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Between hookah pulls, Tory Lanez has devised another master plan. Mirroring his savory sonic palette, the Toronto native reveals how he intends to release three albums over the course of three weeks. Each album is an ode to a personality all his own and sounds we wouldn’t expect from the multi-hyphenated artist. “These are timeless records on these projects,” he insists on the phone. One is an album inspired by the synths of the '80s, an acoustic project akin to the early works of Ed Sheeran and a Spanish album. “I’m beginning to get into a space where there's really just a different genre of music here. It's crazy how I was able to keep it under wraps for so long.” I’m not surprised at his motion picture-like ideas. Just last year during his press run for the chart-topping project, Chixtape 5, he manifested himself on the cover of VIBE. One pandemic, fifty-eleven twerk sessions, and a Drake shot-toast later, Tory has unlocked another goal all thanks to an unplugged mic and an Instagram Live chill session that would evolve in Quarantine Radio.
In the early days of America’s self-isolation from the novel coronavirus, the artist chilled with his team in Miami, enjoying 2000s hip-hop hits on his Instagram Live. Tens of thousands tuned in thanks to people engaging in social distancing in real life but stepping onto the toes of others at DJ sets on social media. In late March, he formed his own soundclash with Bryson Tiller, where the two exchanged songs in the categories of bubblegum pop from Christina Aguilera, pop-punk via early Panic! At The Disco and vintage R&B from Otis Redding. After a very impressive battle, Tory formed Quarantine Radio where more of his talented bredren could hop on, take a shot and look for the real stars of the show–the women.
“It was totally organic, it was not even supposed to be a thing,” he says with a chuckle. “The dude who does the ad-libs, he's a part of my day to day management and he ended up passing me the mic and headphones. He started doing the ad-libs and we found it funny, and it just became a thing, you know? I ended up yelling for four hours because I was just on Instagram having a good time.”
Quarantine Radio is two parts speakeasy, five parts twerking and three parts 2010 Twitter. Some girls dropped it low in gas stations and forests while others absorbed strawberry milk in their thongs. Stars like Chris Brown, Ben Simmons, Lizzo, Casanova, Tinashe, Megan Thee Stallion (who even got her Hot Girl twerk on), and more were in the popcorn gallery chatting with Tory on how to remain “corona free.” There’s also the essence of Demon Time, a red light rendezvous believed to be created by Justin LaBoy. With guests like The Weeknd, YG, and Lil Yachty, the virtual strip club has enticed libidos and increased bank accounts of its participants. In between Tory’s hilarious adlibs, Quarantine Radio adapted Demon Time with fans getting creative with every twerk session.
Before Instagram cut the party short due to a violation of nudity, he found himself with 2 million extra followers and a then record-breaking live session with over 360,000 people watching. But inspiration comes from everywhere. Enter Sha Almighty, a South Bronx native who kicked off the Almighty Trap Show in December 2018, a virtual funhouse on Instagram where Taylor Port wine replaces bottle service and Pandora’s Box is split into two live screens. “I wouldn’t say I’m the inventor of Demon Time, but I am definitely the reason everyone knows what it is now,” admits Sha. With co-host Trap, Sha says his lingo (like “I need a calculator,” “They shooting duck,” "WOWW") and swag have helped boost the profiles of LaBoy and Tory’s interpretation of the scene. “A lot of facts are missing,” he said. “I think [Tory] is a fan and just needs to give me my credit. I just feel anyone can do the Instagram Live show but just at least bring your own originality.”
Part of Tory’s originality stems from his unique way to flip a turn up into an opportunity. He says Quarantine Radio and its moving parts came together casually with no one else but those in the Miami hangout. As participants like DJ Duffey, Johnni Blaze, Veronica Rodriguez, and Natalie Nunn made their mark as clear cut winners during contests, Tory was living his childhood dreams on Quarantine Radio by shipping off beat pack requests to Swizz Beatz, and flirting with living legends like Raven-Symoné, Trina and Tisha Campbell. He even plugged “Comeback,” an upcoming steamy collaboration with R&B siren JoJo, and talked DMX into growling. We were soon anticipating Quarantine Radio shows soundtracked by the discographies of Ja Rule, Juvenile, and Mack Morrison with Tory–also known as DJ Corona Free–in the booth. Tory pulled off weeks of potential meetings with his peers into only eight episodes of Quarantine Radio.
But Tory’s casual yet thoughtful viral ideas never overshadowed his music. He recently hopped into his rap bag and dropped The New Toronto 3, his last offering to Interscope before parting ways. It earned Tory another Top 10 album on the Billboard 200 which means next to nothing for him. As an artist who has released 25 projects in ten years would tell you, it’s all about the game baybee.
“C'mon, it's like a million people inflating their streams,” he claims. “Some people are just doing numbers where that's just impossible. As someone who understands a lot of things behind the scenes, I can't allow it to dictate, at least somebody like me, who's not cheating.” Since his debut studio album I Told You was released in 2016 with hits like “Say It” and “LUV,” the Grammy-nominated artist says he’s enjoyed the increase in streams over the years because of its genuine nature.
