Blacc Zacc
Alex 'Grizz' Loucas

Blacc Zacc Looks To Put South Carolina On The Map With 'Carolina Narco'

With his new album and short film 'Carolina Narco,' Blacc Zacc plans to put his home state on the map.

Many rap artists claim to be closely associated with the plug, but Blacc Zacc's hometown reputation makes those ties wholly believable. Hailing from South Carolina, the former street entrepreneur has spent the last few years on a mission to transcend the trap while legitimizing himself within the music industry and becoming one of the most buzz-worthy artists to ever emerge from his state. Building his audience with projects like High Class Trapper (2017), New Blacc City (2018), and Blacc Frost (2018), Zacc elevated his stock to unprecedented levels with his 2019 mixtape, Trappin Like Zacc, which saw the South Coast Music signee coming into his own. The project, which boasted the Key Glock-assisted heater "Hahaha," was strong enough to help garner the support of Interscope Records, with whom he inked a record deal with last year, a move he hopes will further increase his profile.

“It wasn't more so about the money," Zacc says of his decision to make the transition from an independent artist to one signed to a major label. "Of course everybody's dream is to get a deal when you're a rapper and you really wanna be for real with it, but it wasn't more so about the money with me, it was more so about having the connects. I feel like with me being independent and having to move on my own, I don't really have industry connects like Randy [Interscope publicist] to be able to have me in this office with you right now, it's only so much you can do to get where you wanna be when you're independent. Like you can't buy everything, [but] certain stuff you gotta have connections to."

With a machine like Interscope behind him, Blacc Zacc finds himself asserting his boss status with his 2020 debut. Carolina Narco is inspired by incarcerated drug kingpin El Chapo, who garnered headlines worldwide with his epic escape from prison in 2015. Accompanied by a short film that finds Blacc Zacc tapping into his skills as a thespian, Carolina Narco is the newcomer's biggest release to date and builds on the momentum of his previous offerings. Boasting guest appearances from DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, Yo Gotti, and Stunna 4 Vegas, Carolina Narco captures Zacc displaying the breadth of his artistry across the project's eleven tracks, resulting in an LP that positions him as not only one of the more promising prospects out of the south, but a trailblazer within his home state. 

VIBE sat down with Zacc to get the scoop on the making of Carolina Narco, expanding his business portfolio, his plans to put South Carolina on the national radar and much more.

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VIBE: 2019 was a breakout year for your career, as you expanded your fan base while reaching multiple milestones. What's a moment from that year that made you realize that your hard work was paying off?

Blacc Zacc: When I started going to shows outside of my city and I started realizing people knowing who I am and recognizing the song and stuff like that. And of course, when I got my deal with Interscope, that's when I knew it was real. Like I really got a chance and an opportunity at this.

Musically, you've garnered comparisons to Gucci Mane, who you've also listed among your biggest influences. What are some things you picked up from watching and listening to Gucci and how has that benefited you as an artist?

Gucci Mane was just like one of my favorite personal rappers just from what he stands for. His delivery, the type of songs he made and I feel like he'll always be a trap legend. So it ain't necessarily that I'm trying to be like him, but I'm so influenced by him that it probably rubs off, like people will probably just get that vibe from me.

For those who may be unfamiliar with your backstory, how would you describe the man you are behind the music and your outlook on life?  

My outlook on life, I'm a thinker. I know in my music it may seem like, “Oh, he's one of those dudes that just talk about the trap or the hood,” or the bad that comes with the trap, but I got sense, too. I'm a deep thinker, I think a lot and I got kids so I gotta think for them and me. I'm the first from my family to really be on this type of level I'm on so I got a lot on my plate, but I don't really complain about it because this is what I signed up for.

You recently released your latest project, Carolina Narco, your most high-profile project to date. How did it feel to take this next leap in your career and what's the reception from the fans been like?

It's been a good one. This project might be one of my biggest I ever have done because I been getting so much feedback from it. Like from Twitter to everybody just calling and just having all positive stuff to say, and the feedback I was getting from everybody just really rocking with it. But this is what I set this out to. Because when I was planning it and I knew this was gonna be my first project from being with Interscope and having my situation, what I got going on, I wanted this to be one of my biggest projects to show people I really can rap. I'm an artist for real. 'Cause like I tell people all the time, a lot of people was respecting me from other stuff, so it never was from music. They wasn't respecting me for music, but now I'm transitioning over and making them respect me for being a rapper and an artist.

