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Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Verse Simmonds

Get to know your favorite artist's favorite songwriter, Verse Simmonds. 

Verse Simmonds' rise to singer-songwriter stardom didn't begin in the U.S., but he saw his fame ascend in East Asia. Simmonds got his start in the music industry 12 years ago after he teamed up with his frequent collaborator, Sham Sak Pase, to work on a burgeoning rapper's debut project. That artist, named Accent, received her first Gold compilation in Japan and throughout the rest of Asia.

"It built from there and that's how I got my foot in the door," he tells VIBE over the phone. With that success, Simmonds didn't let the door slam shut in his face and went on to work with some of your "top 5" artists including Usher, Rihanna, Jay Z, Kanye West, Chris Brown and a whole lot more.

Here, the "Situationships" singer dishes on Rihanna's ever-elusive ANTI album, keeping the true feeling of R&B alive, and piecing together his upcoming album, The Sextape Chronicles 3 for the latest installment of Views From The Studio.

VIBE: Your family hails from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. How does your heritage influence your music?
Verse Simmonds: I think it gives me a broader perspective when it comes to music. We listen to everything, and I was raised in the Virgin Islands, which is a U.S. territory and I grew up listening to everything from soca to reggae music all the way to pop, R&B, hip-hop, even country music as well. It allowed me to have a broader perspective on music overall. Growing up in the islands has definitely influenced my writing ability and how I hear music.

When you were coming up, you were part of the producing/songwriting group called the Juggernauts with Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph. How did you create that dynamic duo?
We were both working for AT&T in the call department at the time. When we met, he was producing music and so was I. I was writing as well and it’s kind of funny because he had a session and it was going the wrong way. He had a writer in there that really wasn’t writing anything worth listening to. He called me in to come help him out and we built from there and kept going. We were partners, and we’re still partners to this day, but we take on different projects at different times and then we just move differently now. We move as two different entities but we’re definitely still one unit as the Juggernauts.

How would you describe your chemistry in the studio with Sham?
It’s dope. That’s my brother. We’re literally hanging out, kicking it and making music at the same time. It comes naturally when we’re working together. That’s how we came up with “Who Gon’ Stop Me” with Jay Z and Kanye West. It was literally us in the studio kicking it, working on the track and then something you hear you hop in the booth and you’re like ‘Yo!’ You go off and you come out like, ‘That’s it right there.’ When it’s me and him in the studio, it’s no pressure. It’s not like we’re in there pressed to create something. We have a very brotherly friendship. We’re just creating music and having family time, and a lot of times his wife is there, his kid comes around as well and we’re really just kicking it. Whatever comes out of it comes out.

What’s the most memorable studio session you’ve ever had?
It was probably with Chris Brown. I walked into the studio and it’s definitely a party. If you know Chris, his studio sessions are like the clubs. You literally come in there and it’s packed. Everybody is having a good time. He’s playing music and I walked in and I’m just chilling, and he just catches a vibe. He goes into this whole dance routine right in the middle of the studio. Right across the mixing board and he’s going off. I’m looking at dude like, ‘This guy is f**king amazing.’ It’s so natural for him, and the stuff that he was doing I’ve probably never seen anyone else do in such a small space. I’m talking about gliding across the mixing board. Just going in like nobody else is there. I was really just sitting there amazed. That’s one of the first times that we actually worked. I was already a Chris Brown fan, but that was the first time where I was really like ‘Nah, dude is different. This dude is on a different level for real.’

What was the writing process like for “New Flame,” “Don’t Think They Know,” and “Love More” for his X album?
All of those sessions were different in its own. For instance, when I did “New Flame” I had just recently played him another record before I did “New Flame” and he heard it and he was like, ‘Eh, I’m not really rocking with it.’ He wasn’t feeling the record. At that point I was like, ‘Hold on, you got me f**ked up' (laughs). I had a different vision. When I went back in to do “New Flame” my whole purpose was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me that my records aren’t crazy.’ I wrote “New Flame” and then he walks in and hears it and it was just that vibe, like this is it. Immediately he ran in the booth and started laying down his parts and stuff.