“I had never passed 60,000 [units in the first week], but I've always been relevant,” he says. The New Toronto 3 moved 64,000 equivalent album units which he attributes to his growth as an artist. “I know that it takes a certain amount of building for you to make real numbers. So when I see people have these numbers out the gate, I'm like, 'You don't have these numbers out the gate, no one knows you.' I just don't think it’s fair for artists nowadays who are not cheating, but this shouldn’t discourage them. At the end of the day, if the music is connecting, and you have an audience that cares about the music, and who is hitting you on Instagram and saying 'That song is crazy,' and doing what they can to let you know your music is great, then you're doing what you need to do and it doesn't matter.”
The New Toronto 3 takes us back to Tory’s ability to steer into MC territory (“Do The Most” and “Broke In A Min” are fan favorites) while enjoying his R&B hits in the rearview mirror. Chixtape 5 brought the journey full circle with the creative teaming up with his soulful heroes like Lloyd, Ashanti, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Mya, and more for a lesson in enjoyable sampling and hilarious skits. Both projects have done Tory plenty of favors as it officially released him into independent waters. The artist has remained vocal against his disdain for Interscope Records, which also houses buzzy artists like DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, and Lil Mosey. Looking back on some of the creative differences he had at the label, Tory admits he’s held on to his best material and is ready for the world to hear it.
“Sometimes I feel like in my situation I didn't really have the person to be like, 'Yeah, this belongs on 'XYZ’ so we're going to spend this amount of money so you can actually get that',” he says in his best white voice. “I didn't feel like I had that for a long time so I kept certain music away. It's not going to take long for me to release things. I don't have a specific time where I have to get stuff out to the label. I'm putting out a lot of music and a lot of heads will turn my way because they never knew I made this type of music.” That type, Tory says, is everything under the sun. He guarantees his highly anticipated Spanish-language album will see the light of day with fans ready for him to jump into “Fargo Fridays” again (dropping a new song every Friday) or hone in on the hunger found on early projects like Lost Cause. No matter when or how the music drops, Tory knows people are watching.
Derailed albums, canceled festivals, and shows have flooded the concert industry with a projected loss of $9 billion. Streaming has reportedly seen a decline but artists like Drake have continued to shine with the release of the Tik-Tok friendly “Tootsie Slide” and others like The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Lil Uzi Vert have solid fan bases who have taken their recent releases to the top of the charts. There are also artists like Tory who have capitalized on live streaming to either perform, share music, or just talk to fans. While Quarantine Radio wasn’t a part of Tory’s business model, he believes the music industry should learn a thing or two from it.
“Just chill the f**k out (laughs) that's it, bro, chill the f**k out,” he says to the industry. “As an artist, when we're not getting lots of views or anything we want, you feel like, 'Damn I gotta do something to get back and stop putting so much energy into things that don't even work.' When you just don't [give a] f**k anymore, things just start to go your way. It's going to be okay, dawg. Be you, be happy, be humble, and that's it.”
He doesn’t hold any resentment about his past record deals. Instead of folding, Tory has made diamonds from the pressure. “I'm a person that will not accept defeat in my career,” he says. “When it comes to you know, that fourth-quarter pressure, I'm someone who's going to always rise to the occasion. Being that I went through what I went through and I still somehow came out of that and exceeded five albums. I own all my masters and my publishing, so even for me to be at my hottest moment culturally—where the cultural acceptance of Tory Lanez the brand is now a thing—and to be in this place when I'm leaving the label, it's truly just a blessing. It's something I'm extremely happy about because like I said, I learned that I'm a person that won't accept defeat. It took this situation for me to really really realize why I feel that way.”
His love for the culture almost wrecked his sound as casual listeners pigeonholed him for sampling. His breakthrough 2016 hit “Say It,” samples Brownstone’s “If You Love Me,” and “LUV,” samples the classic reggae jam “Everyone Falls In Love Sometimes” by Tanto Metro and Devonte. Tory’s rookie year in the game continued to receive some blows as he and fellow Toronto native Drake engaged in a brief beef of sorts. Despite the pushbacks, Tory says he’s always remained true to himself.
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QUARANTINE QUARANTINE QUARANTINE 😂😂. Whose your favorite guest on #Quarantineradio so far ?
“There's a demographic of people for everybody,” he explains. “Nothing looks purer to people than you being yourself. Like ni**a, I don't walk around being mad all the time or being angry every single day so why would I walk around like that? I'm truly happy inside and whether the world knew that or not, that's who I was. I'm very outspoken and whatever the case is, but at the end of the day, I'm a very happy guy. If you're going to see me for four or five hours, you're going to see me being happy. I will say that I am happy that the show helped a lot of other people not really take things so seriously. Let's just get drunk with everyone, that's it. I don't take any of it seriously. The buttons are funny, the sound effects are funny. I really laugh at the ad-lib guy, it's just funny to me.” Ad-libs like “Ultimate Light Skins” to reference artists like Drake and Chris Brown, repeating “quarantine” and air horn sounds help drive fans into a frenzy.
