With the title Freetown Sound you’re referencing Sierra Leone, where your father is from. What does it mean to think about that place and your parents’ journey in terms of freedom? What’s the takeaway there?
Well, there really isn’t a takeaway, especially on this album. You’re just kind of listening to me thinking for 58 minutes. There’s no real solution or answer. A lot of the things on the album are discussing the idea of religion, and how some people love the hope it gives them, while others feel it’s like an iron first on top of them. But it really is the many-tabs thing happening in my head: Growing up, Christianity made me use my right hand when I’m left-handed; then I wonder what Christianity was like in ’50s in Sierra Leone; then I think back to how Christianity got to West Africa. It’s all these things, and that’s what the album’s doing—it’s me looking and studying.
In that sense, Freetown Sound is a post-colonial album. It’s about decolonizing the mind, but also exploring what it means in 2016 as a black person to be moving through the world in the pursuit of liberation.
Yeah, 100 percent. There are also moments based on things that aren’t so deep in the past, like the end of “Chance,” which is about when I went to see an A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator show. I saw a white girl with blond cornrows wearing a “Thug Life” T-shirt and she was doing a lot of poses, all that shit. I remember thinking, No one really cares what Thug Life means. To Pac, it meant: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” But people don’t know that, and a lot of people don’t think about looking deeper. Like, when he would say “nigga,” it meant “Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.” I’m not even judging the girl. I’m just thinking about these things and where I’m at right now in my life and race and appropriation. I’m not saying that I’m right about everything, but everyone should be aware of where things come from. Obviously, that’s a huge ask. But if they aren’t aware, I think they should admit it. Was it Kylie Jenner who was called out for wearing braids? And she gave some ignorant-as-fuck response?
Yeah, among others...
When I see those people get defensive, I’m like, “Take the L!” It’s crazy. I mean, right now we’re here having a conversation in a park that was given to freed slaves to help ease relationships with other slaves—and those slaves were then told that their kids would be born into slavery! They were like: “Don’t worry about the hanging tree in the back, you’ve got the park! It’s fine!” That’s just one part of our day, because I want to sit in a park. So if we call you out, like, “Yo, you’re aware where your hairstyle comes from and you’re cool with that?” If you know, just be like, “Yeah, I see that and I liked the hairstyle and wanted it.” No one’s trying to say, “You can’t have this hairstyle.” Maybe some people do say that. I don’t really give a fuck. If you’re unaware, just admit that you’re unaware.
What you’re pushing for is actually what the album represents, which is context. You’re making history talk to the present and making the present talk to history.
That’s all it is. I had to really assess my own self-worth to even be able to get to that point. Because when I make these albums, I’m making tons and tons of music every day for like two years. Then it really just hits me and I spend a couple of months going crazy 24/7 by myself, fine-tuning it, and then it’s done. But before I got to that point with this album, I had to realize a lot of things about how I’m seen, which was strange.
I became aware that this is the time when the most people have cared about what I’m doing. Well, not a lot of people, it’s not like some Beyoncé shit. But it was a weird moment, just in terms of me in the world as a young black man. So I started thinking about that more, and that was affecting everything as I was writing, making me a more direct person than I ever was before. I went from being very insecure about myself—just from growing up and having crazy bullying shit—to being very secure. I’m aware, as a black musician, that I will never be seen on par with white people that do what I do. That’s just what it is. A white guy showing soul is so much more interesting to people than a black person showing soul.
It’s this idea that white people engage a magical energy when they attempt to embody blackness and do it in a way that black people cannot because we are black.
Yeah, we’re black! We can’t show it!
Do you feel constrained by that?
It never used to bother me but then it started eating away.
You can’t help but internalize it.
