The 26-year-old rapper talks pressure, pain and what it was like growing up as a first-generation African immigrant in the ‘whitest city in America’.

The 26-year-old rapper talks pressure, pain and what it was like growing up as a first-generation African immigrant in the ‘whitest city in America’.

In today’s climate of algorithmic releases and access-all-areas approaches to social media, it’s rare for an artist to constantly keep people guessing. But Aminé seems to actively enjoy it. 

With his 2017 pop-rap debut Good For You, to the angular hip hop of 2018 mixtape ONEPOINTFIVE and the reflective lyricism of his new album Limbo, the 26-year-old remains a refreshing enigma: an artist constantly striving to express his most authentic self, while continuing to grow and push boundaries in the process.  

The Portland artist, née Adam Aminé Daniel, first catapulted into the public consciousness in 2016 when his viral banger ‘Caroline’ captured hearts globally. In the endearing homemade video – directed by Daniel himself – we watch as he rides around his hometown with a squad of friends, hanging out of a moving car, rapping about the mystery titular woman. 

Fast-forward four years, the dreads are longer, the cars are faster and the video budgets have grown ostensibly (see here: the accompanying visuals for recent single ‘Riri’). But the heart of what makes Aminé so idiosyncratic remains intact: his charisma and wit; his ability to take a decent hook, an infectious beat and pair them with a wildly distinctive approach to rap visuals that takes heed from the golden era of MTV.

We catch up at 9am (his time) on the morning of Limbo’s release. He’s a little groggy from a late night of promo, but comfortable enough to share an update on his sweaty palms and extra-regular bowel movements – which he attributes to release day nerves. There’s little cause for concern, though: the new record sees him make yet another leap in sound, combining the playful energy of his debut with the edge and grit of the follow-up mixtape, before channelling both approaches and combining them with a renewed focus on introspection. The result is a man in his mid-twenties figuring things out in real time; a young man in limbo. 

‘Becky’ unpacks the intercultural tensions of growing up Black in the alleged whitest city in America, ‘Fetus’ plans for future children’s college funds, while ‘Woodlawn’ reflects on the journey so far, paying tribute to the late and great Kobe Bryant. But the project isn’t solely inward-looking: ‘Pressure In My Palms’, featuring Slowthai and Vince Staples, opens with the iconic declaration “This is Britney Spears when she was bald n*gga!”, while ‘Compensating’ with Young Thug is so contagiously feel-good that it’s impossible not to hit replay.

Two years since its predecessor, Limbo serves as clear evidence that even in an ‘always on’ streaming market – one that becomes more saturated by the day – there is still no better ingredient in the making of ‘good art’ than time. 

I feel like you became a bit of a poster child for a more carefree image of Black men in rap. Were you aware of that narrative?
I did feel a lot of pressure with that, particularly after Good For You, to be this ‘happy kid’. If I said anything mean or mad or turnt up, it definitely [felt] out of character for people, right? So I tried to look at myself from an outside perspective and see what I was lacking – and it was that rap perspective. I needed the hood to love me as well, because that’s where I come from! Excuse my French, but way too many white people was loving me on my first album… 

Ahh…
[laughs] and I was just a bit overwhelmed with it! Because I was just doing what I wanted to do, that was the type of music I felt like making at that time. But then I was like… ‘Damn, I need some more n*gga shit.’ That’s when I made ‘Reel It In’ and the rest of ONEPOINTFIVE. I just wanted to make turnt-up shit and go crazy. That helped me way more than I thought it would; it definitely changed everybody’s perspective of me and levelled down the ‘Black Boy Joy’ thing. Because it [was] getting a little out of hand.

On Limbo, you tap into a lot of different versions of yourself: hype, introspective, anxious, sexy. Was there a conscious effort to show a full range of emotion on this project?
Yes, and I think it all came with time, you know? If you gave me two months to make this exact album I could never do it. Because some of the stories, verses, emotions in it were literally based off of me living my life and actually going through it. 

Like I was in Jamaica, and I argued with my girlfriend at 4am heavily – you know those serious arguments that you have – and I was so frustrated. I was next to P2J and the first beat he played me was a fast version of the ‘Easy’ beat. I was like, ‘Wait, can you slow that down way more?’ And he played it and it sounded like this R&B jam. I literally freestyled half of that song right there. You couldn’t pay me to write a song that good even if I tried, because that was really based off of my emotions. Money can’t buy moments and feelings. 

You said your friend described the record as your quarter-life crisis. What was the biggest obstacle over the last two years writing?
Music-wise, it was just the growth of putting a real album together. Not to discredit my past work but this felt like such a release. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this project because we critiqued everything and I completely stripped away my ego. 

In life, it was just the experience of having time away, that really helped me. I think it made me happier personally. The internet is really depressing, man. Just because people say they love you and shit, that stuff’s great but it also isn’t a real life experience. I get a lot more from hanging out with my friends and getting something to eat. I got to live my life throughout that year, which really helped me mentally to write a better album. I never really did that for myself for a project before.