In addition to a new album, new fans, and a renewed energy, Tory has also pulled out his philanthropic hat. This week, Tory partnered with charitable organization the Dream Center to officially launch The Tory Lanez Dream Fund to help with COVID-19 relief efforts for struggling families. So far, companies like Amazon Music have matched Tory’s personal donation of 50,000 diapers by covering the cost of 100,000 diapers for families searching for help at the Los Angeles Dream Center. Meals have also been provided through home deliveries, walk-ups, and drive-thru Dream Centers nationwide.
For Tory, giving back in and out the industry has always been a goal worth manifesting. “When I think about ownership, I think about One Umbrella [his label imprint], I think about what I’m about to do,” he says of his label which includes Latinx powerhouse like Melli, R&B vocalist and Coachella bound Mariah the Scientist and Mansa, “who everyone should fear,” he says. The deals keep coming his way. He recently discussed Viacom’s interest in teaming up with MTV for a 30-minute segment, but his focus is on the art of independence.
“Especially in my case right now, when these labels are trying to tell me, ‘Hey, $20 million for two albums!' and I'm like, 'Bro, no. Simply no.' I would like to own my music. Ownership to me is the most important thing right now. It's a very powerful word.” Family is another priority when asked about his biggest inspirations. “I find the joy out of life,” he says while thinking about his son, Kai. “If it's not God or my child, I'm not taking it seriously.”
There’s a raucous of laughter that spills between those hookah pulls and my inquiry about his comments about the late Tupac Shakur. After sharing with Genius.com's Rob Markman recently how he’s been inspired by Tupac, the rapper was met with immediate backlash.
“I don't know why motherf**kers get so upset when a ni**a says something about Pac,” he says.“Bruh, to all those ni**as in the comments that get so mad about it when anybody says anything about Pac, Suck my d**k, my ni**a.” Tory goes on to reference Pac’s 1994 MTV interview where the late rapper shared his intentions on inspiring the youth. “Every time I speak I want the truth to come out,” Tupac said two years before he was gunned down. “Every time I speak I want a shiver. I don’t want them to be like they know what I’m gonna say because it’s polite. I'm not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
“I'm a fan of Pac and I'll say this. I never said, ‘I am Pac,’ what I said was that I had similarities to him,” he said while pointing out comical, but iconic similarities like their nose rings and love for bandanas. “I'm not Pac, but I do feel like I was one of the minds he sparked and I hope another person feels the same way. Wasn't that the point?”
In an effort to keep the creative train going, Tory promises when “this is over, Quarantine Radio is over.” He hasn’t gone on Live to promote Quarantine Radio, but he has promised fans it will return this week. “I'll say this; if it gets to a place where they say, 'There's one more day left of quarantine, and it's done on the 30th [which is probably won't be] then on 29th, we'll have the last day of Quarantine Radio. Some things are just meant to be what they are.”
Love isn’t an afterthought in our current time of self-isolation. The mélange of it all is felt in the spirit of singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Resting with her family in Toronto in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, her tribe of fans waits patiently for her to jump on Instagram Live. The intimate meetups were provided in the past but with her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us in the ethos, fans are eager for Jessie’s magnetic energy.
One of her Lives, in particular, was life-changing as aspiring artists had the opportunity to sing for her. Diligently listening to every nayhoo, chord, and harmony from Israel, Florida, and Brazil, Jessie gives strong advice to her young fans. From taking advantage of studio time to the perks of platforms like Soundcloud, the gems are passed from one growing artist to another through the telephone screen.
The transfer of loving energy is something that comes easy for Jessie. At 28, the Colombiana embodies the wisdom of her ancestors and wit of a whiskey-toting millennial. The world’s current apocalyptic omens would shake some, but Jessie is focused on the brighter elements of life. “Love can help with actual survival tactics; survival not for the individual but for the community,” she says on her current mindstate around the outbreak. “The only way I think it could hurt us is if we don't think about the community and approach this selfishly. Anyone that’s scared of losing people to this is hard. Every day I’m calling every single one of my elderly family members to make sure they’re good. There are so many celebrities and politicians talking about it so I feel silly reiterating the same information but it’s literally about the curve.”
Our conversation comes days before the release of her debut, a concept album ripened with the everlasting relationship between love and mortality. We have her fans to thank for its release. After an online poll pushed for the album, Jessie committed to the March 27 release date. “I had a hard time too because the title is literally Before Love Came To Kill Us, like, the whole premise of the album was to trigger people into thinking about mortality and now it almost seems like it's a theme song to what everyone is going through. Everybody is thinking about how to survive right now so I’m embracing it because I made the decision to go with it. I've been connecting with fans online, which has been a nice silver lining. I'm not mad at this. It can be worse for me right now.”
The project arrives four years after her breakthrough hit “Figures” lodged a dagger into our musical hearts. With just a guitar and her signature messy up-down hairstyle, Jessie highlights her worst fears—giving love but never receiving it. It made her stand out in 2016 and soon become a notable rising act and fan-favorite alongside fellow newbies like Khalid and SZA.
