about the many sacrifices you made for music. Were those sacrifices worth it or do you have any regrets?
A part of me has, I don’t want to say regrets, but I’m real reflective with what could have been. Sometimes I wish I would have had a part-time job and been stacking money just so I could have paid for things instead of depending on other people but you know, a large portion of my life, I needed that struggle. I needed to sleep on people’s floors and couches and wear sweatpants and just be a bum because that sparked that hunger. I was broke for a long time. That was a thing that was a part of my struggle. Sometimes I think about it, like I ain’t got no kids. I’m not really close to a lot of people that I used to be close with just because we were close doing music and when that situation deteriorated, it’s like what else do I have to talk about? If you think about that, it could be sad, man. A lot of people that I was cool with in college, I wish we would have stuck with it and kept going and maintained the relationships. Things like that, you think about. I don’t necessarily have regrets. I still think everything that should have happened happened to get me here. You hear the reflection on the CD. You think about it and watch an award show and I’m looking at Drake, who is someone that my old manager B. Don tried to get me to do songs with. He was nice but it never happened.
There’s a lot of people who came up fast like Nicki Minaj.
Yeah, it is. Maino and Joell Ortiz were on my New York State of Mine CD. A lot of people that I crossed paths with early have gone on to do some major things. The thing is I’m happy for everybody though. I’m not bitter. I’m not saying I wish I was them. It’s just beautiful that people can live out their dreams, man. And sometimes you get that itch to want to tell those people that doubted you, “I told you so” and that happens once in awhile where you feel that way, but it goes away, man. I just feel so fortunate right now. I’m in a good place where I don’t think I need that.
It’s also crazy how much the fame changes some artists.
When your career and life changes, you start to get real paranoid with who’s in your circle and you start to get really selective. Me, personally, I remember. I remember when I first signed a deal and I wanted to keep certain people close to me and the other people were saying that I was acting funny. A lot of people knew that I was still real and I was still coming to shows and supporting people and other people were saying that I was just giving them a “regular pound.” I didn’t think I was acting funny but they perceive it a certain way. In their defense, I’m not going to say that everybody’s that way but I do know that the lights and the money and the people you’re around can change you.
Does that along with your other experiences in the game change how you listen to music?
Hell yeah! It’s probably one of the most annoying things because I don’t find myself being a fan like the way I was. I remember going on HipHopGame in ’03 and ’04 just to listen to songs for motivation and inspiration to go and write something crazy and to see who was killing it today, like some new Grafh or some new Saigon to get me hyped. Now it’s like it’s not the same passion. One, I don’t even want to hear the new people because I feel like they’re saying the same thing. Evertytihng sounds gimmicky and I’m breaking it down, like I know what this guy’s trying to do and I can do something better than that. The game kind of makes you a little bit sour. And I miss the days of just being a fan, which is why I kind of like listening to people like Eminem, who humble me. Jay-Z used to humble me. Even Wayne sometimes because his passion for writing, you can hear it even if you don’t like his style. He makes sure that he’s giving evertytihng on tracks. But yeah, it’s definitely annoying and I’m not the fan that I was.
In “Who I Am” you talk about putting your “empty vocals up against these hippies’ songs.” What caused this whole touchy-feely movement?
