Jay-Z once said, “I can’t see them coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.” Houston rap general Trae Tha Truth has a similar sentiment. In fact, he can count each time he’s wept on one hand. “I just think I’ve groomed myself to not really know how [to cry],” he says. “My only form of crying is probably why I got so much music. I can go in there and release that on records.” But with the year he’s had, no one could blame him if he shed tears. His close friend Nipsey Hussle was murdered this past March, and a custody battle means that he can only see his infant daughter Truth one week per month. Both loved ones provide emotional anchors for Exhale, Trae’s 11th solo LP and his first ever without any guest features. The toll of the year is reflected on the album through songs like “Nipsey” and “Letter 2 Truth,” and it’s just as clear from sitting down with him: his eyes droop with weariness as he responds to questions at the VIBE offices, his voice never rising above the distinct lower register heard in his raps. It’s Nipsey Hussle’s birthday and one of his few precious days with his child, and instead of having time at home to process the accompanying feelings in private, he’s on a press run in NYC with his entourage in tow and his daughter securely cradled in his arm.
Between his music career and caring for his family, Trae also dedicates substantial time to serving his community and building businesses. He’s taking his stake in the headphone and speaker industries, through his partnership with Bumpboxx wireless retro speakers and the co-creation of Wavzs, which is touted as the “world’s loudest wireless headphones” with 10 drivers inside the device. In 2017 he garnered press for his Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and scholarships and has continued his philanthropy in partnership with Simple Solutions to rebuild homes and help families avoid eviction. And he also just released a coloring book with his friend You Can’t Draw Johnny. In a conversation with VIBE, Trae reveals the few times he’s shed tears, recounts his relationship with Nipsey Hussle, hints at how J. Cole is involved in his new album, and shares how he maintains time apart from his daughter.
VIBE: Since today is Nipsey Hussle’s birthday, it feels only right to start out about him. Both of you have a lot of similarities in terms of giving back to your respective communities—you do a lot for Houston, he did a lot in Cali. Did you guys ever exchange ideas or work with each other on those types of things?
Trae Tha Truth: I think we just always supported each other. I definitely brought him down to Trae Day, so he can see how it operates and how much of a breath of fresh air we can be to our community because they really need it. The stuff that we do gives them hope. He used to tell me all the time like, “man that’s dope, I’ma make sure I turn up on my side.” I remember having a conversation with T.I. and he was like, ‘All of us together are like Voltron. Because you have Nipsey there, you got him, then you got me down here. It was just all-around so. I’m just glad I actually shared an important part of each other’s lives because we experienced a lot. Music was probably the least of our relationship, it was more of a family thing.
What did you guys talk about?
All kinds of stuff. I’m going to court now for my daughter, we would talk about that. That was actually the last conversation that we had, was talking about what the process would probably end up being like. As far as me doing it the last time, it was probably maybe a month or so before he passed. We talked about all kinds of stuff. We really just be rooting for each other in so many aspects. I remember many of times I’d just put out projects or something, and he may hit me on a text just out the blue with one of the names of the song and then give me a thumbs up. It was always like that. We got a long, long history from all kind of scenarios, pictures, videos, did a lot of shows together. Not even on tour, just like we would pull up to some party to bring one of the other ones out. First and foremost, happy birthday to him.
Now the song “Nipsey” is a really personal song. I almost felt intrusive listening to it. I felt like I was listening to a personal conversation.
That’s what it was, though. With this project it wasn’t made to make music, it was me venting my conversations. I held one with Nipsey. I held one with my daughter. It’s me actually talking to them. It makes me more comfortable because that’s easier for me to vent when I’m in that state of mind doing music. I’m not thinking [about] what’s going to be creative. I’m just speaking from the heart.
How difficult is it to find that zone? How long does it take for you to tap in?
Not long at all, because one of the things I specialize in is venting, pain, and the struggle within the music. So when it comes to that aspect, I do that like no other. That’s why everybody went to the song and it made them feel a certain way. Because I’m unable to show the sadness emotions, I don’t know how to cry. So what I can go do is I can go vent, and you can hear that song, and if you end up shedding a tear to that song, then I did my job. That’s as if I was you. That would be me crying. That’s why I’m so well at what I do with my music.
Now the album is called Exhale. What are you exhaling? What are you letting you go?
It’s not that I’m necessarily letting go. I think I was just letting it out, just life itself. Like I say from losing one of my close homies, to fighting for my daughter, to past relationships. Everything I was feeling, I just had to get in there and let it out. It was my form of, you know how you be frustrated and you go outside and just scream and just get the sh*t out and you be like, “whew.” That was my form.
The album has no features.
None at all.
That’s not normal for you.
I always make history with my features. I always make people step they game up. But it don’t stop, I’m pretty sure them days will come back easy. But this one I feel like who could exhale better than me, for me. My story is my story. It was that and it was long overdue because I never put a project out without features.
Which is crazy because it’s been a minute. I mean, it’s been a minute for your whole career. How long have you been out?
How is that process different creatively? I mean obviously, you’re writing more verses. But how else?
It’s just all about what I’m feeling at the time. You gotta realize you’re talking to a person that do 40-50 songs a week. Just sitting in there, when I do a record instead of me instantly hearing something and saying “oh he gon’ sound dope on this with me,” it’s just “nah, let me get this done.”
Whenever it comes to no features, everybody always brings up J. Cole, platinum with no features.
Believe it or not. I haven’t told nobody, he definitely… he’s part of what keeps this album inspired. They’ll find out later when the time comes, definitely. That’s my little bro. That’s all that matters.
As you said you make history with your features. I was watching a video for “I’m On 3.0” today, that record has everybody. How do you get that many people together? It’s like from all different age groups, all different areas.