”I’ve been chasing this sh*t my whole life man, don’t ever think I take this sh*t for granted,” she said during a VEVO Halloween show in 2017. Her debut EP Kiddo proved this with diary-entry songs about her journey in the industry. The harrowing “Gatekeepers” dropped in the middle of the #MeToo movement and pointed out a producer who attempted to pressure the young singer into sleeping with him. The single showcased Jessie’s lethal songwriting skills and her bravery in a competitive, and at times, misogynistic industry.
Jessie’s resilience paired with her unparalleled voice has kept her shining in R&B. With the release of her EP Being Human In Public in late 2018, Reyez began to align herself with other fearless women in the game like Kehlani and Normani. The project, featuring sobering tracks like “F**k Being Friends” and “Sola,” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Despite losing to Lizzo, Jessie’s voice in R&B had finally been heard.
Women of Latinx descent have always been entwined in soul music. Lisa Velez, known for her groundbreaking group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam in the 1980s, released songs like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985) and “From Head to Toe” (1987) in a time where Latinas were expected to sing in Spanish or constantly keep the party going with 120 bpm tunes. The release of their tender, 1986 ballad “All Cried Out” would go on to be sampled by R&B quartet Allure in 1997. Sheila E.’s vital percussions not only inspired Prince but are also infused into the tracks by Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie.
These steps would also go on to enlighten artists like Amy Winehouse and Ms. Lauryn Hill–two pivotal artists who Jessie Reyez looks to for inspiration. With fearless grit, Reyez takes risks like her sheroes. For one, she’s not afraid to tap into her latinidad by singing in Spanish (hear the touching “La Memoria”) and incorporating the Mexican traditions of Día De Los Muertos in her new video for “I Do.” As R&B turns a new corner with acts like H.E.R., Ella Mai, and Tory Lanez topping the charts, Jessie's abilities make her a new leader Latinx R&B heads can stan and the music industry execs can take note of.
The combination of mindfulness and rustic songwriting taps into a new kind of pop star for people of color today. With love taking a new shape through apps, FaceTime dates and social media, the love songs have become more brutal with Reyez hitting every wrapped high note.
Speaking with VIBE VIVA, Jessie shares the tragedy of soulmates, creating Before Love Came To Kill Us, her consistent chemistry with Eminem and the perks of being yourself.
Before Love Came To Kill Us seems to be here at the right time. How are you feeling about the release?
Jessie Reyez: I'm definitely nervous and I hope it's the best it can be, I hope it is. I tweaked the sh*t out of it. I kept loving it Monday and hating it on Tuesday. Then I would love it on Wednesday and hate it on Thursday. It was very tumultuous. I wasn't feeling pressure when I started. I was free. The more you fu**ing talk to people, the more you risk their perspective affecting your core. Like when people say, “Oh, it's your first album, did you feel pressure?” “Uh, Nah.” And then the second person asks I say, “Nah.” But then the tenth person is asking if you let that sh*t seep in. You're getting closer to the zone where you might be second-guessing your intuition and that never ends right.
On top of that, we had certain people being like, “We have to make sure the album is cohesive.” I remember dealing with song selections and having this word in my head. As a human being, my innate nature and soul are sporadic. I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am a loving woman and a violent woman. I am all these things and for me to comprise and make this album cohesive, as opposed to making the first album me? I had a window of clarity where I was like, f**k that. People are gonna cry and people are gonna bop. The same way they did on Kiddo and the same way they did on Being Human In Public. I didn't want to make everybody cry for the sake of having everybody cry. F**k that. If I'm a rainbow, I'm the worst ends of the rainbow. If it's a bloody rainbow then it's gonna be a bloody rainbow, you know?
I enjoyed the highs and lows of the album because that’s what love is. I enjoyed the collaboration with Eminem. How was it hearing his verse for the first time on "Coffin"?
He's actually one of the last features of the album. To be honest, Eminem could've sent me the verse saying “Quack, quack, quack,” and it still would've been dope. He's a legend and to welcome a legend on my project, someone I listened to as a kid, it's an honor. When I got it, and it wasn't “Quack, quack, quack,” I was like, “Ahh this is dope.” It could've been nothing and I still would've been honored. The fact that's it dope it's a double W.
There’s a quote about soulmates I heard on The Good Place. It goes, “If soulmates do exist, they're not found, they're made.” Do you believe in soulmates?
I'm one of those people who are reluctant to love because I know that the moment I do, I'm f**ked. When I say I'm f**ked I mean it's an uphill to get me to fall in love. Once I get there, it's like I'm crawling out of hell. Like a vertical crawl. It's the worst because now I'm at the point where...everybody's great because everybody starts great. I'm trying not to let my past experiences harden my heart. Sometimes it feels like the hell always wins for me. I think it's a beautiful sentiment.
I'm not sure if I believe this anymore but there was a point in my life where I really thought that you choose to love. You choose who you love because it's not always going to be easy. But you fight through it when it's hard because it's not always gonna be there. Some days I'm an optimist and some days I'm a pessimist. It just depends. Today, I guess I'm just indecisive.