Kanye definitely started it off. I don’t know if he started it off, but he definitely took that style and kind of ran with it. You gotta think about it. A lot of these guys existed already. They were dressing weird and being kooky but it gets validation and once it gets stamped as being cool, then people run with it. A lot of the trends and a lot of the styles, and I hate to say it, but it all comes back to Jay. Jay-Z, once he stamps somebody, they become official. If Jay-Z didn’t use soul samples on The Blueprint, the music wouldn’t have changed. If Jay-Z didn’t sign Kanye West, he would have just been that producer that loves himself. It’s the same thing with the Dipset movement. Jay-Z signed Cam’ron and started that movement. Kanye made it okay to not be a gangsta and to not sell drugs and opened up a lane. Now as far as the skinny jeans and anything else is concerned, I think that was like a spin-off to what he was coming through with. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but there is a weirdo movement where they’re called weirdoes. I’ve heard the term. I don’t know if it goes along with the mohawk or the whole punk rock thing. It’s not bad. It’s only bad when it becomes trendy. I went to an ‘80s party and there was a dude there with a flattop and we asked him if he grew it for the party but he wears it every day. It makes sense. But if you’re online and you see the New Boyz and you want to get your jeans two sizes too small and sag them and start rhyming real warped like Wayne and get some tats and pretend you’re this character, then it’s the same thing as if you’re saying you sold drugs and shot people up. It doesn’t matter what the content is. It’s still trendy and it’s still polluting the radio if 27 songs are on there sounding the same. The toughest thing in this music game is to get it back to where it was where it was versatile and you could be who you are, where the Native Tongues could coexist with N.W.A. and Big Daddy Kane. That’s when hip-hop was at its purest form but the record sales didn’t always match and people didn’t acknowledge it like it was in its purest form. Dudes weren’t walking around saying, “This is the golden era.” They were just enjoying it.
What’s the next trend?
I know last time we talked about space. I think the weirdo thing is going to go on. It moves in cycles, man. I had a conversation with someone where they said the ‘80s were here and the ‘90s are coming back. I don’t know. Maybe Kid-N-Play-type dancing will come back or conscious rap with African medallions.
What would make you happy?
What would make me happy? I think what XXL has with the ten freshman every year. It’s one of those things that’s a catapult for careers. I had this conversation with them awhile back. When they put those ten guys on the cover, you give a platform to them, whether they’re known or not. They can start demanding money for shows and their mixtapes are going to get downloaded more. You know how it is. People start looking out for the ten freshman. Something like that has become, I don’t want to say the standard, but it’s one of those things that can make a career. You think about it where if one or two of those guys is conscious or political or has something to say and another one is a punk rocker and just different with different styles, it opens up a door and it opens up a lane. Anything that can give people light is good. I would just be happy if there was an even playing ground. We can almost eliminate the need for radio by just people becoming popular off of good music. So maybe other media outlets can do the same thing the other outlets are doing. The Source actually started it back in the day with Canibus and Peter Gunz and Pun on the cover. If Complex or online websites were to do it, I don’t think it would be as big because it would be watered down, but you just gotta think of something that’s like an award and would we really care about Kid Cudi today if he wasn’t on that cover?
I didn’t know we cared about him.
I’m just saying. Kid Cudi and Wale are having a beef and both of them really benefited from being on this cover. Things like that can change careers. And there’s people out there that have been doing very well without it but imagine if my boy Skyzoo got a cover like that and where that would take him or if Grafh was a part of that early.
Skyzoo never got that?
I thought he did. He got robbed.
No, Saigon and Joell Ortiz got the first one. I don’t remember who else was on it. But at the same time, you can’t depend on the media to do all of the work as well. It would just make me happy to see a push for artists who are doing what they do instead of paying to play or trying to get on the radio or trying to get a buzz. I hate counting my views but this is the world we’re in, man. You gotta adapt to it.
What motivates you to keep rapping today?
It’s surpassed appreciation today. I started rapping when Biggie died because I was afraid of dying and not leaving anything. I’ve made a lot of good music and I think I still have more good pictures to paint and a lot of topics to touch on and a lot more things that I see going on that I can put to instrumentation and can tell stories and people haven’t done it yet. That’s my motivation. I don’t know if a Grammy’s in my future. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to become a household name through music but I would love it to open up other doors. I would love to continue getting bigger roles in films and I write R&B as well. I’m a writer at heart. I’m working on a couple of books. There’s so many things that I wanted music to open the door for. And I’m not there yet. I am going to continue to do what I do. I’m just not dependent on this female called rap like I was. She was my only chick for ten years. Sometimes I call her and she doesn’t call back and I know she saw me calling and now I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to use you to reach other people on my own time’ and nobody can tell me how to do what I’m going to do. My next CD will be totally different from the next one and it will be on another level of topics and just music. I just want to elevate.