Omen Omen
Anthony Supreme

Views From The Studio: Omen Shows He Has More Than One Talent Up His Sleeve

Hailing from the streets of Chicago, Omen is an artist with no limits to his musicality. He doesn’t stick to writing the craziest metaphors in his lyrics or dropping fire bars over tantalizing beats. No, he’s also capable of creating and mixing cold melodies of his own, proving that the Dreamville signee can’t be defined by one label.

Sure, he caught J. Cole’s eyes because of his spitfire rhymes, but it was the recipe of a spoonful of his hard verses mixed with a dash of his ill music production that landed him a deal with the North Carolina rapper. As a lyricist, Omen has gone toe-to-toe with Cole himself, and even Kendrick Lamar on tracks from his second mixtape, Afraid of Heights. In 2015, he bodied his verse on “Caged Bird” with Cole from Revenge of the Dreamers, but in terms of rapping, that’s the last Omen’s fans have heard of him, or at least his voice.

Omen’s been on a rapping hiatus for the better part of three years since he dropped his debut album Elephant Eyes, however, he’s been just as involved in music, if not more, as a producer. Even though the 35-year-old believes that rapping comes more naturally to him, it wouldn’t seem so given the flawless beat he made for labelmate Ari Lennox that eventually became “BMO” off her debut album, Shea Butter Baby.

“It’s hard to say which [rapping or producing] come more naturally. I would say rapping because to me it all starts with the writing. I feel like I’m a rapper first and I feel like the writing, I’m not going to say that writing is easy for me, it’s not, but I know that I can do it,” he said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life, I know I can get it done. And then producing, it came later in my life. It’s a more practiced skill. I’ve got to work on it all the time. Even as a producer, a couple of years from now, sound will change and you have to adapt and so you’re always learning. That’s the same with a rapper as well, you learn different tones, cadences, and styles too. They’re kind of equal.”

 

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It’s safe to say that Omen was in his producing “bag” when he made “BMO.” How he knew that sampling Galt McDermott’s song “Space” for the track would mesh well with Ari’s voice was a mystery at first. However, according to the experienced producer, when it comes to sampling it’s not so much strategic as it is organic.

“With sampling, I kind of look at it as if you’re a painter. I can’t draw but if I was to paint, maybe I would do collages and add this here, this here but I create something new out of that,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. Sometimes a sample, it might just be a loop that you’ll hear in the beat, or sometimes you might chop it to create your own melody. It’s just about having fun with your ear. I’m always trying to create something new but still dope. Even though ‘BMO’ kind of had the ‘90s vibe, I still wanted to bring it into today.”

He’s not wrong and that’s probably a sentiment Omen’s fans echo when it comes to his music. They just like it, no strings attached, no questions asked because after putting decades of work into reaching the position he’s in today (a recently signed contract with Interscope), Omen deserves devoted supporters.

With his second studio album aiming for a release later this year or early 2020, it was only right for VIBE to invite the MC for our Views From the Studio series to pick the brain of a rapper and producer wrapped in one.

VIBE: You recently produced the song “BMO” for your labelmate Ari Lennox's album Shea Butter Baby. What was the process like for creating that record and how long did it take?

Omen: That record went through a journey. I made that beat originally a couple of years ago and I made it with Ari in mind. I normally make beats for myself but I knew I wanted to work with her. I had this idea that she had the perfect voice for; like a classic sound. I wanted to hear her over something like that because she gave me those kinds of vibes. For whatever reason I thought about it, I found a sample, it was the same sample of Busta Rhymes’ “Woo Ha.” I was thinking, "Man this could be totally different." The way the energy was, so crazy and animated and to have something smooth over this might be a totally different vibe. It was a fun, creative idea to play with and then I liked the beat. I played it for her, and she liked it. What's crazy to me, the first day she texts me and she’s like, "Yo, I didn't know. I didn't know." I was like, "What do you mean?" She was like, "I didn't know it was going to be you making me a hit. I just didn't know." It was a funny thing she was saying, but that was two years ago when she said that. So, I was like, "Whatever." I was just glad she liked the beat.

Fast forward, my computer, in a tragic situation, my computer died. I lost a lot of stuff that I didn't have backed up and that beat was a part of it. I had to redo the beat from scratch. That was a whole other process of trying to get it to sound like it originally did. Then I got in with another guy that's a part of our team, Ron Gilmore, who's an incredible musician and producer himself. I had him come to play chords and play some instruments. Then Elite, at the last minute, just him having the ear of being a veteran producer, he came in and tweaked certain sounds on the snare a little bit. The beat was there but it was a team effort to make it what you hear. I’m really happy, just the response it's gotten, it’s been crazy, it’s been dope.