Does it ever get annoying being the "deep girl?"
Well, I did when people were telling me to make the album cohesive. But sometimes I just wanna go nuts and it's not that serious, it's just who I am. I definitely feel that sometimes people have that expectation but I think I have that discernment to not let that affect how I'm gonna move. So when Monday and Tuesday show up and I feel like I want to be an intellectual, then on Wednesday I wanna post some ridiculous f**king meme or like Sunday I wanna just mess around with my nieces and put it online, I'm gonna do that. I feel like people expect it but I don't really care (Laughs).
What do you think of people still looking for love via FaceTime dates during the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t understand how dating can be a priority right now.
It's funny how situations like this can pull people in different ways. I was having a conversation with someone about this too and they were like, “How the f**k can you be thinking about this right now?" They had the same reaction as you. I don't know but that's just people are different. If you push someone towards death, some are going to figure out ways to get out and some people are just going to accept that it's the end and they're going to see what else they can do before the end. Go find a King or Queen.
The pandemic put a hold on the music industry and like many other events, your tour with Billie Eilish has been postponed. How were the first two dates you got to do together?
We got to do Orlando and Miami together and that was nice. It was great man, she's got puppies on her rider which has gotta be the smartest most potent way to happiness. To see a little baby puppy everywhere you go while you work, that's been my highlight.
If you had to pick the “Best Part” and “Worst Part” of your life, what gets put on the table?
The best part is (pauses) not dealing with slimy dudes anymore, like when I was a bottle service girl/bartender. There were a lot of times where I had to bite my tongue and just thug it out. Especially when I was a bottle service girl, that job is f**king hard. At least when you're a bartender, you have the bar standing in the way, so there's a little bit of protection against you. But the bottle service girl, you're in the trenches. You have to slide through there and cover your ass because guys will slap your ass and be matter-o-facto, it's a f**king jungle and I'm happy I went through it because it made me thicker skinned and it made me hustle more.
The worst part would be (pauses) I read this often in books, the f**ked up part is that when you get everything you want and you're still not happy. There are a lot of things I have been blessed with; a career right now that's blossoming right now and I've been blessed to help out people in my family financially, but I still battle a lot of demons internally that I haven't been able to grab a hold of yet. There are just times on the road where I'm like, “I gotta figure it out.” I gotta figure out how to make my psychological health a priority because as good as my brain and my heart are, I wonder, "Am I doing life right?"
It’s so amazing to watch you grow. How do you keep yourself so centered?
When I started, I made it a point to be as authentic as possible. From the jump, it's been that and I owe a lot of that to my parents. My family was very strict in regard to me not being able to go to sleepovers, not having boyfriends, being raised in a Colombian household in Canada because kids are allowed to do whatever they want but you're not.
Your a** is still getting beat, your ass is still in the house. So that's the case with a lot of minorities, the culture is just different in regards to what we're allowed and not allowed to do as kids. I wasn't allowed to do a lot of sh*t but the stuff I was allowed to do was through self-expression. Even if I wasn't allowed to go to sleepovers, have a boyfriend or leave the block, I was still allowed to wear all my brother's clothes. If I didn't wanna wear any girl clothes, it was fine. I was still allowed to bleach my bangs if I wanted to bleach my bangs.
My dad was prepared for me to cut my hair off and dye it pink, I used to take the old curtains my mom was going to give away and chop them up and make dresses and make hairpieces and all this sh*t and if I wanted to go to school like that I was allowed. My parents were very liberal in that regard, allowing me to spend time writing and doing poetry all day.
I remember once when we moved, they were taking down the (switch border light). The place we moved into had a ton of those that were metal and embellished and my mom hated them so then she took them all down. They all had them downstairs in a box and I took the whole box and brought them to my room. I thought it would be so dope if I took them and hammered them all over my room. So my mom came in and saw and was like, “What the hell did she do? This looks ridiculous but okay.”
Now, I'm grown. If I feel like someone is telling me what to wear, or if I feel like someone is strongly suggesting I need to be in this, the first thing I think of is, “My parents don't tell me what to wear. You think you're gonna tell me what to wear?” I've had that feeling of self-expression since I was a kid. That's not something I'm willing to give up cause I know that it was a gift from my parents. A lot of kids have that repression. You have to make sure your hair looks like this, your shoes are f**king this, all that sh*t and I didn't have that. So I honor it by being true to myself now.
The premiere episode of Starz’s seminal New York City crime drama, Power, introduced a world that is now blaringly unfamiliar nearly six years later. A very married James and Tasha St. Patrick walk hand-in-hand into the opening of Truth nightclub. Tasha and her best friend LaKeisha are thick as thieves, bonding over drinks and designer threads. James’ drug-toting alter-ego, Ghost, commits a brutal murder within the first ten minutes. Ghost’s partner-in-crime, Tommy, is eyeing a red-haired waitress named Holly. Tariq St. Patrick adorably tries to con his dad into doing his Spanish homework. And after 18 years, James has a chance encounter with an old flame, Angela Valdez; the two trade googly eyes and jokes about the old ‘hood while knowing little to nothing about each other’s current lives.
