6lack Talks Industry Growing Pains, Love Songs & Moody Debut Album 'Free 6lack'

Jenny Regan


"I could probably make 100 songs in my sleep," brags Atlanta hip-hop artist 6lack (pronounced "black") on "Never Know," the opener to his LVRN/Interscope Records debut album Free 6lack. Settle down with the 11-track set and the claim may not be too far-fetched. 6lack's brand of moody hip-hop not only champions the DIY model of hustling but spotlights vulnerability and honesty in a way the emoji generation can understand.

The songs play out like a journal, touching on relationships both personal and professional. In 2011, 6lack entered a shady record deal that kept him trapped for five years. He then slowly began to build with LoveRenaissance (LVRN), the ATL-based collective that includes signee Raury. In the midst of his label battle, he also grabbed inspiration for his deep cuts from exes.

"I wanted [the album] to serve as kind of a statement for everything, summarize the last five to six years of my life," he tells Billboard. "I wanted to make a statement that I'm free from my older relationships and I'm free from all ways of thinking and my old feelings."

Now, the 24-year-old born Ricardo Valentine -- who laid down his first lyric in the studio when he was four years old -- has taken advantage of his freedom to release an emotional gumbo that includes the previously released singles, the zero-f---s-given track "PRBLMS" and the #girlbye offering "Ex Calling." He also beats his chest for songs like "Luving U" and takes a pro-love stance on "Gettin' Old." The finale of the feature-less project comes in the nine-minute track "Alone / EA6," where 6lack firmly says he is sticking to his own formula and belief system, even if it means riding it out solo.

Check out 6lack's new material and his full interview with Billboard below.

When do you feel most inspired to create music?

Honestly, when I'm going through the most things is when I'm more engaged in my writing or when I'm more excited to go to the studio, whether it's good or bad. I feel like when I'm actually going through a lot of stuff, that's the best time to make music.

Were the songs about one woman in particular?

Various relationships and even sometimes I would just kind of combine different scenarios all into one song to make one grand thing that somebody could relate to.

Was there a song that was the hardest to write?

I don't think anything was hard to make. "PRBLMS" was the most of an experience I've had making a song. "PRBLMS" was me not in my element. People know me as a pro-love kind of person, and for it to be one of my singles, it was kind of the opposite of that. I had to do it because it was what I felt at the time. The process of making it was different for me because there was a lot of emotions that I wasn't used to expressing.

What was your earliest memory creating a melody?

When I recorded my first line on a song in a studio, I was four. My dad makes music so he was kind of messing around in his studio and he had a line for me to say, and I recorded it and that was at the beginning of one of his songs.

What was the line?

"When I grow up, I wanna be somebody." I can't remember the rest but I know that's exactly how it started.

Would you say you're at your best lyrically when you're creating love songs?

Definitely. Whether it's the positive side or the negative side of love, I feel like that's when I have the most to say and that's when I can do most of my teaching.

Have you ever felt hesitant to pour your heart out on a song?

No, I always feel eager to because I know that listeners kind of need something to relate to as far as music right now. Everybody is kind of where they are as far as their career and their success. There's not that many people that are still in the jungle or in the midst of dealing with a lot of regular life shit. I feel more eager than anything to get that stuff out so people can feel like somebody's going through it with them.

Where's your favorite place to record?

I want to say in my home studio because I've pretty much done everything sitting next to the mic by myself as far as engineering, but No Excuses studio in L.A. has become my new favorite place. That's where I just did the vocals.

Could you go through some of the people you worked with to make sure this project was sonically cohesive?

Singawd is my in house producer, my go-to guy, my best friend. He produced more than anybody else on the project. And for the songs he didn't produce, they had to come through me and him at the end of the day. Nova is the guy who made "PRBLMS" and he produced "Free" too. Besides Singawd and Nova, we ran off a lot of vibes in L.A. People would just pop in the studio and play what they had. If I liked anything, I would just invite them into the process.

On "Never Know," you also speak about being homeless and some of the tough times you had to go through. What do you think you learned about yourself during those hardships?