It’s all the relationships I got. When it comes to me, it’s more about the family thing. It’s not about who’s doing what at the time. It’s like I have my own personal relationships so I can call any one of them. And then you know I was doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes for a lot of artists that people don’t know. That’s the easy part.
How do you build all these relationships? Is it a matter of everybody coming to Houston and hitting you up?
Some come to Houston and hit me up. Some I move around there, but it’s all relationships. With me it’s all genuine ‘cuz when it comes to artists I don’t need nothing from them. And anything they got going on I can have going on, too. So if you come to where I’m from you can walk in the building and I can walk in the building and it’s just as much as respect for me. When it comes to that they know, “he good with or without me, so if he f**kin’ with me, he f**kin’ with me. That’s what he wants to do.” It’s not he f**kin’ with me ‘cuz he needs something my pride will have me not asking for sh*t.
One of the standouts on the album is “Even Tho It’s Hard.” Really painful song.
That was produced by Business Boss? And somebody else. “Even Tho It’s Hard” it’s definitely the reality side of it but it gives a lot of people a good feeling. They love that record. It just gives them some type of spunk, you know what I’m saying. Even my son in Houston, he loves it. So now when you go to talking about painful on the album I would lean more towards “Nipsey” and “Letter 2 Truth.” So “Even Tho It’s Hard,” it gives you a church feel. That’s for us. It can be struggle or the soul – if it gives you a good feeling, that’s what it is.
As you said “Letter 2 Truth” is also a painful record. It’s about your daughter, who you have a custody hearing for soon.
That’s me talking to her one-on-one. So if ever in life something happens to me, she can always revert back to that and she can hear her daddy talking to her. Mmmhmm. I go to trial next week.
So what has that process been like?
Very stressful. It’s times when I didn’t come out of my room for weeks at a time. It’s stressful, man. You just gotta get to a point where you gotta shake it off, and I’ve accepted it for what it is. I see her the one week that I get out of a month and we have the most fun on earth. And she goes back, and I sit and I ride it out, count the days down to the next month. But one thing about everybody that knows us or sees us, they know our relationship. So no matter what any court, any person, or anything, or anybody tries to do, me and her are always going to be close. And it’s crazy she realizes at a young age, usually, it takes till they get to an older age to understand. But she knows when I walk in the room ain’t nothing but daddy.
You said a few minutes ago that you can’t cry?
Yes. It’s been very hard. I think the last time, it’s crazy, I can count [the times] on my hand. That’s how much I remember. One, when my brother got two life sentences, when my other brother got killed, when I found out that my middle son was going through stuff as far as having seizures and kinda lost his strength in his legs where he doesn’t walk. Other than that, people tend to lean on me as the hard one, like “he going to deal with it, so we just gotta let him be him.” And again my only form of crying is probably why I got so much music, I can go in there and release that on records.
So you can’t cry because you’re too busy supporting other people you mean?
No, not that I’m too busy supporting other people. I just think I’ve groomed myself to not really know how. It’s like I work well under pressure. I’m kinda just prepared for a lot of stuff.
After Hurricane Harvey, you led relief efforts. How has Houston recovered since then?
It’s still a lot of stuff behind the scenes that people don’t see. It’s still a lot of people who never rebuilt their homes and lost everything. It’s still a lot of people who just can’t catch a break to catch up. Most definitely. It’s always work for us to do. And that’s as far as me and my team: me, BJ, Mr. Rogers, the Relief Gang. We just constantly across the board, that’s what we doing. It never stops.”
You do a lot of work in Houston to help other people, and when people do so much of that work, people don’t really think about the toll it has on them. To see a lot of the bad things they see or to put so much of their time into helping other people. So how have you recovered since Hurricane Harvey?
I mean, I believe I’m content. It was never really about me, it was about helping others and I’m constantly doing that. So I don’t necessarily say that I did recover or didn’t I think I had the time to focus on myself. It’s more about what I can do and what I’m doing with everybody else.
Last year you had filed another lawsuit against RadioOne and UrbanOne with the radio ban. Are there any updates with that at all? How frustrating has that been?
Very frustrating because it’s been a decade. But the problem we’re having now is the person who had the case on their desk didn’t re-elected, so when they didn’t get re-elected, they kinda got spiteful with a lot of the cases that was on their desk. Threw a lot of it out, as is. So they didn’t have to do the work on the exit, and ended up throwing mine out. So I had to appeal it but I’m just at a point in my life, it just is what it is. I got so much other stuff going on, I got so many other blessings. It gets stressful to a point it takes away from my kids, just my energy. So I’m just like whatever. What the homie up above got in store for me, is what it’s going to be.
You also said that you’re rebuilding homes? Let’s talk about that.
We have found homes that people maybe in debt [are] about to actually lose them completely and we find ways where it can get paid off and you can make a little money, too. To start a new life as opposed to people just being stripped of everything. And also the process of that we grabbed the home, so now we’re buying different stuff throughout the streets and the neighborhoods. We kinda control it to where people don’t necessarily get forced out at the same time, with our partner as simple solutions.
When did this inherent desire to help people come from? Not everybody does it.
I think anything I do, I’m dedicated a thousand percent. So if I say I’m going to help people, I’m just going to keep going and just not going to stop. It’s a different feeling when you can walk in a building and you see a kid with a shirt that says “Trae My Hero.” and you inspire people in a different way when you do things like this. I remember it’s been times when people walk up to me and be like, ‘Man, on my life, I planned on hitting the bank this week’ and they were going to crash out to do what they could do to feed their family. But moments that we come through before give them that breath of fresh air where they can start to grasp new thoughts, and other ways where they can try and figure it out and got somebody showing them that they do care, and we’re here to help. It plays a part in many ways.