Yet, some things about that very episode bear a striking resemblance to the show’s sixth and final season. Before turning into a cold-blooded killer himself, Ghost scolds Tommy for cavalierly bringing street drama to Truth. Ghost’s flashbacks of his murderous act turn to lovemaking with Tasha into a moment of animalistic catharsis. Tommy lets out a hearty laugh at Ghost’s dream of “growing up, going legit and living happily ever after.” Tariq naively questions how his dad even learned to speak Spanish. Tasha watches dreadfully from across the room as a visibly enamored James takes Angela’s phone number. Angela defends abandoning her and James’ teenage courtship with a foreshadowing truth: “I would’ve dropped everything for you. Everything my parents worked for, everything I’d worked for.”
Ultimately, the old and new worlds combust, leaving the death of James “Ghost” St. Patrick in their wake.
“The show kind of told its own end,” says Courtney Kemp, Power’s creator and showrunner. “If you’re writing for as long as we have, the characters start to tell their own stories after a while. You’re not really as much in control of them as you think. There are certain things that they do and certain things that they don’t do, certain things that they will and won’t say and do, and so you go with where the story is leading you.” But how does a bevy of creatives stay in-tune enough with a fictional world to relinquish control and allow for natural progression? Apparently, with an incredible amount of empathy—even for the story’s most devious.
Omari Hardwick describes his Power character, James “Ghost” St. Patrick, as “dynamic,” “duplicitous,” “big,” “angelic,” and “magnanimous.” Try your luck at adding “narcissist” to that list of adjectives, and Hardwick will stop you in your tracks. “I would say that he’s maybe the most empathetic character in the entire story,” he says. “He went to a little white boy—who was the only white boy in the neighborhood—and to a girl who hid powder and drugs for him, and said, ‘We could be more.’ He didn’t say ‘I could be more,’ he said ‘We can be more.’ By the end of the series he says, ‘Tommy, I got more.’ And that’s only after asking Tommy a million times to believe in we. Tommy said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ Tasha said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ But Ghost kept saying ‘we;’ he never said ‘I.’ Eventually he said ‘I.’ Eventually. The narcissism was a growth pattern.”
This level of humanity has been a part of Hardwick’s approach since the very beginning of his career. With roots in poetry and hip-hop, Hardwick asserts that affinity for the human plight is necessary for artists of any kind. “Those that are natural at this—those that look like they were pulled off the side of the road and made for every character they play—that natural thing is as synonymous with empathy as anything else that makes you a naturally good artist.” Even with the early knowledge that Ghost would either die or go to jail, Hardwick insists that treating James St. Patrick as finite would be against the ethos he brings to his craft. “I would imagine that you do a disservice immediately to the character if you’re thinking about that. I’ve always been an actor who believes that a character can’t be known until the job is actually completed.”
If viewers tally up what they know about Ghost, the math may not check out on the side of righteousness, even after Power’s final curtain call. Twenty murders. One failed marriage. One fallen mistress. One child lost, another scorn. And if one say, Googled the traits of a narcissist, Ghost would certainly fit the profile. Inflated sense of importance. Entitlement and need for admiration. Obsession with success, power and finding perfection in a mate. Manipulative for the sake of their own interests. Unwilling to consider the feelings of others. Hardwick, however, proposes that we look at more than just figures and textbook symptoms.
“He grew up with no mom,” the actor points out. “There’s no father introduced to Ghost. There’s no uncles, no brothers, none of that; he’s just got surrogate people all around him. The only family we know of Ghost is the one he made with Tasha. That’s the only family we know. His major overriding insecurity is that he’s still on a search, not only for betterment, but first to be better, you gotta know who the f**k you are!” This staunch ability to come to Ghost’s defense suggests that Hardwick, in fact, succeeded in his personification of such a labyrinthine figure.
No less confounding is Ghost’s right-hand man Tommy Egan, whose on-screen rap sheet boasts upwards of 30 murders—including his ex-girlfriend and his father. Crimes of passion, albeit often misguided, carved Tommy into an “emotional gangsta,” calling into question the difference between brutality and heartlessness. For actor Joseph Sikora, the lines are not so fine. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying Tommy is a sociopath,” he says. “Which of course he couldn't possibly be because of how emotional he is and how much he is present in all aspects of his life, even if it is murder.”
“Even if it is murder.” The phrase alone is striking evidence of a connection Sikora has grown to his fictional counterpart. “I feel like it's the only way to be in a relationship with a character, is to make it intimate so you know all the dynamics of that person's personality and thought process,” he notes.
Similar to Hardwick, Sikora—who Hardwick affectionately refers to as his “very talented Scottie Pippen”—urges Tommy’s critics to consider his character’s origin story. According to the actor, Tommy’s volatility is an asset on the streets, and a liability in his relationships. “[Tommy’s emotions] also can be his downfall with trying to build his family and find love, probably because of the lack of love he had from his mother growing up and then obviously growing up with a father who was absent,” he says. “A lot of that comes out of him trying to fill those holes.” Ultimately, Sikora brings it back to the beating heart of the matter. “I think Tommy Egan's legacy is that there's humanity in everyone. That everybody needs love. And sometimes, maybe not even sometimes, all the time, it's that you can always judge the action but you should hold back from judging the man.”
