The nerves were faint, but there, the first time I met August Alsina. It was a pleasant summer day last year in the basement of a dimly lit New York City cigar bar. I was tasked with snapping shots of the buzzing R&B sensation, a New Orleans-bred yungin' with a sharp mouth, a transparent, speak-now-think-later approach to life and a storied aversion to cunnilingus. For reasons unknown to present-day me, I thought he'd be fussy, snappy, standoffish or maybe find a reason to revisit the version of himself that shut down an inquisitive 106 & Park hostess in an unfortunate televised moment.
Instead, I was greeted by arms outstretched and a toothy, gold accented smile. "I don't know how y'all do in New York but I give hugs," he said. Weight lifted. Afterwards, he floated and flitted around the room as his stylist and publicist weighed his look options for the shoot, cracking jokes with his handful of back home friends and riffing to Testimony tracks playing in the background in spurts, excited to replay his favorite songs for us. He stopped to ask me about what it was like to attend and graduate from Howard University, wide-eyed and curious, saying that he wanted to go to college in the future. Hearing that was a pleasant surprise, since going back to school isn't as common a celebrity narrative as it once was.
A year and seven months later, August is just as much of an open book as I can remember. He's the same height, maybe a tad taller with the new curls spilling from beneath his snug wide brim hat. He's still got the same weighty New Orleans drawl. Black and colored ink still decorates his golden brown skin from his fingertips to his sideburns. He's still plenty handsome. He's just… sadder, wholly. Visibly exhausted. Not from lack of sleep or a rigorous work schedule or anything tangible, but from life. The very existence spelled out for our consumption and enjoyment on his sophomore full-length, This Thing Called Life, released Dec. 11 via Def Jam.
This moment should have been a good one for someone in his shoes. August, 23, was snatched up quickly by a big time label with lots of money and influence, and has a fan base that will not only toss lacy lingerie on any stage he touches, but will toss their coins to iTunes just as fast when his album drops. Or at least, that's what he anticipated. "I was upset because my album leaked, just because you know how much hard work goes into putting out an album and putting an album together," he tells me unprompted, weary and visibly annoyed. It's the first of a couple times he mentions the alleged occurrence, although Def Jam internals say to call the album teasers a leak is "simply untrue."
We're closed off in one of the label's deeply tucked meeting rooms, and the man of the hour, whose album dropped 15 hours before this interview, is hunched over the short end of the conference table, furiously signing copies of the album's artwork booklet by hand. Grueling, really. "Nah, I'd tell everybody if I stamped my sh*t," August says, replying to jokes about artists not signing CDs IRL anymore. He'll speed through at least 30 booklets as I wait for him to be ready for the interview, and the burly man in a #TTCL sweatshirt that I presume to be his bodyguard is stacking the finished ones into a cardboard box holding at least 100 more. As the squeaks and scratches of the black Sharpie against the booklets intensify, his biggest competition comes up in conversation with the three other label personnel floating in the room. "We lost to Adele, y'all," he says to everyone, yet no one in particular, not looking up. It's hard to tell if the depression in his voice is actual or satirical. "She's a boss ass b**ch."
The room is trying to comfort him about potentially coming second to the Brit, whose 25 LP single-handedly sold 737,000 copies her first week and, as of now, has sold 7.13 million records overall. It's a hard point to sell, but August is confident enough in his newest project. "I think that's a given. A number one R&B album? That's what I do," he says. This Thing Called Life is currently No. 7 on Billboard's R&B Albums chart, six spots behind Chris Brown's No. 1 Royalty, and No. 71 on the Billboard 200. Last year's Testimony climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the R&B Albums chart.
