Yo Gotti Talks 'I Am' Album & Epic Records Partnership
'I ain't making decisions based on just checks and money anymore - the situation has to be right.'
The title of Yo Gotti's new album, "I Am," due Nov. 19 through a new partnership between his CMG imprint and Epic Records, is meant to be a mission statement: The Memphis MC, known for releasing mixtapes and albums independently, will remain the blue-collar, street-focused rapper he's always been, major-label deal or not. Since signing in February, he's been in Epic's headquarters putting the title into action, letting the label's employees know exactly who he is.
"I'm working with everybody hands-on," he says over the phone, strolling through his new label home's New York offices. "The art department, TV, radio, marketing, song licensing department-in my prior [label] situations, I never even met those people. The same way you have your homeboy's name saved in your phone, I have these people saved in my phone. I'm calling them at two in the morning asking, 'How we doing this?'"
But Gotti's no stranger to the major-label system. He achieved mostly regional success in the early and mid-2000s by releasing albums through TVT Records and steadily touring, slowly building a strong, consistent fan base in the South. Frustrated with his low national profile, Gotti formed Cocaine Muzik Group (now rebranded as CMG Entertainment) and released the first installment of his Cocaine Muzik mixtape series in 2008. The resulting buzz led to a deal with Polo Grounds/J Records the following year. He released his biggest hit, "5 Star," which peaked at No. 19 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, soon afterward. But when J dissolved into RCA, he got lost in the shuffle, and his album Live From the Kitchen didn't arrive until January 2012, well after the single's buzz had worn off, selling 72,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Because of that, I told myself I would never sign another artist deal again," Gotti says. "I ain't making decisions based on just checks and money anymore-the situation has to be right."
Gotti parted ways with RCA soon after the album's release and spent the following year-and-a-half pursuing his original bread and butter: touring and releasing mixtapes on his own. Labels soon began bidding for his services yet again, with rumors of frequent collaborators T.I. and Rick Ross recruiting him into their folds. But ultimately, a joint-venture label deal with the Antonio "L.A." Reid-led Epic made the most sense to a reluctant Gotti. "Something stood out about L.A. Reid and his commitment to me and my label," he says.
With Epic executive VP of A&R Sha Money XL–who played integral roles in the success of 2 Chainz and Big K.R.I.T. during his time at Def Jam-helping run point, Gotti recruited a diverse range of big-name guests (including J. Cole, Wale, Meek Mill, Ne-Yo and Rich Homie Quan) to broaden his once mostly mixtape–and Memphis-focused sound. "He's the only rapper out who's been grinding and hadn't had his moment yet," Sha Money XL says. "All he needed was the right records and the right energy around him."
"This album is displaying growth," Gotti says. "I've found more creative ways to tell my story."
When the album arrives, it'll be boosted by a new endorsement deal with streetwear brand Rocksmith, which has tagged him to be the face of its fall/winter line. Several items in the line feature Gotti's name, and billboards touting the campaign are up in Atlanta and Memphis, with other major markets to follow soon.
Gotti launched a 40-city tour in September, aided by an album pre-order through Gumroad.com that allows fans who bring a receipt to shows to meet him. Meanwhile, the Bay Area-influenced first single "Act Right," featuring Young Jeezy and YG, peaked at No. 24 on the Rap chart, boosted by a performance at this year's BET Hip Hop Awards. He'll hit the small screen again on "106 & Park" and "The Arsenio Hall Show" this month. A video for the triumphant second single, "King Sh*t" featuring T.I., debuted on Vevo on Oct. 15, and Gotti has been unrolling a webisode series that plays on the album title by showcasing different sides of his personality-"I am a businessman," "I am Memphis," etc.
"Gotti has already done a lot on his own as a businessman, so we layered on top of what he was doing and got him things he may not have had before," Epic senior director of marketing LaTrice Burnette says.
"With this partnership, I feel like I have an extended team," Gotti adds. "I could've made millions from staying independent and being in the streets. But to take it to a bigger platform, you need the right partner."