Do you ever choose a sample before you make a song and if you do, does the sample influence the type of song you make?

Oh yeah, for sure. I would say most of the time, honestly. Because of the sample, depending on how you make beats, there are different approaches. Sometimes you start with a sample, sometimes you start with just the drums, sometimes you’ll have live musicians and maybe you’ll just work in some samples around to see how it plays. There’s a lot of different ways. But the sample is really just the core of the music usually. The music for me, and I feel like I can speak for Ari, the music is what inspires the feeling and then the feeling brings what you’re going to write about. It starts with that music because the music creates that emotion and then you think about, “What have I experienced, what comes to mind when I feel this emotion?” that you write from. You know whatever you’ve been through, or what your friends have been through, whatever comes to your mind. I think the music, the sample is one of the most important parts.

When you collaborated with Ari, did you feel like your creative habits or your creative tendencies matched her's, or were they different?

I would say our tendencies are similar but different, we write differently. She writes very...it could be what happened to her an hour ago, or what happened to her that day or yesterday. It's very in the moment. My writing is more contemplative. I'm like circling in the past. So, that's where we're a little different. But I would say we're really similar in terms of our music taste. I think whatever she was coming up listening to must have been similar to me because a lot of music that we listen to in general is the same, even old songs. Way back Stevie Wonder songs. It'll be certain songs are our favorites.

I think we have kinship there just with musical taste so it's easy for us to collaborate because it's the same kind of cool digressions. We're influenced by the same people. I think that makes it real easy and we've been around each other enough that we have a good friendship.

As a producer and an artist who would you say you’re influenced by?

As a producer, definitely it was always [J] Dilla. He was my favorite and still to this day. The Neptunes, a lot of the older guys, Timbaland, Dr. Dre. Even today I like Metro BoominT-Minus. Monte Booker, he's a new guy, he's dope. Flying Lotus. Those guys inspire me in the production type. As far as artists, similar kind of area. The Nas, the Jay-Zs, Tupac, but there are a lot of good artists today that I'm also inspired by. Cole, Kendrick, Drake. Even some of the younger guys, Smino, Saba, they're bringing something new but it's also skill. It's a cool, new perspective on rap that I like. It's a lot of people. And Mereba too, because I haven't named any women, but Mereba's dope.

Dreamville is known for collaborating mainly with fellow Dreamville artists. What do you think makes you guys such a solid unit, and how do you manage to work so well in the studio together?

I think it’s the experiences that we’ve all had together, the amount of time we’ve spent together. It’s more like a family unit than a business relationship, even though it is business. We’ve spent real time with each other, we’ve seen all of the moments. We’ve all known each other for a long time. Like Cole, a lot of the staff are people he went to college with or people he grew up with. I’ve personally known Cole since I was 17. A lot of friendships developed into business relationships. Even with the artists, it’s like Bas is Ib’s [Ibrahim Hamad] brother and Ib is the president.

Even with some of the newer acts, they’ve been there for a while, but J.I.D, Earthgang. I don’t want to say it’s a vetting process but when they sign people, they spend real time with them first. It’s like, can we hang out with you. It’s bigger than just the music. It’s what kind of person are you. I think all of that helps that once we all get together we think like-minded. Even though we have different personalities, the energy, the goals, the intentions are the same.

 

The Dreamville Camp that you guys did earlier this year, that was the first time you all really ventured outside of Dreamville, right?

For sure, it was.

What did you take away from that experience?

It was dope. It was definitely new because of what you said and it was unexpected. We didn’t know, the artists didn’t know that was going to happen, we just kind of showed up at the studio. And it was just tons of producers and different artists. It was really amazing. For me, as an artist and as a producer I got to see so many different people approach making music. The way this person writes, the way this person freestyles, the way this person got on the mic and just did whatever and it worked. Seeing how certain people make beats, things I might’ve thought was crazy, or too hard to do, or even things I thought were easy to do I was surprised. I was like, “Wow, that takes a lot of skill.” I didn’t know that. It just opened my eyes and I think it was really valuable for all of us to build relationships with these artists. And like you said, I think because of our reputation, working together people might not have known if we were cool to work with or if we’ve been open to working with people because we’ve been so close-knit. I’m glad that we initiated it. So now, it’s open arms, we want to work with people. We just cool with each other that’s all. We’re definitely open, so I think it was really cool.