"I don’t feel like I had to top Testimony at all because when I do music, I go in the studio and give everything that’s inside me," Alsina says. "Releasing that sh*t through music as a therapy. I hear people all the time say, ‘Oh, he's always crying about something. His music is sad.’ Don’t f**king listen, it's not for you. I can only give you my truth." Where Testimony found August detailing a rough life growing up in the Big Easy, like many newly-minted Hollywood darlings, This Thing Called Life shows the struggles that a new life in the spotlight has brought him. Save for just a handful features—Lil Wayne, Anthony Hamilton, Jadakiss and Chris Brown are the only other voices on the album—TTCL is all August, opening up to keep from breaking down. For nearly 15 tracks, visceral aching is masked behind modest runs and the sweetness of experience-seasoned vocals.
"I went through a hurricane of pain and I'm standing today," he sings on "Job," highlighting obstacles he and others had to overcome during their daily grind. On "Hollywood," the illusion of having more money ("I can’t take care of you. I’m still not rich and I don’t know when I will be")—changed how people treat him. A self-admitted "f**king emotional" guy, he dives into the proper handling of his heart on "Would You Know?" (fun fact: he's only had one real girlfriend in life) before the track fades out with a chorus—a downpour, actually—of gut-deep wails. Then comes the full monty and the crux of his project, his ode to on-wax tears, "Song Cry."
August snarls and weeps over hollowed out production about the topics that gnaw at this spirit the most: feeling surrounded by people who fake-care about him; the tragic 2010 passing of his older brother, Melvin; the fallout between him and his family.
And I know they think I'm sporadic
The bastard child of an addict
But I'm way too calculated
I try to love, but I never knew her
This money, I'm blowin' through it
Ain't rockin' red or blue, I'm unafilliated
Cause my bloods and my cousins hate me
I try to buy my mama's love, no she don't appreciate it
“'Song Cry' was one of those songs that I was able to really, really vent, just get a lot of sh*t off my chest," he says. "It actually forced me to be greater because I was actually depending on a couple rap n***as for a feature, and then one day I was just like f**k it, man." August doesn't specify said rappers, and while he name drops Drake and J.Cole in the song, he cites them both as recreational listening faves during this interview. "It forced me to grow. It put me in an uncomfortable position."
His gripes with the flaky, finicky nature of the music industry don't stop there. "I’ll tell you what bothers me," August begins. "This music business is so crazy. They think everything is a game, or everything is a fad or trend to win. I see people saying, 'My next album is going to be my honest album, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, my deepest secrets, the soundtrack to my life.' When did you begin to do that? If you're going to do it, just give me motherf**king props, because I made it okay for you to be yourself. Now you want to be fake vulnerable just to win." While the commonalities between August and the unnamed fake-deeps might be considered flattery to some, to him it's just "f**king irritating," and a personal jab more than anything. "You take not only me as a joke," he says, tensely, "but everybody who's really dealing with some sh*t, f**ked up out here and really honest and living their truth, you take that as a joke because you're going to come over here and be fake true."
For a man so put off and skeptical of the world around him, he isn't the least bit guarded when it comes to interviews. Back in November, he told The Breakfast Club about his bouts with depression and skirted suicidal thoughts amid gasps from the show's hosts. "You don't feel that way anymore, do you? Like you want to kill yourself?" DJ Envy asked him, jokes subsiding. After August's unsure pause lingered for too long, Envy jumped right back in, worried. "I'm going to start calling you more, August, and checking up on you more."
Right now is no different. Open book, remember? "I’m always so overly transparent that sometimes I’m like, damn, am I saying too much? Should I say this? Should I not say this?" August says. His shades are off and put away, but when he's not looking me dead in the eyes, his own are closed, resting, with his hand at his temple. "This [album] showed how all over the place I am, as much as I don’t want to be. I mean, sh*t is exhausting. I’m tired as a motherf**ker right now, not just because I’ve been working, but because of me. I’m a lot. I’m more than a handful. I’m a lot for myself, so I know I’m a lot for other motherf**kers," he says. The fatigue is heavy in his voice. "Life is not easy. I don’t give a f**k what nobody say. This sh*t is not a cake walk."