Do you still feel like music is a source of therapy for you?
Most, most, most definitely. The music and the time it took to figure out how to express certain feelings, that’s all been super therapeutic to me. I’ve never been to therapy – but doing music does help a little.

You sustain a really strong visual identity. Do you approach that creative process in a similar way to your music?
Yeah I actually do. I care a lot about my videos. I’ve shot a video for something and completely cut it before cause I thought it was shit. Videos are like my legacy, it’s something that’s gonna be around forever and ten years from now, the people listening to me will be showing their kids the shit I was on. 

That shit really matters in the same way I look back on Missy and Busta videos and think they fucking killed it. I have ton of video ideas and treatments just on my phone. Even when we had no budget and made the ‘Caroline’ video, I knew we had to put bananas in it or do something to make it creative because I wasn’t going to make something generic – it had to be an outlier. That’s always what I’m trying to do. 

You mention legacy. What is the most important thing you hope people take away from your art?
I don’t know, I feel like I would just want people to cherish it. My dad just goes on and on and on about Bob Marley. Every day. He stands by him, he’s a stan. And my mom is like a Michael Jackson stan, Tupac stan, Keith Urban stan.

Your mum’s got levels.
Oh yeah, she’s definitely the one who brought music into me. But that lifelong relationship with people through music, that’s something that I would want down the line. I don’t want to be here to come and go, I want to be here to have this attachment to you – so that when you listen to my shit, you not only listen now, but you play it for your kids 30 years from now. That kind of feeling is priceless. 

Like an imprint?
Yeah, like an imprint in your life. 

Speaking of your parents, you have spoken about growing up Black in Portland – AKA the whitest city in America. Do you feel like, as a first-generation African immigrant, that added another dimension to your experience?
It was not easy. Because me and all my Black friends, we all look alike and all that, everything about us related to each other until they met my parents and they had full on ‘accents’. It definitely wasn’t cool to be African growing up. It was looked down upon by Black culture and by white culture. 

I remember being a little bit ashamed of sharing my Ethiopian culture growing up in middle school because you would get made fun of for being African. Which is wild to think about now, cause everyone is so proud to be African which is such a beautiful thing. But I also don’t blame the people dissing Africans early on because that was literally the point of slavery, to completely strip Black people of their culture and make them hate themselves and where they came from. So those terms they used were deep-rooted, probably created by white men and translated into Black culture… I’m not mad at it. It taught me a lot.

Do you feel like it shaped you as a person?
I do. It also made me feel a little like an outcast, you know what I mean? Because I went to a fairly Black school but everybody knew me as the ‘Ethiopian/Eritrean kid’ – and that’s fine with me. Same thing with Nip [Nipsey Hussle], he was like the Eritrean kid in Crenshaw. It definitely helps you appreciate your culture. I’m very lucky to know exactly where I came from, that’s not something I would ever give away. 

On a lighter note, you sometimes refer to yourself as ‘ugly’. It made me wonder if you’ve ever seen the thirst tweets about you online?
Erm yeah, I see them [laughs]. I don’t really interact with them, because I have a girlfriend? I know fans are joking around, I’ve read some of the tweets and they are so hilarious. But I also feel like it came out of nowhere. They wasn’t necessarily saying that about me early on…

Do you ever feel like you fall victim to those conversations about artists that people believe to be ‘slept on’?
Oh absolutely. People tweet that shit about me every day. Sometimes the way they talk about it is like I haven’t done anything? I’m literally reading that tweet as I look at my wall full of platinum plaques, like, ‘What more do I have to do?’ 

But honestly – all jokes aside – I know exactly what they mean. A lot of people don’t feel like I’ve put together a ‘classic’ rap album. Good For You is more pop-rap and ONEPOINTFIVE was a mixtape. People do hold those albums dear to their hearts but I definitely haven’t touched the older demographic in a major, major way yet. That’s something that I think Limbo will do. 

Do you feel like there’s an element of award recognition that plays into that discourse too?
For sure. I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Fuck the Grammys’. I feel like everyone who says that half the time already has a Grammy. I grew up seeing my favourite artists get this award. I will never forget the Kanye speech when he won his first and said, ‘What’s Kanye gon’ do if he don’t win a Grammy? I guess we’ll never know!’ When I was a kid I wasn’t even doing music and that shit hit me, it felt like I was watching a movie. 

For me, I’m 26 now, I’m not gonna front, I want an award. And it’s not even just about me, if we got nominated for an award I could really feel like I did something for the people who helped me put this album together. Who invested their time in something that I care so much about. And it’s not make or break, I don’t have a Grammy and I’m doing fine. I’m not gonna sit here and cry about it either way, but I’m also not gonna act like I don’t want it. Because I’m never too good to say how I feel.

Limbo is out now on Republic Records

Follow Natty Kasambala on Twitter.

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