Charles Hamilton vs. The Mainstream: 'I Know Too Much, Period'

Brigitte Sire
Charles Hamilton photographed at The Palazzo East in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2015.

Charles Hamilton isn't particularly interested in redemption narratives anymore, even if the past 12 months of his life follow that pattern. Redemption implies that a person is saved, that they are in a better place, that there is a more positive future ahead. And while the Harlem-born rapper fits those criteria personally, he sees the world around him in bleaker terms.

"Things are not getting better in the mainstream," he says, sitting in the Billboard offices with his ubiquitous Beats headphones around his neck. "The things that you see on the news aren't gonna get more positive... It's just getting whacker and whacker."

For Hamilton, just getting back to the point where he can address these issues is a triumph in and of itself, even if he won't admit it. It's been almost a year since he returned from a five-year nightmare of depression, mental illness, homelessness and incarceration to sign a new record deal with Republic in January; he's finally back with his first body of work, the four-song Black Box EP released Friday (Dec. 11), while he preps his official comeback album. The tone is clear: redemption season is over. It's time to face the music.

The Black Box EP is a brief tour through the mind of Charles Hamilton -- once one of the brightest hip-hop hopes in the industry when he broke onto the scene in 2008 -- presented as a concept project that addresses his past issues, his current state of mind and his less-than-enthusiastic view of the future. Its four songs operate as an admonishment of the current state of hip-hop, meditation on lessons learned from past mistakes and steady evisceration of the rap-by-numbers status quo. It won't win him many plaudits amongst his peers, but that's not where Hamilton is aiming. In fact, sometimes he seems like he's not exactly sure where he's aiming himself.

"Even though I haven't sold millions and millions of records, I'm not necessarily a stranger," he says about the song "Crayola," which asks rhetorical questions about "color[ing] inside the lines." "So basically what I was saying in that song was like, 'Know your place.' All the MCs know your place, all the fans know your place, everybody just respect the fact that not only am I an individual, but I have some say-so around here on a high level."

With the Black Box EP officially out now, Billboard speaks to Charles Hamilton about his return to the music industry, his love-hate relationship with the mainstream and why he's finally getting back into the zone.

Tell me about this EP.

The Black Box EP is a concept project where you are on an aircraft going through my mind and the songs are the audio recordings of such. Every plane has a black box in it and it records everything on the flight, as you know. So the recordings on this are the minutes, if you will, of this flight. Short flight, but still.

Was there a specific storyline you wanted to get across?

Well every song has a bottom line in it; even the titles are the bottom line. Songs like "Down The Line" are pretty much like, looking ahead, I don't really see too much that's bright for the future. I used to have a very positive outlook, but I've been seeing things pretty bleak, admittedly. Honestly, it's because I am in a position to see things from a different perspective. Being positive all the time always led to people jabbing at my positivity. So it was like, "Alright, now I'm just gonna give you what you want and take it how you want it."

Ever since I took that position, since I got out of jail, I just didn't care anymore. And I'm very comfortable with it and it's gotten me a record deal, so it couldn't have been too bad. But a lot of my fans didn't find it comforting to listen to me anymore. So part of the compromise was to go easy on the dark stuff, but hit 'em hard with the lyrics.

On "Face The Music," you say on the hook, "Sometimes I feel I am too awake for music." What did you mean by that?

Well, I know too much, period. I know the behind the scenes of a lot of things that are in the mainstream, and to talk about it in music would make me the villain. When you're in the underground it's cool to be a villain, but in the mainstream you've gotta kind of kowtow, if that's the phrase, and make sure everyone is comfortable. It's a compromise. I'm as aware and awake as I am about everything. It's difficult to share high-level knowledge with people who just want to have a good time and listen to music.

In our last conversation, you said that you wanted to sign your deal with Republic because you had put out so much free music that it was time to do something for yourself. Do you still feel that way?

When I said that, I was frustrated at myself. I felt as though I could have done more to get people to hear my independent music. So with my independent music being what it is and me standing behind my independent music 100 percent, I was thinking that getting a deal would put me in a better living situation. And it did; I got pretty much what I asked for being in this deal. But the sacrifices -- I gotta leave my dark side alone. Not necessarily the drugs, but the dark side, I gotta leave that alone. And it's for the sake of those who aren't necessarily open-minded enough to receive the next-level stuff that I'm bringing.