“Don’t Think They Know” was a whole different process because he wasn’t really there for that one. It was something I created in Atlanta. I had the stems to this dope Aaliyah sample that had never been released. We had permission to use it, that’s where we got her vocals from. I wanted to come from a perspective of him showing appreciation to his fans as well as having this dope Aaliyah sample. When I wrote it that’s what I had in mind. It was just me in a room vibing out with it, seeing what I come up with. I normally don’t write anything down. It’s literally take after take of me freestyling whatever I want to say. The one with Nicki Minaj is something that’s up-tempo, a dance record, but I wanted him to actually have substance behind the record. I didn’t want it to be another dance record where he’s just talking about anything. If you listen to the lyrics of that record, you can see the whole story line of some of his past relationships as well. “You say all you need is consistent love/When I try you say it’s never enough, I messed up.” It’s definitely one of those things that was close to home for him even though it was a dance and fun record. If you listen to the lyrics it’s still something that you can understand what he was going through at the time and some of the relationships that he had going on.

You also worked with Kelly Rowland on “Boo Thang.” You spoke really highly of her. What was that process like in the studio and how did that track come about?
Actually “Boo Thang” is a record that I had for my project, maybe in 2011 I believe. It’s funny because I already had the song done and the song was already out and growing. It was already picked up on radio and this was around the same time she had “Motivation” out. It literally was one of those situations where it was like, ‘Kelly we would like to get you on this record.’ I sent her the record, and she loved it and she got on the record. We didn’t actually get together in the studio. She recorded it on the road and then she sent it to me. We didn’t actually get together until the video for it. We got down to Miami and shot the video. That’s where we started to build from there. Kelly Rowland is a sweetheart. I love Kelly. She’s definitely a dope spirit to be around. She’s always caring, a nice person. You never really see anything besides that. Kelly is definitely somebody I enjoy working with. I enjoyed working with her on her new project as well. Hopefully we’ll hear something about that probably the top of next year.

You also produced “Man Down” for Rihanna. How did you approach that record knowing you’re both from a Caribbean background?
Just to clear this up. My production duo is me and Sham. Sham produced the record and Rock City wrote the record. I didn’t actually do that song. It’s definitely a part of my team. We put the record together. But that’s actually a situation where you put everybody in the room and everybody who is Caribbean are involved in this record. Myself, I’m Puerto Rican and from the Virgin Islands as well. Rock City they’re from the Virgin Islands as well. Sham he’s Haitian, Rihanna of course is from Barbados. It was definitely a Caribbean connection in that record. That’s why people loved it so much. It felt authentic and it felt real. It wasn’t like somebody was trying to make a Caribbean record. It was like, ‘This is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ That’s just the vibe when you put a bunch of Caribbean people in one room that’s what it turns out like. I wasn’t in the session with Rihanna. That was a record we created and gave to her.

Are you working on her new album?
I haven’t really touched on her latest project yet. I think they are still working on it and they’re looking for records. I’m waiting until it’s the final hour and then I’ll get in there hopefully. That’s my plan this time around because it’s so hectic right now with her project. Everyone is trying to land a Rihanna single and hopefully I’ll make it on this project. Mostly I’ve been in the studio a lot with Usher for his project. I’m probably about six records deep on Usher’s project that he’s recorded so far. I’m really excited about his project. I think it’s going to be amazing and I think he’s going to be back in a real way.

Is he going back to the Confessions Usher?
My outlook on it is for him to go back to that and bring that back to life. That’s the angle that I’m coming at him from. But at the same time I understand that he’s a lot bigger than let’s say only R&B. There is going to be, of course, some more poppish or dance type records as well as far as I know right now. But I think the entire feel of the project is going back to that Usher that everybody really loves and appreciates which would be the Confessions Usher basically. That’s the kind of vibe that I’ve been creating for him. Just staying true to that form of music and then making it expand from there. I’m really excited about his upcoming project. We have a lot of dope records.

I know you touched on this earlier on working with Jay Z and Kanye West on “Who Gon’ Stop Me.” What was your reaction when you got the call?
My reaction was literally like ‘who gon’ stop me?’ My whole vibe for that was literally me and Sham walking around the studio like, ‘If we get this man, nobody is going to be able to stop us.’ It was one of those things that just happened to manifest itself into a record. It was a very exciting thing because it was such a classic moment in hip-hop and for the culture because you have two of the greatest putting an album together for the first time. It’s one of those things that’s like just being a part of this is special. I was happy to be a part of that and able to help bring together that vibe because it was definitely a dub step, hip hop vibe that we did with that record and I don’t feel like there’s ever been such a strong version of that before or since then especially because you have Jay Z and Kanye on it, but the whole vibe in itself was just sick to me. I felt honored to even be working on it and even more honored that they would use the record that we did.

