I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what mixing was, what compression or equalizing was, or have any idea what a master was. I was recording music on a $150 microphone that I plugged into my computer and sent to GarageBand. I had only a vague idea of what it was to create reverb and delays, or to add effects to vocals to make them sound better. I had really started exploring hip-hop artistry and writing rhymes less than 6 months earlier. Most of my friends were looking at me funny. I had just moved to a tiny town in New Mexico to finish college and play two more years of basketball. One of my best friends from childhood, then my roommate as well, was concerned that I was spending too much time focusing on a baseless side hobby and not enough time on what I had moved there to do. When he told me, I looked him in the eyes and assured him this was different from anything else. All I knew or understood was the feeling that creating music was giving me. I was exhilarated, it made my heart beat faster, it made me feel like I was finally home, like I had finally found an avenue of music that allowed me to express everything that I had been dying to let out for years. I knew from the minute I started recording myself what I wanted to do forever.
Don't let any of that fool you - I was awful. I wasn't yet confident enough in my voice or my direction to make good music or to make music sound good (two different, yet very connected skills). I just knew that I had to start, and that I was going to do whatever it took to get better at this craft. So I made a mixtape under a pseudonym. 13 songs. Freestyles, original songs, beats ripped off of YouTube, anything I could find with my limited resources and knowledge. I just started rapping and singing, and after 3 months I had a project. It wasn't special, and you can't find it anywhere. Unless someone somehow saved it on their computer, it is (thankfully) lost to history. But I was so proud of myself. I had followed through on this first step of the journey, and in the process had already learned an amazing amount about my abilities and my desire to be great. I was hooked, hopelessly and permanently, on creating music for the rest of my life.
And then I made Monster. In November of 2012, while I was looking for new instrumentals to write to, I found a beautiful, haunting, sound from a 16-year-old kid on YouTube (that kid is D. Boy, and I'm proud to say he's produced a lot of my music since then as well). It was perfect, and to this day its one of my favorite instrumentals ever. That beat played on repeat for days - I had no idea how to write to it, how to do it justice. This was one that I couldn't let pass without my best possible effort. On a team trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving break, it was the only sound I played in my headphones. It was honestly infuriating - I couldn't come up with anything I liked. And then, on the flight back home, through 4 hours of silence, I wrote every word. The lyrics just flowed from somewhere I hadn't had access to before. The song was recorded the next day, and released on Soundcloud - my FIRST EVER track uploaded to Soundcloud - on November 29, 2012. I think it got about 600 plays. But if you ask any of the people in my life then what they thought when they heard that song for the first time, they'll all tell you a version of the same thing: "No bullshit, this kid can really do this."
Its been six years since that song changed my life - maybe not on the outside, but on the inside. It gave me the confidence to keep going and the assurance that I was on the right track. Some of my friends to this day will tell you its still their favorite song of mine. Many of them realized because of that song that I was serious and dedicated, and most of all capable. The raw songwriting and rhythm of the words are still so meaningful to me, so pure and powerful. So I brought it back. I stripped it down to the vocals, re-recorded the verse, and used all of the knowledge I've built in the last six years to bring Monster to life like no one has ever heard it before - clear, strong, and beautiful. You deserve it, the song deserves it, and everyone who has ever listened to my music deserves it. Thank you, whether you were on that flight with me in 2012, or this is the first song of mine you've ever heard. Thank you forever.
One of the reasons I fell in love with hip-hop was the flexibility and freedom it gives its artists, the ability we have to tell our stories however we want to. So many genres of music are still structured by specific rhyme schemes, timing, chorus and verse arrangements, and other tools used to write and record within a certain frame. I'm not saying these aren't important methods - they shaped music from its early modern stages into a lot of the songs we love. But Jazz artists like Miles Davis in the 1930s and 40s blazed a new trail, changing the face of music by refusing to be restricted by tempo or structure, and allowed their instruments to carry whatever form each record morphed into. There are still massive jazz and blues influences in today's hip-hop music, especially the sub-genre that stays true to its roots. Even mainstream artists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar still use hip-hop as a story-telling method; their verses often contain multiple styles and schemes mixed into one other, creatively blurring lines of convention while telling complex, real-life stories.
These (and many other) artists are my generational peers. We learned from the same artists, from Tupac Shakur and Andre and Big Boi, from Nas and Jay-Z, when hip-hop was still in its "purest" form a technique to say a lot more in a compressed amount of time. Our voices are our instruments, and instead of using three four-line verses to try to craft an entire song, we can say hundreds of words per verse in any style that we want, whether they all follow a rhyming scheme or not. We can skip conventional choruses, add interludes, and create nearly anything we can imagine. Because I also sing and harmonize, within a hip-hop song I can be as expansive or minimal as I want to, experiment endlessly, and no one can ever tell me its "wrong".