Speaking of that transition, was there a moment that really spurred you to use your musical talent?

Like I said, just being a thinker. You got to know, like, if you really in the streets and you're really doing your thing, you got to know that don't last forever. So you got to have your turning point, whether it's rapping or whether you're gonna hustle to start a legitimate business, but you gotta have some kinda way out of it. And I know I wasn't gonna get no job with nobody and I was getting good feedback from rapping. And then, I always knew I could rap, but I learned the hard part about rapping is not making a song, it's getting it out there and marketing. Once I realized that's what really matters, that's when it became like a real job to me, when it came to that, but I always knew you can't do that other stuff forever. So I knew it was gonna have to be a turning point someday, anyway.

How do you feel about rappers speaking about the trap life, but not living it?

I feel like... like if it's working for them, but it's gonna catch up 'cause when you come around somebody that really comes from that and they may ask you something and you don't know about it, or it might even be an interviewer, but some way it's gonna come out. Whether you're acting like a drug dealer, whether you're acting like a gangster or a shooter or whatever, and you walk outside on these New York streets or anywhere and somebody come snatch your chain or do something to you and you don't do nothing about it, it's gonna come out so it's not gonna last long. Either way, it don't matter how good it's lasting right now, it's not gonna last long because the universe is gonna make you stand on everything you're trying to be.

Last year, you released the song "Carolina Narco," which inspired you to build on that theme throughout an entire project. Tell me how that song came together and why you decided to run with that concept?

That song came together when I got in the studio with Youngkio, me and him locked in. I wouldn't even expect Kio to make that kind of beat because he made the "Old Town Road" beat, which is a banger, of course, but I didn't expect him to be on no trap shit like that and his vibe and he's such a cool person outside of the music. But once he came in there with that beat, it had like a Narcos feel and I just started freestyling and that's when I made that song and I was like, 'You know what, I like the song so much, my next album is gonna be like a Narcos feel.' I wanna do a movie with it; I want the front cover to look like when El Chapo got arrested; I wanted the actual song, "Carolina Narco," to be like how when he was getting out the plane and he escaped. Everybody knows El Chapo escaped, so I wanted it to be like him escaping and stuff like that. I just wanted everything to be on some Narco sh*t but in a Carolina way.

Other than El Chapo, who are some other gangsters or hustlers who you got inspiration from or just have a level of respect for?

Of course, like all of the popular people that everybody may know of, like Pablo [Escobar], El Chapo, Griselda Blanco, those types of people, but I mostly was influenced by a lot of people that I seen with my own eyes coming up in my neighborhood. Like Hot Boy, this guy named Boss G, those type of people was getting a lot of money on my side of town that I seen and I was kind of in tune with them, too, but I most definitely know all of the popular people. Pablo, Frank Matthews, Frank Lucas, all of those people. I knew all of them, but I was influenced by a lot of people that were from my neck of the woods, too.

Another song from the album that's been gaining traction is "Make A Sale," featuring Moneybagg Yo. What led you to reach out to him to hop on that song and what was it like recording the music video with him?

For that particular song, how it came about, we was on the Baby On Baby Tour or the Kirk Tour, one of 'em and he was backstage. And we was introduced and I was like, “I wanna do a song with you,” and he was like, “Send it to me.” So I sent him the song, I'm thinking like, 'He gonna take forever to get it done,' you know how these rappers be sometimes, but he sent it right back to me. And as far as the music video, we was both in Miami and I was like, 'Shit, let's shoot the video,' and he was with it. Moneybagg Yo, he been solid, anything I done ever asked of him to do, he's done it.

Over the years, you've collaborated with a number of artists from Memphis, Tennessee, including Yo Gotti, who appears on the Carolina Narco cut "Fucc Up A Check.” Is that a coincidence, and if not, what's the backstory behind your connection to the city?

I ain't never been to Memphis, crazy part about it, but I most definitely done worked with a lot of artists from Memphis, but they just be like my personal favorite artists at the time that I really can rock with and vibe with. When I got a feature from Dolph, I paid for that 'cause I was really rocking with that. I was rocking with that, and with Gotti and stuff like that, that just came later on down the line from just working. They just shot me the feature, that was on the love, that was on the house. Sh*t, it's just a coincidence, I guess, that I work with people [from Memphis]. I even worked with Key Glock from down there.

What are three songs from Carolina Narco that you're excited for the fans to hear and why?