I work so hard and practice music and study and produce, and then people always act shocked when I do something. I remember putting out a song called “Delancey,” which was basically my voice and the cello, and then some website tweeted that I was inspired by a random pop song with strings on it. But I’ve been playing classical cello since I was 11 years old. It’s not like I just heard this song and hired a string player. Shit like that happens to me a lot. I had to school someone in an interview last week because they were talking about the saxophone in my music in regards to modern musicians that throw saxophone solos in. I had to be like, “You’re talking to a black musician—you’re aware that saxophones existed before the ’80s?”
They think “Careless Whisper” was the beginning of sax solos in music.
There are parts of the album where the saxophone solo is an ode to Eric Dolphy. And then parts where I’m trying to get a John Coltrane moment. And arrangements where I kind of hit on Alice Coltrane.
Your music demands a certain knowledge to be able to make those connections—you’re making music that has an intellectual component at a very anti-intellectual time in our culture.
I’m down for the conversation, man. I’m not even asking for people to listen and be like, “Damn he’s on some like Eric Dolphy shit.” I mean, that would be amazing, of course, but I’m just saying that, if you’re gonna come at me with this stuff, just think for a second.
As far as weaving in the past, you’ve also mentioned being inspired by sampling legends the Dust Brothers and J Dilla on this record.
Dilla is just such a huge influence, he’s a genius in a league of his own. I obviously love his beats, but for me, [the Dilla influence] is more specifically about finding that root and that beauty in something that no one else is seeing. The most fun aspect to me about geeking out on Dilla is listening to something he found and being like, “What the fuck? How did he hear that? And then how did he make it this amazing other thing?”
I like listening and making music almost like it’s a beat tape; I really love the collage of sounds. Splicing. Half-cuts. I love the feel of Paul’s Boutique. I’ve listened to that album my whole life, but I couldn’t tell you how many tracks are on it or what the names of the tracks are. I just love the idea that you turn it on at any point and you’re in that world, and you can just keep going. You can enter. You can leave. I don’t hear music and think I can make it better; I hear it and think I can make [something] on the side from it.
For example, on a song from the album called “Love Ya,” I’m using melodies from the Eddy Grant song “Come on Let Me Love You.” I’ve always had this love of Eddy Grant—he’s from the same place in Guyana my mom’s from. He’s such an influence to me. It’s funny though. My whole life I’ve had people talk to me about Jimi Hendrix because he’s, like, a black dude with a guitar. Obviously Jimi Hendrix is great, and he must have influenced me somehow, but I was listening to Eddy Grant growing up. The image that I was seeing was him.
When I listen to a song like “Love Ya,” I hear elements of West African or reggae sounds, but you’ve deconstructed those styles, like a Comme des Garçons shirt.Your music lives in all these deconstructed pieces.
With that song specifically, when some of my friends first heard it, they were waiting for the beat to drop. And I’m like, “There is no beat drop!” It feels like there’s going to be something, and there just isn’t.
Why do you do that? There’s also choruses where you remove the bass or the drums. Is that deliberate?
It’s all deliberate. I love fractions of stuff—the pieces and the separation. Because it’s how I hear things and how I experience things. I was trying to make something that feels like my mind walking around—hearing a saxophone player in the distance, and then a drummer somewhere, and then I go into a store and something else is playing but I’m still thinking about a melody that I heard earlier, or something I was reading.
But it’s not like a Kanye thing where I am constantly tweaking my work. My part is done. I was fighting with my label for the last couple months, because they keep trying to get other people to do new mixes and edits of my songs for my album, because they view writing and mixing as different things, which they can be, for other people.
Lots of records have been taken at the last moment and completely remixed, like Diana Ross’ Diana album from 1980.Somebody else gets to finish it, the way films are sometimes taken away from directors.
Yeah. It was something I had to constantly fight. No one understood. They were like, “Don’t you want this song to reach more people?” And I’m like, “I would love this song to reach people, yeah. I don’t want some bastardized version of the song to reach people.” The most annoying and offensive part about that is the idea that I’m not good enough to present my own vision. It’s even more insane considering that I produce pop music for people. I can do that if I want to. I clearly didn’t want to [with this album], so I haven’t.