Did you produce any songs while at the Camp or were you mainly rapping and writing?

I was mainly rapping and writing during the Camp. I think I made a beat for Lute but I don’t know if it’s going to be used or not. But I was mainly rapping and writing. I heard they’re going to do it again so now that I’m prepared I can go in as a producer and a rapper.

At what point into producing did you start to realize that the songs you were making were actually good, quality songs? How long did it take for you to realize that the songs deserved to be heard producing-wise?

It took me a while because I’m a really tough critic, just in general. I come from a family of music. My dad was a singer on Motown, my stepdad is a musician, my mom was an aspiring singer. I come from a real musical background. I heard a lot of different types of music, so my palette is big. It’s hard to shock me with something new because I’ve heard a lot. I would judge myself a little too harshly sometimes. Like, “Oh, this has to be groundbreaking,” and if it wasn’t I didn’t feel good enough. It really is about having honest friends around, honest people around you to say this is really good or this could be better and trust in those people. And then just seeing the results and taking chances by putting music out and seeing what people say. I think it’s a mix of all that. And putting the work in. For me, my confidence comes from knowing I really put the work into this. I know how to do it. I think putting in 10,000 hours, that gave me the real confidence to say, “I’m ready.” I know I feel really good about this, so how other people feel might not affect me too much.

 

Along the lines of rapping and producing, do you feel like the two provide something different for you? When you produce do you feel that you gain something from it that you don’t gain from rapping and vice-versa?

For sure. I think for me making beats, even when it’s a stressful thing. But sometimes I can put so much focus on saying the best possible things, the best possible metaphors for a story, it just puts a lot of pressure on yourself. With beats it’s more of a free-flowing thing, I’m just having fun. Like, “Ok what am I trying to do today?” It’s not as much anxiety. They’re both really rewarding though, obviously what comes from them. For whatever reason, I’m just more open to being, just not caring when I’m making a beat. With writing it has to be remembered forever in time. I don’t know why that is.

When did you figure out that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Actually, it’s been a long time now. Because it was a hobby in high school, I didn’t really take it seriously, I was doing it just because it was something to do. I still had hoop dreams. But then when I got to college, I basically realized those hoop dreams were ending. And I wasn’t really enjoying school that much because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, I started taking rapping more serious, because it was something I enjoyed doing. I didn’t get anything from it, I was just doing it as a hobby. But then friends of mine were saying you’re really good you should try it, so I started taking it more serious. I wouldn’t even go to class, I was just spending all of my time rapping. It was my life to the point of where my grades were really suffering. I actually got kicked out of college, came back home, and basically had to tell my family. A letter came in the mail saying I got kicked out of school and then I had to tell them I want to be a rapper. To my surprise, my mother was actually like, “Ok, well if that’s what you want to do then let’s do it.” She was in full support, it was shocking. I thought she was going to be like, “What the hell are you talking about, what are you doing, how can you get kicked out,” blah, blah. But none of that really. That actually made me want to go back to school.

I went back and finished college just because I felt bad at that point, like, "Damn, she’s supporting me." I went back and finished and it gave me confidence because I knew I at least had my mother behind me. I started doing more open mics, performing more places, then I went to New York. I think in ‘08 or ‘09. That’s when Cole had just gotten signed and I had a little bit of family out there so I moved out there. I was doing more open mics, performing but I released a mixtape called Afraid of Heights. Well my mixtape was delayed but later I released it with Cole on it, Kendrick [Lamar], and by that time I was also touring with Cole, I went on his first tour and just released more music. After Afraid of Heights, I released Elephant Eyes which was my first album for real. We ran into some sample clearance issues so that caused a little friction or hiatus in my career. Recently I signed to Interscope and now I’m ready to put out my new music. It’s still a journey.

When you first started rapping, did you have an idea of what type of rapper you wanted to be?

I wanted to be like the people I listened to. I wanted to be like Nas, Common, the Roots, Jay-Z. I liked Jay-Z a lot, he always came out to be the most confident person in the room and I never felt like that at times. As a kid that wasn’t my real demeanor. So, it’s harder to relate to him growing up. But as a grown man I related a little more to him. I would say Nas and Common the most because I like writing, I like vocabulary and I liked reading stories as a kid and they were doing storytelling. Not only was it storytelling, it felt like real images. It wasn’t like a novel but in Common’s case all of the things he was rapping about I knew. Mentioning things happening in Chicago, that only people from Chicago would really know. It was specific references, that’s why I connected to him in a different way.