The line "Do you really have fun when you color inside the lines" from "Crayola" -- is that speaking to having to dumb down the lyrics a little bit?

Yeah. As far as I went with the bars -- they're really simple bars, but what I'm talking about is so complex that it's like, you know what? Everybody toe the line. Everybody respect distance, respect one's positioning. Even though I haven't sold millions and millions of records, I'm not necessarily a stranger. So basically what I was saying in that song was like, "Know your place." All the MCs know your place, all the fans know your place, everybody just respect the fact that not only am I an individual, but I have some say-so around here on a high level.

So it's like an admonishment.

Yeah, in a way, but playful though. You can smile along to it and go, "Aw, that's cute." But if you get a nightmare about that song -- that's what I intended.

The last two songs -- "Lessons" and "Down The Line" -- go hand in hand in a way, talking about surviving all you've gone through, that there is some hope, but things are still bleak.

Things are not getting better in the mainstream. Let me say it like that. The things that you see on the news aren't gonna get more positive. The election is only gonna lead to more negativity getting spewed between upper and lower middle class. I just found out today that the middle class is now being considered obsolete, so it's either you high or you not. It's just getting whacker and whacker.

So considering that I tried to lead everybody to God; I tried to lead everybody to God, I tried to lead everybody to aliens and I tried to lead everybody to my bright side. And all I got was, "God isn't a woman, aliens don't exist, and who the hell are you?" So here's a middle finger. A lot of artists who came out with a middle finger were successful. I ain't tryna be like them, but just know that my middle finger is a sign of the times. I'm the most up person there is, and the fact that I'm down now should tell the world something.

How was your reintroduction to the music industry in the past year?

It's been smooth, a smooth transition. It's been awkward at times. I'm not necessarily a fan of fanfare; I don't like paparazzi too much. But I'm growing musically, and this EP is a sign of it. But I'm still making the kind of music I was making in 2014, 2013. It's just, the day y'all hear that, I don't know when it's coming. I don't know if that day is gonna come.

In terms of an album?

In terms of the independent production. I worked a lot with The Invisible Men on this EP, except for "Down The Line" which I co-produced with Laurel. But it's been a good transition from sleeping on my mother's couch to my mom living with me. And I feel like the man of the house, but the sacrifice of course is not being able to share too much of my intelligence, or having to synthesize my intelligence so that it's digestible for a listener who just wants to press play and have a good time.

But at a certain point, shouldn't you not have to compromise yourself to appeal to that listener?

That's a question that should have been asked to the forefathers. They didn't have to talk about guns and the gangsta lifestyle, but they did, and then when they became successful it became the status quo. So I'm already going against the status quo in hip-hop. So there's really not much to debate about there. The debate comes in when you hear me making music talking about aliens all the time and talking about the dichotomy between God and the devil and then hearing the EP and I'm going back to being more introspective and playful. I don't want my fans to feel like I'm misleading them any more than I already have, because I definitely intentionally tried to walk my fans down a dark path a couple years back. And now I had to kind of shake that off and be a more progressive artist.

But, you know, I already did that. I already tried to save the world, and the world laughed at me. I have a lot of frustration, but it's not as simple as, "Take it out on a track." I have to make sure that when people listen to it they can say, "Okay, I see where he's going with that."

It's really my understanding versus the mainstream. And the mainstream, though lagging a little bit, is winning. And I'm gonna win with it. I'm married to the game. That's probably the first thing I should have said when I came into the game, is that I'm married to it. I've been involved in the entertainment business my entire life on several scales. And now it's like, if the ship is sinking, who better to be playing the piano while it's going down than me? That's just where I stand.

What about a full-length album?

We're looking at the first quarter. Trying to get an album out by the first quarter. We've got hundreds of songs and just the sequencing; the sequencing really counts the most when it comes to an album.

What are you hoping for in 2016?

Well, obviously success. But just a broader fan base. Just people to listen; I just want people to listen. Hopefully I can get to a point where when I write I can control a crowd. I feel like I did that with "Crayola." I'm in that zone. I feel it.