You also garnered a deal with Rodney Jerkins early on in your career. Has he mentored you in anyway, learned any lessons from him?
My time with Rodney was very short. I literally came in and did a small joint venture with Rodney. He’s one of the greats in the industry. I think what I mostly took away from that situation was basically just being able to see one of the greats in our time work. Just seeing how he puts stuff together because he’s really amazing as a producer. There’s some stuff that he’ll play and he’ll be going in and you’re like, ‘Wow this dude is sick.’ More than anything I feel it was a great opportunity for me to be around a person that’s worked with great people. That was enough motivation for me. You’re working with somebody who’s worked with everybody from Beyonce to Michael Jackson. It’s just different. It was a special moment for sure.

You’re a prominent songwriter in R&B or music in general, but what are your thoughts on R&B today?
I think that with anything else there is a need for growth. There is a need for reinvention. I think R&B is one of the oldest forms of music that’s stays true to what it is but it’s probably time for it to change. I think that’s a part of R&B, I think that’s where we are right now. We’re in our reconstruction phase for R&B right now. People are still trying to figure out if it still makes money. Is it worth doing it? There’s a lot of R&B artists who aren’t trying to do R&B anymore. It kind of makes me sad because it’s what we grew up on, but I think that the reason that is because I don’t think that those people understand how to help that genre grow. They rather just say that R&B isn’t selling, or it’s not doing this or that so we don’t want to do it anymore. I’m a strong believer in R&B, I’ll always be a strong believer in R&B and I think it’s at a time right now where R&B is ready to change and it’s ready to grow from its original form to something bigger at this point, but still be R&B. Still be traditional in the melodic sense and the lyrical content, but at the same time grow into something that is bigger as far as what people perceive it as on radio and with record sales. It has a lot to do with the kind of content that’s being put in it because honestly R&B is still being sang and praised, but it’s just not necessarily by the urban community. You have somebody like a Sam Smith coming out, that’s R&B music. You have Adele singing, and then calling it popular music but it’s still R&B music. At the end of the day it’s time for it to have a facelift and it’s not necessarily a color thing. It’s a feel thing.

Have you written or produced a song for someone that you feel didn’t get the type of recognition it deserved?
I’m sure that’s happened a lot of times actually (laughs), I just recently wrote a record for K. Michelle called “Hard To Do” that she just did a video for and they put it out. I think everybody loves the record and she had a really good last project. Even though the record was a single I feel that it wasn’t pushed hard enough. Even the record that I did for Tip and Chris Brown called “Private Show.” I feel like that record didn’t get the recognition that it should’ve gotten and it was climbing the charts on its own, but I feel like the label didn’t support it like they should’ve, having two heavyweights like Chris and T.I. on the record. I think it should’ve gotten more recognition but that’s how the game goes. You just have to continue putting out great music and let that speak for itself.

You write a lot about love, relationships, and heartbreak. Do you pull from your own experiences? Do other artists open up to you so that you can pen those personal songs that not only speak to the artists but also their listeners?
I think it’s all a unique balance of my own personal experiences and then understanding what that artist is going through or what they need. It’s definitely a blend of all those things. Sometimes it’s my personal experience. Sometimes I’m taking things that they’re going through and putting it into the lines so that they feel that connection to it. For the most part when it comes to love and heartbreak we all go through the same things, male or female. It’s probably the most common feeling that we all share. Loving someone or being in love, being heartbroken, we’re all at some point or another will go through that. For me it’s just about finding out how to say it from whoever I’m writing for perspective so it’s believable. Trey Songz isn’t going to sing it the same way that Chris Brown says it. They’re going to attack it from two different perspectives even though they’re both male and both sing R&B, one person can say something totally crazy and another person it might not work for their audience if they say that. It’s really about knowing what message you’re trying to get across and for who you’re trying to get it across.

Most of your songwriting credits are based off the connections you have with these artists. Do you find it easier to maneuver within the music industry without that middleman? Is it more organic?
It kind of depends. If you have some really dope publishers who have great relationships and you have great relationships, it’s definitely something that could really be worth having. In my particular situation I just happen to know a lot of these guys or these guys have heard my music before and they respect what I do. It’s one of those things where they feel comfortable having me come in and work with them. The thing about a publisher, most times the greatest value of a publisher is to get you in the rooms with these artists where in my situation I can get into the rooms already. It’s more of a situation where if I did go with a publisher it would be about getting me into the rooms that I can’t maneuver in already. It can go both ways, but for me it just happens to be a situation where these guys are already aware of what I’ve done and they’re looking for a specific thing. They’re looking for a specific feel. They want to be able to reach a certain group of people. I write from a very real space when I do write, and I think people can really attach themselves to it. It’s normally not a bunch of fluff.