With Nas, he put me on a New York street corner. I’d never been to N.Y. but I felt like I could see it when he was writing. The fact that somebody could do that with writing to me was cool and I was like I wish I could be able to do that for somebody, just transport somebody to a different place for a couple of minutes. I thought that was cool because sometimes I would be at work with jobs I hate and a song would give you an escape for a while. If I could do something like that, that’s a cool superpower. That’s how I viewed it. Those are the people I shaped myself after.

You’re working on your album right now. What can we expect to hear from it, will we hear any Chicago influence?

With my album, I’m 90 percent there, it’s pretty much done. It’s maybe like a record or two left. It’ll probably be out later in the year. As far as what to expect from it, it’s storytelling, telling people who I am and what my journey has been. I mentioned the other day to somebody that I feel like I’m going to be one of the first to tell what life was like being a 30-year-old rapper trying to fight for a dream, and what happens behind the scenes of that life. I think it makes for a good story. I’m excited to get it out. The album will be out a little later this year or early next year. But I’m excited to get back on the scene and get some music out.

With this second album, aside from telling the story of being a 30-year-old fighting for a rap dream, is there anything else you want to accomplish?

I think bigger than that. That’s what I’m using to tell the story, the message behind it is to pursue what you’re after no matter what. It’s not about your age, or gender, or race. It’s about what you have within you that no one can take away. Is it your will, is it your belief, is it your faith? That can carry you through your toughest moments and I feel like I can use myself as an example. Going through this journey of ups and downs, I’m still climbing but I’ve reached a milestone moment. That’s the goal.

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Nicky Jam: A Love Supreme

Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.

What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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J PERIOD

Premiere: J. PERIOD Rereleases 'Best of Lauryn Hill (Vol. 1: Fire)' Mixtape With Apple Music

In many hip-hop circles, Ms. Lauryn Hill is regarded as the best woman rapper of all time, and one of the greatest MCs period – and with the release of Best of Lauryn Hill (Vol. 1: Fire) on Apple Music, J. PERIOD shows why. The first segment of a two-part mixtape dedicated to the music icon will satisfy longtime fans and serve as a lesson for young'ns looking to learn up.

For years, J. PERIOD has collaborated with multiple legends in music to make mixtapes that chronicle their careers. By combining their most notable songs, unreleased tracks, rarities and exclusive interview footage from the artists themselves, J. Period created mixtapes that worked more like musical storybooks, artifacts that showed their talent while also providing the context behind their work. This year, J. Period has been rereleasing those mixtapes through Apple Music, including tributes to Nas, The Roots and Q-Tip. Best of Lauryn Hill: Fire And Water is a two-part project, with Fire paying homage to Hill's raps and Water showing her vocal versatility. Fire drops today, and Water touches down on Friday, Feb. 21.

Today's release also marks the beginning of Ms. Lauryn Hill's tour, which starts at the Wellmont Theater in New Jersey and continues through July, including a date at the Kennedy Center and Black Girls Rock. It also comes after stars like Drake and Cardi B have sampled her work in recent years.

“For me, this mixtape represents not only a tremendous moment in my career, but the force that created everything that follows,” J. PERIOD told VIBE. “This tape sparked my collaborations with Q-Tip, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, and The Roots, all creative relationships that continue to this day. I’m deeply grateful to Ms. Hill for her support, and I’m extremely excited to introduce this project to a new generation of fans. Reimagining an artist’s catalog in new context gives the music new life. That’s always my goal with my mixtapes. It is my sincere hope that, through this project, fans will come to appreciate Ms. Hill’s incredible talent and amazing catalog of music, all over again.”

Listen to Best of Lauryn Hill (Vol. 1: Fire) below on Apple Music.

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Derek Blanks

K. Michelle On Being A Monster: “We Have Different Faces For Different People”

For Kimberly Michelle Pate, also known as K. Michelle, the concept of having a filter and self-censorship is nonexistent. You can always count on the Memphis-bred singer to speak her mind, and she doesn’t care who takes offense.

On “Just Like Jay,” the opener of her fifth studio album All Monsters Are Human, K. Michelle sings like the open book the world knows her to be. In just under five minutes, listeners are updated on a whirlwind of tabloid-worthy news that led to her first album in two years. The song’s hook –– “maybe I should walk away, Fade To Back just like Jay” –– alludes to Jay-Z’s 2004 concert documentary following his first retirement announcement.