An intentional feat by Kemp, Power’s enduring dichotomy finds nobility and savagery in a constant tug-of-war, making it difficult to crown any of its characters as a hero or villain at any given scene. This tension finds the show forsaking the black-and-white, and existing in the grey. Still, any defense of murder and treachery remains jarring—for everyone except Kemp, that is. “Well, I guess the question I have for you is, why is that surprising though? They don't watch the show like you do.” Fine. Checkmate. “They're reading the scripts and they're having to inhabit the character. So, of course, they have to be invested. And plus, when you write well, every character is in their own positive intention. There is no such thing as a villain. There is no such thing as evil.” The proposed absence of evil hasn’t stopped the show’s audience from finding characters they love to hate, however.
For many fans, Michael Rainey Jr.’s portrayal of Tariq St. Patrick was worthy of picking a switch. The once innocent, wide-eyed son of Power’s principal character is led into darkness by his father’s former mentor, Kanan Stark. Under Kanan’s street tutelage and through the revelation of Ghost’s distortion of their family life, Tariq begins a marathon of crime and disrespect that succeeds at getting under the skin of viewers—a fact that Rainey Jr. is proud of. “Actually, all of this feels like an achievement,” he says between elated laughter. “If people are in tune and they're engaging with my character, then it makes me feel good. No matter if they hate my character, I love my character. But I feel like if you could make an audience hate you then that's a good thing.”
Less likely to be categorized by viewers as a “good thing,” is Tariq’s own track record, which, though less extensive than Ghost’s, culminates with an unthinkable deed: the murder of his own father. Still, Rainey Jr.’s voice is somehow filled with assurance when describing Tariq’s love for the elder St. Patrick. “It was just hard for him to show how much love he has for his father since his father is disappointing him so much,” he says. “It's his father at the end of the day, so he still has a lot of love for him, but he also just doesn't really know how to show it and he's just kind of lost in it.” Even as a younger thespian, Rainey Jr. enacts the same compassion for his character as his more seasoned peers, using his own life as a driving force.
“Ghost and Tariq’s relationship is kind of similar to me and my father's relationship,” he reveals. “That's a reason I really relate to those scenes with Ghost and Tariq where they're really going at each other because that's something real in my life.” Though the St. Patrick’s father-son fissure suffered a bloody ending, Rainey Jr. points to the admonition in their story. “I feel if they watch it, then they could learn from it. Just because you don't have the best relationship with your father, it doesn't mean you should rebel and act the same way,” he warns. “I feel like there's always a way around things. And if you just talk things out, and just hear each other out and listen, then I feel like things could get straightened out and you can have a healthy relationship.”
Coming in second on the “Power’s most hated” list, is Andre Coleman, the series’ resident slithering snake. After rising in street ranks from Ghost and Kanan’s protege to running a drug operation of his own, Dre’s fall from grace lands him breaking a cardinal rule: snitching to authorities. Witness protection aside, actor/singer Rotimi Akinosho still holds his character in (very) high regard. “This is a kid that was a corner kid with Kanan and ends up being the most sought after character because he has taken everything from Ghost, Kanan, and Tommy and has forced them to be a group, to work together to bring him down. No one else on the show has had a trajectory like that.” Akinosho is also very adamant about his criticism of Ghost—to whom he insists Dre owes nothing.
“I feel like they both are very narcissistic, but I think that the difference is that Dre genuinely, genuinely wants to do the best for his daughter,” he says. “I think with Ghost, he's so caught up in his self and the narcissism in himself that he doesn't see anything or anybody's side of anything. Everything is somebody else's fault.” Ask Akinosho if he believes Dre is a better father than Ghost, and his answer is, “One-thousand percent.” How then, does he justify Dre committing a blood-splattering murder with his daughter in his arms? Necessity, of course. The “Love Riddim” crooner, like his other castmates, is a sworn defender of his character’s sanctity.
“With Dre, it's literally two sides of him, where he's the killer, but then when he's with his daughter, he's the softest, most caring person and wants what's truly the best for her. And so, I think the motive of fatherhood is different, you know?”
Kemp has previously cited parenting as a leading theme on Power. From Ghost, Tariq and Raina, to Tasha and Tariq, to Dre and Heaven, to LaKeisha and Cash, the definition of “mother” or “father” is contorted to reveal a spectrum of light and darkness. In the single most sinister display of parenting, Kanan, played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, murders his son, Shawn, in cold blood. The scene immediately called to mind 50 Cent’s relationship with his real-life eldest son, Marquise Jackson, who he’s been estranged from for nearly a decade.
