Sylvan LaCue Talks 'Beautiful' Impact of New Album 'Apologies in Advance' & How JAY-Z Changed His Life

Nick Mahar
Sylvan LaCue

Anonymity never sat well with Sylvan LaCue. For years, he grappled with his placement in the rap game after watching his peers blow past him during his race to success. Under his former moniker, QuESt, he scripted punchy verses during his tenure with Logic's independent label, Visionary Music Group. Despite his gift of gab, he struggled mightily to reach the apex of hip-hop, while his counterpart Logic zipped his way up the proverbial totem pole. Instead of allowing himself to drown in the land of oblivion, LaCue left Visionary Music Group in 2014 and dropped the name QuESt, despite releasing his acclaimed mixtape Searching Sylvan three months prior.

Hungry for a fresh start, LaCue began his own imprint called WiseUp & Co. and began crafting projects under his new name. After rebuilding his brand back home in Florida, LaCue meticulously pieced together his debut album Far From Familiar. Despite blooming past his former alter-ego with songs like "Loner" and "Fall From Grace," LaCue continued to suffer with his bouts with depression stemming from his initial lack of success. Instead of pointing the fingers at himself in dismay, he opted to pen his plights on his sophomore endeavor Apologies in Advance.

Laced with humility and unapologetic candor, LaCue breaks down the album into 12 steps, similar to that of an AA meeting, and encourages listeners to join him on his bumpy rollercoaster of emotions. First, he vows to give his family and friends the "Best Me" before displaying his uncanny wordplay abilities on "Coffee Break." Despite his lyrical prowess, LaCue doesn't get tied up by his tongue-twisting efforts and remains in pocket with fruitful messages, as displayed on "Selfish' and "Empathy." 

Billboard sat down with LaCue to discuss his breakout sophomore album Apologies in Advance, his decision to leave Logic's camp Visionary Music Group, his days working as a barista, and how JAY-Z and Lauryn Hill saved his life. 

Apologies in Advance is less than a month old and the reception from it seems incredible. Not just from a rap standpoint, but you have sufferers of mental illness fall in love with it as well. What’s the craziest response you’ve received so far from a fan?

There was a fan who DM’ed me, and we’ve spoken a couple times before because I think he was also a writer. He was saying like, “Yo man, I just wanna let you know what’s happening with me right now is really crazy. I’m literally breaking through my depression. I’m with my family right now and they’re telling me that they’re sorry. I thought this was impossible. Thank you. I’m literally getting through my depression right now.”

I was just like, “Wow.” You hear the stories, but it was really surreal to have somebody DM me and say they’re listening to the project and getting through their depression at this very moment. I was part of the exact moment in which they were beginning to crack through. It’s wild, man. The reception and the stories have just been really heavy, really intense, but beautiful at the same time.

You attacked some personal demons on the album yourself. What made you decide to go that route and get so open?

It started with “Best Me,” honestly. That was the first record that kind of came together in terms of just being very open about what I was going through at the time. I wrote it around late 2016. I dropped a project prior before writing that song called Far From Familiar. I was in relatively a good space. I had an apartment in Oakland, I had a little bit of money in my pocket. I was able to pay my bills, but I was just still depressed and really upset about where I was musically, how things were going for my career, and how I felt things were going for me personally, as well.

“Best Me” was like the first step in confronting shit and just being very real about it. Song after song that I would drop -- we dropped “Selfish” and “Grateful” -- it was therapeutic for me to take accountability for a lot of these things.

What crafted the inspiration behind the album though in terms of creating Apologies in Advance and a therapeutic session was a few things. First thing was Hov’s 4:44. I admired the fact that somebody at that stature could be that open and vulnerable. As Hov fans, you see this invincible dude and for him to just be open and be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna take accountability for a lot of this shit that I’ve been going through and be a man about it at 47,” I was like, “Well if he can do it, [I can too.]’

And Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. That’s always been one of my favorite albums, but I wanted to remember why that album was so special and it was because it attacked love in a way that hadn’t been attacked before. It was a whole session talking with the youth in terms of where they would be in the future, talking about love in a very raw, real place, and really getting down to the root of certain things. I wanted to recreate that.

I wanted to create a Miseducation of Lauryn Hill but for millennials, and instead of love, we talk about emotions. As I was going through it, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just about me. I’m writing records that are therapeutic for me but I wanted to include other people in the album so that whoever listens realizes that it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us. We’re all going through these things and that’s the overall message. Let’s take accountability. Let’s face ourselves so we can heal ourselves and we can heal other people as well.

I spoke to Big K.R.I.T. a couple months ago. He had a dope album and he spoke on the same issues. For him, he was at a point in his career where he felt underappreciated as an artist. At what point did you feel like maybe you were underappreciated or that you were overlooked?

My whole career [Laughs]. As a rapper, that’s all you want. All you want is to be in that top three or that top five, or even that top ten. You want to be in that conversation because you care about culture, the art and the skill. You want to be considered one of the best. When you feel that way and it’s not being reciprocated by an audience or tastemakers, it hurts. It really does hurt because that’s all you’ve ever wanted. Recently for me, though, I’m pivoting towards my relationship with that. I think what’s more important than being seen or appreciated by a certain audience is paying attention to the people who do look at me already.

I had a tweet not too long ago: “Focus on the people who focus on you. Love and appreciate them the way they love and appreciate you. Everything else is a distraction.” It’s true. Somebody like K.R.I.T. saves lives. Who cares about such and such who doesn’t put you in this? It’s like, you’re saving lives. That’s why I’m feeling that way. I’m saying that to a say why do I care? Sometimes I’m like “Why am I not this?” or “Why are people not saying I’m next?” and with this album I had to pivot and be like “Yo man, there’s people who need you.. to live.”