What has the process been like putting together your forthcoming project The Sextape Chronicles 3?
The process for me has been really crazy because I’m working on that project, but I’m also working on everybody else’s stuff right now. I’m working on Trey Songz, he’s cutting two records right now. I’m working on Usher, Kid Ink’s project as well. I’ve been working real closely with him. I’m doing a lot of moving around and it’s a little more complex because you’re constantly writing for other people and you’re like I need to get out of that zone and focus on yourself. It’s a little bit of a tug-of-war but it’s coming along really dope. That’s just what I’m used to doing anyway. I’ve been writing for a while and I’ve been doing my artist thing from the beginning so it’s one of those things that I’ve gotten used to it. I’m getting a lot better at it to continue to write for other people and do my own thing. It’s definitely a balancing act.

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How Dinah Jane Shed Her Pop Coating And Bloomed Into An R&B Butterfly

With just 21 years around the sun, Dinah Jane has accomplished more than most. Her star initially rose alongside her pop sisters Fifth Harmony in her teens but in between chart-topping hits like "Work From Home" or "Worth It" was a longing for something more.

The "more" arrived this spring in the form of her debut collection, Dinah Jane 1, three tracks that play to her power vocals and confident nature. Leading single "Heard It Before" gives listeners the feels of the aughts with the help of producer extraordinaire, J. R. Rotem. Jane's accompanying tracks like "Pass Me By" and "Fix it" are just as alluring given her honey coated vocals. Instead of jumping from genre to genre, the songs are in the vein of Jane's R&B language, a move that transpired after a reflection into her musical identity.

The journey included experimentation with her first solo effort, "Bottled Up" with Ty Dolla $ign and Marc E. Bassey. The song was a bop by nature due to its similarity to her work in Fifth Harmony, which left Jane determined to find her sound.

"Being a solo artist now made it hard to define who I was because I was singing so many different styles before," Jane tells VIBE. "I had to take time for me to really cope and understand what it is that I really want to come out as my true identity. When I dropped my first record "Bottled Up" it was more me transitioning from Fifth Harmony to myself, I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be."

After a session with a producer in Atlanta, Jane arrived at the realization that the artists in her phone (Monica, Mariah Carey), was a sign for her to dig up her soulful roots. It's hard to deny Jane's vocals helped to build her former group and now, her own career.

"The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest," Jane said. "I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. I was always afraid to portray them as something that people didn't know about and so my thing is like, 'Oh, I don't want them to think of my family like this or my friend who's not my friend right now.' I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic, real and raw I have to be honest not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good."

With a new attitude and direction, Jane is ready to fly above her worries. Check out our chat with the singer-songwriter below.

***

VIBE: When you were putting your three-pack together, what was going through your head? Was there a particular sound or moment you wanted to catch?

Dinah Jane: It was more like a certain direction. I felt like there was a part of me that had not been exposed yet as far as style. I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be. I started listening back to records where I was like, 'Wow, this is something that I wish was mine.' Some of Monica's records, Faith Evans or Mariah Carey, by the way, she followed me on Instagram [Laughs].

Congratulations!

She followed me on Instagram so I kind of got that verification that I should definitely do R&B. Those are artists that I've always been inspired by. I remember I went back to when I did my first audition on X Factor, and I said, "Who is that I want to sing and showcase my talent?" It was Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy."

I felt like if this is a perfect time for me to throw in a bowl of my favorite artists that I've always looked up to and mesh it into who I am now. When I did "Fix It," I felt like it was so organic for me to go that direction and lean towards, so, when that happened the song became what it is now. I love the message behind it, I didn't realize it would empower so many people.

"Fix It" is actually my favorite out of the three. You just referenced your identity. Do you know what that is now? Or is that sonically or personally?

I think more so sonically, that's where I was lost the most because I had to put myself in a drawer for seven years. Now that I'm here, being a solo artist like I said, I was lost. Sonically I had to redefine who Dinah Jane was this whole time. I remember being in a session in Atlanta and this guy at the time asked me, "Who do you have on your phone? Let's look through it."

He's going through my phone and it's all R&B, not even that much pop, just singers from back then. And he's just like, "I was not expecting this, I thought you'd be the hype girl listening to all trap music." I have that personality trust me, but musically this is me. That clicked in my head that I was heading somewhere else and I needed to jump back to my old ways.

I love that. "Heard It All Before" has gotten so much love from your fans. I know you're not supposed to look at the comments but one that stood out was "I love this sound, leave pop alone." Do you ever feel trapped in one genre since you started within the pop bubble? 