I've always known how patient I've been because I've been patient with pretty much everything, from early life until now. I think the process has prepared me for what's next. It's prepared me for what I'm dealing with now as far as everything moving as rapidly as it's moving and me having to balance a lot of things at once. The entire process of me going through everything I went through and sometimes stressing or not having money or not really being able to decide things for myself have prepared me for everything I'm dealing with now. I feel more equipped to handle anything that comes with the industry and nothing really comes as a surprise or can blindside me anymore because I've been through it.

Recall an experience that made you stronger.

It was definitely my last deal and that five years of being with them. I never want to feel like I'm not in control of my own future. For so long, I kind of felt tied down while knowing I still had the power, the ability and the creativity to get out of that situation. It was a hindrance being in it. Sometimes you lose sight or sometimes you get a little discouraged, but that situation alone, it had the biggest effect on me so far. Being with that label and having to go through everything I went through. To not have any leverage or have any money to my name or have any say so had the biggest impact on me.

When you linked up with LoveRenaissance did it feel like a sigh of relief?

It's funny because initially when I was with my old label, I was managing myself because they wouldn't move [my music] and they didn't really know how to move anything. I kind of went into meeting [with LVRN] with the attitude that I've already done all this branding and already built a pretty good fanbase by myself. [I was like] what can y'all do for me? Because otherwise I'm going to continue to figure it out on my own. At that point, I was sour towards having anybody help me because when I trusted my label, they pretty much failed me. I went into it, kind of stand offish, but immediately knew it was a relationship where they just understood me and they understood the music I make. It wasn't a matter of "we want you to do this" or "we need you to do this," it was just "do what feels natural and we'll present it to the people how we best see fit."

It seems like you're very self sufficient. Are you an only child?

I was the oldest. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. They aren't kids anymore, 21 and 18.

How do they respond to your success?

I think it impacts them in a lot of different ways because I've always been close with them, but I've always kind of been a little reserved. I look at them and expect them to understand that I figured out a lot of stuff on my own. Obviously, I'm here to help but they'll also have to figure out a lot of things on their own. I think that's the great thing about them seeing the process with everything. They know exactly what I've been through in these last few years and they can see that nothing was given to me, nothing was just handed to me, nothing just happened. I worked, and they asked me for something and I couldn't provide it for them. And now, they don't really have to ask for anything.

When it comes to making music, who is the listener in your mind?

For the most part, I make sure it's related to whatever I'm dealing with but I wanna word it in a way that whoever's listening can take something from it. I have something that I want to get across whether it's relationships, regular personal life s--t, business or jobs or whatever the case may be. I just want people to learn something from my music and ultimately feel better when they listen to it. There's not really a target person, just more so the target feeling, and things I base my music around. I craft it in a way that it might sound familiar, popular, radio or club friendly but when you actually listen to the words, it's actually food [for thought] and you can actually take something from it.

On the song "Alone," you say that in this industry, if you follow a certain formula, you become a song instead of a person. What sparked you to speak on that?

Just being in my last situation and being in the industry in general. I've seen what it's like for people to basically be built into something and to not really have an identity or a personality for themselves. I know once you make a hit record, it's kind of always expected of you to have a follow-up. I've seen people become songs and I've rarely seen fans know a song and not know a person, or know a lyric and not know a face, or know a hook but not know that person from another person they saw in the street. That's not to say it's about being visible all the time, but people should know who you are and you should never become a product before you're a human being.

You run through different phases of love on the project. What kind of love would you say you're searching for today?

Just understanding. I feel like, for me, what I do [for a living] is a heavy thing for someone else to deal with. And I've always prepared myself for knowing that one day, somebody's going to have to actually deal with this. It's never going to be an easy thing, like someone's going to have to make sacrifices in order to cope with the lifestyle that comes with music, that comes with being gone all the time and not knowing your schedule, or being in situations where it doesn't always work good. I feel like understanding is the biggest thing for me -- knowing who I am, knowing what I want and understanding that I'm definitely mature and connected enough to know what I want and to not ruin it for anything. Just regular rap shit honestly.