“I ain’t even wanna do this album,” confesses a somber K. Michelle, the natural twang of her singing voice radiating alongside the keys of a grand piano. From there she talks about battling depression, leaving Atlantic Records to go independent with eOne Music, a series of health struggles and scares following her surgeries of illegal silicone butt implants, and her ex’s philandering betrayal.

For K. Michelle, the last two years have been a rollercoaster of learning from past mistakes, but ultimately celebrating the wins. In front of millions, the artist has amassed a decade-long career that’s secured three No. 1 R&B albums (well, four, now) on the Billboard charts and additional notoriety thanks to show-stealing and memeable moments on Vh1’s reality TV franchise Love & Hip Hop. Witnessing K. Michelle in person, it’s clear that she loves drama and the heat that can come along with it.

That’s why her decision to host a ball on a Thursday night for her album release party at the House of Yes in Brooklyn seemed like an appropriate move. Standing tall in thigh high black boots and a sequined dress accented by feathers at the hem, K. Michelle instructed the audience to “just love on each other tonight.”

Her team Rebellion would end up crushing Big Freedia’s team Bounce in five total categories of “face,” “runway,” “best dressed,” “sex siren,” and “dance battle.” As songs like Teyana Taylor’s “WTP” and her own “V.S.O.P.” played through speakers, K. Michelle sat calmly, smiling away. Underneath a black hat fitting enough for both the ball and the Kentucky Derby, she sipped on a cocktail while observing the battles. For once, she didn’t have to perform on stage, and there was no added pressure for her to be at her absolute best.

Two days prior to her album release party, a different side of K. Michelle shows. She’s agitated as we wait outside the elevator at VIBE’s office in Times Square. Before arriving, someone was “hounding” the star for a favor that she offered — obviously working her nerves in the process. She tells her large entourage which includes her bodyguard, an assistant, her publicist, and two videographers that she’s in no condition to take photos. She gave razzle-dazzle for her fans at the ball, but at the office interview, it was a stripped-down look of a t-shirt and jeans topped off by a fur jacket.

“I picked the title All Monsters Are Human because I feel like we all are a villain to someone,” reveals the singer. In 13 tracks, K. Michelle delivers the straightforward R&B that she’s known for. She connects “Can’t Let (You Get Away)”— a lustful song written more than two years ago— to the smooth sway of Jagged Edge. “OMG” taps into the singer’s Florida A&M University-trained, yodel vocals over a trap 808. The lyrics of All Monsters Are Human are frank, and for the first time K. Michelle’s in complete artistic control.

“This is the first time I ever got to pick a single. I never got to pick a single. [The label] always picked them for me.” Her choice to select “The Rain”— a mellow, lovemaking number produced by Jazze Pha, which samples New Edition’s 1988 quiet storm staple “Can You Stand The Rain”— is paying off as the song is currently peaked at No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 8 on the Adult R&B Songs chart, which measures airplay on Urban Adult Contemporary radio.

“People like to throw shade and say ‘she got dropped,'” says K. Michelle while making a funny face at her IG Live, which she set up at the beginning of the interview. “No, I didn’t get dropped. Me and Atlantic are in good standings.” She, however, had a puzzled reaction when finding out that an Atlantic Records ad banner was at the bottom of her “Supahood” music video on YouTube. Most likely the case since Yung Miami from City Girls (who is featured on the trap&B jaunt alongside Kashdoll) is signed to Atlantic.

“It’s better for me to be somewhere that’s going to let me do the music. These people [eOne Music] haven’t told me nothing and they’re ready for my country album. And they paid for everything. So when people say 'independent' it’s kind of crazy because I haven’t had to come out of pocket for anything.

“eOne and [the independent record distributor's president] Alan Grunblatt have been good to me. They believe in me. So I’m going to stick with the team that rock with me. I’m never going back to no major. I’m going to stick right there.”

Sonically, All Monsters Are Human contains superheroine vibes that take listeners back to the 80s. In addition to the New Edition sample, “All The Lovers” finds K. Michelle wailing “where do they go” over new wave synths á la Tina Turner during her Private Dancer era in 1984. Another potential single option, “Love On Me,” recalls the radio feeling of post-disco.

Utilizing those 80s sounds has become a conduit for K. Michelle to access her brand of “real R&B.” “I’m an 80s baby and I love the music of the 80s,” she further explains. “[That period of music] was about the musicality. It’s about lyrics. It’s about not mumbling.”