"Cocky" stands out because I like the instruments in it. It got that Narco feel like I wanted and, of course, I put my brother on it because of some other stuff. Stunna, I put him on it 'cause of course, I know he's dope, but that cocky means something else different for him so I was like, “I'ma put him on that one.” And "Bang" came across like...  with DaBaby, I put a snippet up and he wanted to jump on it. I didn't even hear Baby on that song, to be honest, but I wasn't gonna tell him no. But he snapped on that and then it got that aggressive feel on that. And the "Murder For Hire," I feel I started the album off right with that one. I like how the sample in the background gives you that feel like, “This sh*t bout to be hard.”

North Carolina has produced stars like J.Cole, DaBaby, Little Brother, Rapsody, Petey Pablo and many others, but artists from South Carolina haven't been able to attain that same level of success. What would you attribute that to?

It's probably the opportunities, cause South Carolina is not as lit as North Carolina. North Carolina got the Panthers, they got baseball teams, they got all kinds of little stuff up there. Like their city's way more lit than South Carolina but you can't use that as no excuse, it's just that nobody from South Carolina hasn't made it yet because I guess they ain't working how they're supposed to be working. But that's why I'm here to open that door and break that curse.

Being one of the more popular artists to come out of South Carolina in recent years, how does it feel to have the opportunity to put your state on the map?

It feels real good because if you're that person that do that, you're forever a legend you're gonna forever be known for being that one that did that. And just being able to show people from South Carolina that it's possible to do 'cause at this point you ain't gotta act like you're from nowhere else but South Carolina. You can go somewhere and be like, 'I'm from South Carolina, I'm a rapper,' or North Carolina or Carolina, period. Back then, you couldn't really do it.

You launched your own record label, D.M.E., a few years ago, and have been vocal about your focus on being an entrepreneur. Where did that business sense stem from and are there any CEOs in particular that you've modeled your approach after?

To be all the way honest with you, I didn't even know what a CEO was when I was calling myself that, I just knew it was a high position [laughs]. But once I got knowledge of what was going on, people like JAY-Z, Diddy, and even Rick Ross, those type of people motivated me because I got more of a CEO lifestyle than a rapper, people. I had to mold myself into wanting to talk and stuff like that, you can't be anti-social, people will take it the wrong way and take it like you're being cocky. So you really got to be a certain way when you're a rapper versus being a CEO, you ain't gotta be in everybody face all the time, you can kinda play the background.

You signed with a deal with South Coast Music, home to Da Baby and Stunna 4 Vegas. What's the backstory behind that partnership?

I think I signed with South Coast in the end of 2018. I been knew them, like (Daud “King”) Carter and all of them, but just being part of that, it's good 'cause being in the same loop as the winning squad. It's a lot of people that probably just hate that, just not being in the mix of all that's going on, but that just came from everybody working

In what areas would you say you've grown as an artist over the years?

I got more confident on the track. I got more confident performing, I got more confident talking in interviews. It's just a growth, it was a learning experience. I learned the business more. The main thing I learned about it is my audience, I learning who I'm catering my music to. you gotta learn who you're rapping to. You gotta really realize what's your message and who you're trying to deliver your message to.

In 2017, you teamed up with Hoodrich Pablo Juan to release the collaborative mixtape, Dirty Money, Power, Respect. How did that project come about?

Really, I always knew Hoodrich Pablo, but I wasn't really no big fan of his music, my brother felt like it was a good move. So we was in L.A. and my brother brought him to the studio and we knocked out three or four songs. And they wanted to drop it like a little slick collab, so we just put it out there like that.

If you could paint a picture of what your life and career will look like in five years, what would the portrait look like?

One of the biggest in the game and South Carolina being known as a music capital. I want a lot more artists to come behind me, at least five to ten artists to come behind me within these five years and be like megastars including myself.

You've mentioned making a short film to accompany the album, what inspired you to do that and how did it feel to tap into your talents as an actor?

It was really good to see how I can really transform from rapping to acting. I feel like I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it, though, not on no cocky sh*t, but I feel like I can do anything. But it was some real good experience just from testing myself and putting myself in that lane where you have to get in character mode and be serious on the camera all the time and really get into that mode, but then I wanted to do something different. There's nobody I can think of or nobody that's done it in a while where they dropping a short-films with their project. Because a lot of people listen to music, but it's a lot of people that will go look at a movie, too.

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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