It's funny that you say that. I feel like people or fans they kind of want to box you into who they think you are. I was telling someone, my fans they sometimes think they know me better than I know myself and it's kind of scary. There are times where I'm like, "No I don't have to be one way." It's crazy cause when I go to the studio I feel like I can be so versatile. I can do R&B easy but there are sometimes where I want to do those pop records, "Always Be My Baby" is that pop record to me and some people are good with it, some aren't but I think it just comes with your fanbase.

For me, they know my potential, honestly, they saw me on X Factor or even my YouTube days when I was 11 or 12 years old. They're like, "No Dinah, this is you, this is you, I want you to keep doing more of these." Eventually, I'll want to do some other things as well. But as of right now, it's truly R&B.

When it comes to creating you're always challenging yourself. What were some of the challenges that you've been facing this year while making music?

The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest. I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. It's always been my challenge and I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic and real and raw I have to be honest to myself as well, not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good. My Mom always told me, "You've got to be real with yourself."

For sure. All three of these songs are super straightforward. What was it about keeping that energy while you were making these songs?

I was just trying to balance it. Like I said it was the most challenging part balancing that and I feel like with "Heard It All Before," it was the most fun, relatable song to write because my best friend was going through something. I was like "What?! He said what?!" We were literally having a full on group chat about it. When I did the music video, I wanted it to be about the situation that I was in with my girl. We were like, "You know what we've heard that all before." I just want to make this bundle relatable, sexy but then also swaggy and just not try so hard. So, when we put these three songs together, it felt so organic and true to who I was.

Even in the video, you exude so much confidence. What does confidence mean to you?

I think it's self-love. When you truly love yourself, you can see it in your face. You can see it in the glow and the energy you're giving to people. I wasn't always this confident, I would definitely say I was never this confident but, thanks to my mom, she always expressed that to me.

She said, "Dinah, I know you don't feel that beautiful today but you need to pick on the little things that matter. What's your favorite feature? Your lips. What's your favorite outfit you got going on? Pay attention to your best qualities other than that one negative thing you're picking on."

The confidence was never there but when you have people that are around you always encouraging you to love yourself and realizing your truth and worth, that's when the confidence kicks in. It's not something that's overnight, it takes time. It took years for me to realize that. Like I said, you have to surround yourself by honest, real people who can definitely make you see what you're not seeing.

Facts. Have you become that vessel for your friends as well? Like passing all of that on. Your mom passed it to you, you pass it to your friends, are you that person?

Yeah, it's like a telephone game. I have a younger sister who's 17 and she's always been insecure about her weight or her breakouts and I'm like, "You're a teenager, you're supposed to go through that phase. If I went through that you've got to go through it too."

In a way, I have to guide her through the stages. I was just talking to her last night and she's telling me about her friends and how she feels like she doesn't fit in, or certain cousins where she feels like she has to be a certain way. I was like, "Don't be a certain way, the way you carry yourself will vibrate and you will be so much more vibrant, it'll grasp more onto you. Just be your true self, you don't have to be anything else. I know who you are and you know who you are."

I feel like kind of being that older sister I feel like her mom sometimes. So I always feel this responsibility that she always feels 100.

What are some other plans you have for yourself, with your music for the year?

This is the first bundle. People wanted it to be named an EP but I was like, "Nah. It cannot be an EP because an EP is at least five to seven songs top."

This bundle is like a mini-project, it's the anticipation for the actual album. So, I want you to keep getting the feel of who I am, keep giving you these sneak peeks and then boom, hit you with the album. That's in the works, we'll see what happens. That's what we say now but sometimes things change, so don't get too excited.

Have you've been working with anybody? Any featured artists or any producers who are really understanding of who you are as an artist?

As far as features, I have one and then I'm working on another one.

So you can't say who they are?

I can't say. As far as producers and writers, J.R. Rotem is literally my dog. We walked into the studio and all of his plaques are all over the wall, plastered everywhere and we were like, "We get it, you're a legend. You're going to make me a legend," is what I felt in that room. I feel this great connection with him where we can be friends but also have that chemistry musically where he can connect with me instantly.

I love how we did  "Fix It," he brought out all of the live instruments and he made it feel like you were actually on stage, he made it feel bigger than what it was. So, I give him so many props for that because I've never felt that way in a session where I felt like I was onstage and it was just me by myself, no one else, well of course with a whole a** band, but I just felt the topic and the song, the musicality behind it is what meshed so well because of him. He is my dog for sure and my therapist because if it weren't for him this song would have not been made.

Stream Dinah Jane 1 below.

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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

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As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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Mike Coppola

The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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