While the rapper-turned-actor has been candid about using his own life to fuel his character’s interactions with Shawn, his father-son divide was also a driving force in Kanan’s scenes with Tariq. Accessing another facet of his strained relationship with Marquise, 50 Cent taps into his son’s penchant for making friends out of his father’s enemies. “The intention was to kill [Tariq] on that couch [in season three]. But when I found out he doesn’t like his father, I’m like, ‘Wait, slow down,’” 50 says. “The relationship is actually the one my oldest son builds with anybody he sees me argue with.”
On the whole, the parallels between 50 Cent’s storied journey and Power’s plot doesn’t end at his parental hardships. For the South Jamaica, Queens native, the show is closer to home than any of his castmates; in fact, Kemp would often call him to discuss his former life of crime while writing episodes of the series. With this level of intimacy, it was no wonder that 50 upped the ante from executive producer, to actor, to director by the show’s final season. In his directorial debut, empathy may have played its biggest role yet in his work. “A big part of directing is being able to communicate or give an alternative description of the emotional piece of the performance,” he says. Per usual, he attacked this new role like he’s attacked everything: by striking a nerve. This time, with Alani “La La” Anthony.
In the third episode of season six, Anthony’s character LaKeisha Grant is out on a limb while aiding Tommy in the kidnapping of Alicia Jimenez, a drug lord in federal custody. As Keisha makes her way inside of the courthouse, 50 Cent compels Anthony to dig deep by likening her son, Kiyan Anthony, to Keisha’s son, Cash. “I told her, ‘La, when you get to the top of the steps, you realize that Cash... that’s Kiyan. And there’s not gonna be anybody here to take care of him if once you decide to go through that door, it doesn't go right,’” he whispers, reenacting the moment. “I’m giving her a note using her actual son as a character.”
Likely, a purposeful choice by Kemp, Keisha’s final display of motherhood ends in the character’s death, as Tasha thwarts Keisha’s plan to drop a dime on Tommy and run off with Cash by lodging a bullet in her chest. “It was poetic,” Anthony says of the scene. “And it was tough to shoot too, because we've had such a journey on the show, Naturi’s character and mine, as friends. To see it come down to this was very sad and hurtful.” The showdown, which finds actress Naturi Naughton committing Tasha’s first on-screen murder, also finds Anthony at her most vulnerable. “To see two mothers come down to that and as Keisha was laying there pleading for her life, she's saying, ‘What about Cash?’ Like, what about my son? That was heartbreaking because that's just a mother's love.”
If Power does indeed serve as a commentary on motherhood, Naughton says it shows how painful of a duty it can be. “Motherhood requires us to become superhuman. And I think that every superhero sometimes gets hit. Every superhero sometimes falls or their wings don't always open up the right way. Or their cloak doesn't always help them fly. I think people forget we're also human sometimes. That's why it is so painful because you have to put on a mask at times and be a superhero for our kids.” For Tasha, being a superhero for Tariq finds her looking her son in the eye, and uttering a line that sends shockwaves: “Alright Tariq, I’ma teach you the game,” a move even Naughton didn’t expect. “That was a moment where I was a little shocked and taken aback. Like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’ I had to turn the page and reread it.”
“Sometimes I want to tell Tasha, ‘Tariq just needs a good ol’ whooping! What are you doing protecting him?!,’” she says. “I think that's Tasha's flaw, that she's blinded by love for her son. And I think that's something that she will have to suffer for.”
Suffering, according to Naughton, has become a way of life for her character. “I think that Tasha has emotionally been dragged through the mud, honestly,” she says. She also notes, however, that much of Tasha’s suffering comes at her own hand—or heart, rather. “In a lot of ways Tasha's deep love for even Ghost, even after he dogged her, cheated, she was still the one sitting up at court. Still, the one trying to raise money to get him bail money. She's still the one that was lying for him to protect him whenever he was under fire. Tasha's love of course for her son is also blinding. I think that's her flaw.” So what, then, does Power teach us about love? Naughton’s answer is swift: “That love will get you killed out here in these streets.”
But Naughton doesn’t want anguish to be the point of Tasha’s tale. “I hope that Tasha signifies the strengths of us as black women, the resilience that we possess,” she says.
Finality is a new idea to attach to a show that has run for six seasons. For the actors, there’s a wider rear view of what each of them hopes the show and their characters will represent. It’s just not that simple for Kemp, who has already begun working on Power’s spinoff, Power Book II: Ghost, starring Mary J. Blige and Method Man.
“I cannot step back from the show and say that I know what the legacy is,” she admits. “What I can tell you is that the show is about, ultimately, 50 Cent, my dad, the election of Obama, what it means to be a black man in America, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a son or a daughter, what it means to be Black, what it means to be white, what it means to be brown or Asian. It's about race. It's about culture. It's about music. I mean, it's all those things, but I can't tell you what our lasting legacy will be.”
Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler
Makeup Artists: Julia Jovone (50 Cent, Rotimi, Joseph Sikora), Autumn Moultrie (Courtney A. Kemp), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), Sheika Daley (La La Anthony), and Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren)
Hair Stylists: Johnny Wright (Courtney A. Kemp), Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)
Wardrobe Stylists: Christina Pacelli (Courtney A. Kemp), Merced Jackson (Rotimi, Joseph Sikora, 50 Cent), Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)