August isn't lying. To be quite frank, despite his lengthy highlight reel—he embarked on a sold-out "Testimony Live" tour, joined Usher on "The UR Experience Tour," played a number of international festivals, won two BET Awards and nabbed a plethora of feature spots—he's seen some sh*tty moments between his last album and now. He fainted and fell off a stage during a tour stop. Mild seizures followed thereafter, then he went into a three-day coma. His eyesight began to wane, which required surgery. He needed an additional sinus surgery to help him breathe better. Someone stole the hard drive containing a heap of recorded songs for his album, forcing him to start from scratch. He confirmed the fall out between family and friends back home, specifically his mother and a particularly foul-mouthed female cousin. Then the leak controversy. Add that to the weight of his hardships growing up in NOLA and the loss of his brother that he hasn't been able to shake. "People act like you don’t get sad," August says. "I get sad as a motherf**ker. I feel hurt and pain times a million, all the time."
So what's his healing mechanism? It varies. Gospel music and solitude are frequented options ("When I get off the road I go home to absolutely nothing; maybe that’s just the way that it’s supposed to be"), but he usually tries to sort things out with the man upstairs. "A lot of times we don’t know how to deal with sh*t," August says. "You find different ways to numb the pain, whether its popping pills, drinking, overly excessive f**king, whatever it may be. What do you do when you completely feel lost? Of course go to God, but then what do you do when God ain’t talking back to you?"
On one hand, he acknowledges all the blessings he's been granted, going from one extreme of life to another. "I looked to the hills, someone's coming for help/And He gave me the will when there was nothing left," he croons on "Look How Far I've Come." But on the other hand, he feels God took away just as much. "God, why'd you give me all of this and take everything away from me so I can’t enjoy it with nobody else?" he asks hypothetically. "Now I don’t trust nobody. Now I’m always lonely."
In that case, who does one talk to? August has tried the shrink thing before, but he says This Thing Called Life proved to be the best healing method for right now. "I have to release this. I have to get it out of me because I've got to protect my energy and my spirit. When I do music, I’m really getting the devil up off me." Melancholy as his music is, the beautiful silver lining stitched into his stanzas remains. The therapy session isn't just for him. "I realize my platform," he says. "I understand it and really this is the closest thing to gospel that people will ever get. Or church. Some people don’t know God, so I feel like it’s a must that I use my platform for that alone."
Luckily, TTCL isn't all doom and gloom. The album finds sunny sonic spots in the nostalgic flavorings of "Hip-Hop" and the lighthearted, galavanting Chris Brown duo "Been Around The World," a flip on Lisa Stansfield's 1989 hit, "All Around The World." He takes the responsibility of being a role model and public example of sorts on "Change" ("I see no change, so I guess I gotta be that change.../I''m hoping I can be that change"). Sonically and symbolically, there is brilliance in the rocking "Dreamer," where melodic lines imploring youth to dream bigger than the confines of their immediate communities are delivered in double time. Tales of trials, triumph and beating the odds are the core of "American Dream." And then there's Aug's impressive layered falsettos in the loverboy's tale, "First Time."
These rare instances are reflective of the few bright spots that exist in his life, like his nieces and nephew. "It’s dope just to have somebody that genuinely loves me and their love is pure," he says. "It’s not because I did anything for them, I gave them some money or none of that. You love me because you just love me. I mean, that’s inspiration right there on its own."
It's that glimmer I want August to hold on to. Hopefully that inspiration—along with the success of This Thing Called Life—will funnel into 2016. The darkness now off his chest and into our headsets, he can hopefully move forward with a clearer mind. Although he doesn't believe in the "new year, new me" resolution culture, he's got a relatively optimistic outlook on the year to come.
Growth. Progression. More shows. A much needed vacation. Going to college for psychology so he can understand himself better. Being a better, brighter, bittersweet August. "I can’t call it, because I wouldn’t have known that I would be here in 2015," he says. "So I just look forward to—if I’m not dead, nobody’ll kill me or I don’t kill myself—just being alive and well, and being greater."