My raps are a mixture of truth, symbolism, and wondering, questioning and blending real life and the world inside my head. I have a lot to say, and because I sometimes say so much, words can be forgotten or glossed over quickly, their meaning can be lost in the speed or style of delivery. I want you to be able to understand what I mean by a certain phrase, what I'm referencing in a certain line, what in my life may have influenced a phrase, and I want you to help. Starting this winter, all of my lyrics from official releases will be available on Genius.com to view and annotate. This site is a community of music and lyric lovers dedicated to finding even more meaning in the songs they love. I'll be doing quite a bit of annotation myself to explain some of my deeper lines, and to bring you closer to my art. If you find a line that you connect with or hasn't been explained yet, feel free to help the community and give your own annotation. If you just want to read along as you listen, maybe seeing the words will help you connect more to whichever song you're listening to. My hope is the words always bring you nearer to me and my sound. My words are my gift, and however I can best present them is the most important thing to me.
I'm excited about the next step in the process. As I've said all year, there's still so much more left for this year and into 2019. Let's keeping moving forward.
I lost a friend last week. Everyone in the music community did, and it has shaken us to our core. There are events in our lives that we will always remember - exactly where we were, what we were doing, and what we felt - when the news broke. I was just mindlessly checking Twitter at halftime of a game of NBA 2K with my roommate, and I saw Mac's name trending. It had to be about his latest album, Swimming, which had already become one of my favorite albums of the last five years, in any genre. The beautiful instrumentation, the delivery, the polished maturity of an artist I had grown up with - this record was all of the growth and self-understanding we seek to find in ourselves, and it deserved all of the credit reserved for ground-breaking works of art. Mac was growing with us, battling life, embracing life, discovering life. He finally seemed to be finding that sweet spot, the light that he had worked so hard to find. And then he was gone. I sat staring at the stream of tweets pouring in, the game paused, all of us collectively in disbelief. This vibrant, honest, troubled human being we all assumed was just finding his way into the sun would never wake up to see it again.
I started making music around the same time Mac Miller was making a name for himself as a joyful, trouble-making kid who just happened to be able to rap his ass off. He reminded us all of ourselves, not worrying about being an adult or making the right decisions, living in and enjoying every moment. Mac encouraged us to still be kids, even as we went to college or got our first important job. And then something happened over the next few years that brought us even closer to him: he struggled, and he brought us all inside his struggles, truthfully and painfully so. Success brought him greater access to the vices that would eventually kill him, as is true with so many of the shooting stars we have watched light up the sky over the years. His music became much darker, more violent and aggressive, and ultimately saddening. We were watching and listening to a young man, a friend, fight for his life in front of us.
While he was bringing us on his journey, I was experiencing my own. I was diagnosed with depression, acute anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder at 19, about the same time I first heard Mac's music. I was experiencing crushing panic attacks on a near-regular basis and was allowing paralyzing thoughts to control my life. I am now 27, and while I have become much more successful - with the help of others - at controlling my mental state, dark thoughts are something I deal with every day. Unlike Mac, I have never turned to hard drugs to cope with the darkness, but admittedly have found myself turning to alcohol and other destructive habits to numb my constantly spinning mind.
Much of my music is centered around the messiness of mental health, navigating a murky river of disappointment and uncertainty, trying to find the positive sides of a life and an industry that so often makes me feel trapped and misunderstood. Even the title of my first collection of EPs, Rain, is a verbal representation of my moving to an unknown place, alone and unprepared, and doing all that I can to survive. Over the last five years especially, nearly every time I write new music, I drag myself down to a place of discomforting sadness. It has been in those depths that I have found some of the most honest, unflinching truths of my soul. Before just recently, writing in a positive state of mind was almost altogether foreign to me. For whatever reason, I have always felt that my words and music are destined be a refuge for anyone feeling alone, like no one else can understand their pain. None of it is forced, none of it false - I feel everything I write and record, for better or for worse. Long ago, I accepted the sacrifice I am making for the betterment of those people who choose to let my songs help them. I truly feel I am vessel, a message, a voice to help you through, all while I try to find my own way through.
When we lost Mac, it hit me in the chest. Over our careers, I began to realize how much alike we were. Though different artists, we were fighting many of the same demons, working through our lives just trying to find the light that always seems like its just out of our reach. I pray that Mac has finally found that light in another place, and that all of the pain he carried is no longer with him. I am a firm believer though, that energy never dies, and as artists, we now take that pain and shoulder it. Because in that pain we find ourselves, we find truth, and we strive to lighten the pressure of those around us.
We miss you Mac. I miss you. And for however long I am destined to be in this reality, I will carry your message with me, and do my best to live up to the legacy of a man and an artist who never stoped growing. You never stopped fighting for the light. And so I fight. For you, for myself, and for all of us.
"Don't ya know that sunshine don't feel right,
When ya inside all day,
I wish it was nice out,
But it look like rain,
Grey skies are drifting,
Not livin' forever,
They told me it only gets better"
Rest now, Malcolm.