Her frustrations on the present state of modern R&B lash out: “These motherf**kers listen to people who got balls in their mouths, who don’t even open their mouths. These people listen to people that’s going to put you to sleep. It’s like one big long lullaby.” On the contrary, she does believe that Ari Lennox is the representation of real, soulful R&B. “She just has it! I look at her and feel R&B.”

For K. Michelle, there is no reason to sugarcoat what she has to say. This trait is something that’s been ingrained in her since her start when she was actually signed as a rapper. “When I started people told me female artists didn’t curse on R&B records," she points out. "Now they’re cursing every other word.” Unlike her previous albums, More Issues Than Vogue and KIMBERLY: The People I Used To Know, All Monsters Are Human does not feature K. Michelle spitting a hot sixteen. That material was saved for Not 1 F**k Given, a secret mixtape K. Michelle uploaded online earlier in January, despite releasing a new album.

“This album is a vibey album,” says the singer with pride. “You won’t hear any gunshots or anything going on. It’s not that aggressive of an album. And it’s very emotional. And it’s very soft-spoken but straight to the point. It’s that type of vibe.”

One of those emotional tracks is “Ciara’s Prayer,” a direct response to the romantic love story of the Atlanta singer and her husband, Russell Wilson. In the chorus, K. Michelle sings a tongue twister,  “Ain't no future anyway/pray the prayer Ciara prayed.”

While talking about the songwriting process behind the track, she laughs. “And whatever prayer. Whatever Jesus she talking to. Whatever church. The address of the church. Whatever it is, I need to go to that church. And I need to know the exact words and prayer of her. I wanted to know what prayer she was doing to get that man.”

Michelle has always been a fan of Ciara, who she calls “one of the nicest celebrities I ever met.” Being a vet in the industry, Ciara offered her former Jive labelmate advice during their first meeting: “When you win, everybody wins with you. But when you lose, you lose alone. Just remember that.”

One endeavor that K. Michelle finds herself prepping for is the pending release of her country album. With the industry currently in a state of frenzy with the definition of genres as they relate to race, the star knows she’s in for a challenge. A challenge that she’s been planning to tackle for years despite some record executives’ hesitance. She’s been rallying fans behind her — some as famous as  T.I., Lil Duval, and D.C. Young Fly — by teasing snippets of her yodeling along to some of the album’s tentative recorded material.

“I’m going to need the culture to embrace me,” she says while hugging herself. “To love me. I’m in a battle to put our culture on the map in another genre. I need people to have my back. This is a callout of support to the artist.”

Michelle revealed that she’s in conversations with Billy Ray Cyrus and Babyface to pen some tracks, and that she wants to collab with Dolly Parton. While All Monsters Are Human delivers on R&B, this upcoming album will be traditional country that respects the genre rather than trying to progress it. “I’m not doing no hip-hop country. I’m not doing that mess. I’m not doing none of those gimmicks of country. I’m not playing in that. Country music is solid.”

Towards the end of the interview, K. Michelle is at ease as she discusses what she endures as a Black woman in the music industry. Her body is still healing from her “childish and clueless” decision of getting plastic surgery— and she still has a few more operations to go. She’s currently in the casting stages with Lifetime for a reality series she’s producing that will shed light on other women who are affected by improper plastic surgery.

Aside from that, K. Michelle believes that life is going well for her. Although she’s frustrated and “tired” by the constant demands of some of “her entitled Rebels” [the name for K. Michelle’s fanbase] who want endless amounts of new music. In fact, she’s currently at odds with one of her Rebels, who is pretending to be her on YouTube and Instagram, and is making a profit from fake videos and events under her name.

Michelle also doesn’t take kindly to the mass levels of cultural appropriation and racism in the industry. She’s been vocal about that issue on tracks such as “Kim K” from The People I Used To Know; to outright calling pop star Camila Cabello, a “racist rat” in a since-deleted post on Twitter back in December, following screenshots of the latter’s racist old social media posts. Although her handlers want to skip over discussing that, K. Michelle is very articulate with her delivery.

“She shouldn’t say [the n-word]. You have a problem with us, but then you go get DaBaby when it’s time for a song to hit. Don’t nobody want to be Black until it’s time to get a feature.” Relating to the scripture-like words of Malcolm X, the singer believes that “the Black woman is the most unloved and imitated individual on this planet. The power of Black women is amazing.”

“I’m all for Black women,” K. Michelle says with a stern look before clipping it with yet another controversial but rather truthful statement. In her signature authority— Memphis drawl and all — she closes out with this thought: “And whoever is offended by that can go suck a d*ck!”

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