There’s an audience of people who need you, your voice and your message to get to the next day. Why do I care about all that other stuff? I’m human, but what’s more important than all of that is at the end of the day, I have to create a body of work or I have to create music because there are people that are counting on my voice to get to the next day.

So you’re over the idea of needing validation?

Yeah, man. Who pays my rent? Who makes sure that I have enough money to live in a place? My fans, the people who care about me. I’m not saying F anybody else outside of that. I would never say fuck the industry or fuck culture or tastemakers, because we all exist in this realm. At the end of the day, it’s all hip-hop. It’s all culture and we all want to affect culture, matter to the culture, and have a voice, so I get everybody’s sentiment. It’s just repositioning the priorities.

You won’t ever have to be like “fuck anybody.” It’s just saying you want this, but that’s not as important as my responsibilities. When I have to take accountability for my responsibilities, by voice and the people who need me, that immediately takes top priority over my personal desires of wanting to be considered in a certain class or appreciated in a certain way. If I’m saving lives, then I owe it as a responsibility to humanity and also a responsibility to God to answer my calling. That will always be above anything else.

Kendrick Lamar always goes back to saying how he transitioning from K. Dot over to Kendrick liberated him as a person and as an artist. You were QuESt and you transitioned over to Sylvan. What was the turning point in that decision to make you want to drop the name QuEST?

It was spiritual, but the pivot was a bit more earthly. I saw where things were going. I’m a product of the blog era. There’s rappers who came up in the blog era and excelled: the K.R.I.T’s, the J. Cole’s, the Kendrick’s, the Drake’s, the Kid Cudi’s. All those guys came in the blog era and excelled. I wasn’t fortunate enough to make it out of that era as QuESt and excel. I saw the pivot that we’re going to SoundCloud rap and there’s a whole new generation that’s coming in.

My audience are the people who listen to those guys, so how do I pivot? You gotta see what’s happening and be ahead. As QuESt, I knew I was going to get dated very soon. You saw certain artists who got swept in that. I have a lot of friends, who are still friends, that have now moved on. Other artists that I still respect in a certain light are trying to fight that stigma years after. You got to know how to move in a room full of vultures. That for me was like, let me change my name to my real name and rebrand. Also, I was coming off the heels of leaving Visionary Music Group. The only thing I wanted to do was create something for myself 100 percent.

Was there bad blood with you leaving Visionary?

I haven’t spoken to those guys since I left. Me personally, I can say there’s no bad blood. I don’t have anything against them. I can’t speak for them. I don’t have any qualms whatsoever. I’m in a different place than I was then, and if we speak, I’m pretty sure it will be all love on my end.

4:44 was the album that made you decide to go into Apologies in Advance. Was there a track in particular that did it for you?

I think it was “KILL JAY-Z.” It’s funny because I have a group chat and two friends in there who are artists, TreaZon and Ro Ransom. I remember I was on a train somewhere in Oakland. We all have our GOATs. Hov is mine, Ro’s is Eminem and Trea’s is Nas/Tupac. It was my GOAT’s turn this year [Laughs]. We were all like “Who’s gon’ do what?” I’m on the train and I can’t even listen to it because, my phone wasn’t dead, but I didn’t have enough battery to digest the album.

I remember them quoting lyrics and I’m like, "This is different." When I heard it, you know [raps]: “They'll never love you/ You'll never be enough, let's just keep it real, JAY-Z/ Fuck JAY-Z,” I’m like, this is the same Hov that was saying: “I'm rapin' Def Jam 'til I'm the hundred million man” with confidence while he was still on the label, to “They’ll never love you, you’ll never be enough.” Oh, he’s just like us.

For the first time, I felt that way. You always know. He’s a man. But I’m like, "Oh he feels that way, the same way that I feel and the same way that hundreds and millions feel." What made me upset, though, is a lot of people didn’t receive it that way because of the stigma. It’s like, “Oh he’s Hov, blah blah blah,” and they only focus on certain pinpoints. That inspired me even more because I don’t have that stigma. I want to get straight to the people. It was just really wild. “Kill JAY-Z” was definitely the record that did it for me.

You made the response record to 4:44 with “5:55.” Talk about the process for that record.

I was talking to a really close friend about 4:44 and “Marcy Me.” I came back home that day and started playing “Marcy Me” a lot and found the sample. I’m a producer, so I flipped it and made the record. At the end of it I was like, let me call it “5:55.” I remember hitting [my manager] Amir about it and being like, “I got this record. I think it’s going to be the next and last single. I think it’s called ‘5:55’” and he’s like, “What?!”

I looked it up and I wanted it to be able to resolve with the album. “444” from an angel number standpoint is about a spiritual awakening. “555” from angel number perspective is about actual change, and putting that change into action. I felt it was a great way to end the album. You go through all these things, these steps and you accept these apologies and it’s like, "Let’s make the change. It was my ode to the guy who inspired this body of work, besides myself and the fans and what not. It’s like, “Hey man, thanks for the nod. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to do this. If I wasn’t able to do this, there’s probably people who wouldn’t be alive today.”

That's a pretty powerful thing to think about. Is there an album or a song that you'd say is the soundtrack to your life right now?

JAY-Z’s “Legacy.” I’m thinking about my trajectory and what I want to set behind. I was talking to Amir the Monday after the album dropped. We dropped “Coffee Break” the video and I was doing great. We had a pop-up shop and it was filled. People were crying at the pop-up shop, saying how we changed their lives. “Best Me” hit four million on Spotify. It was just success after success after success.

I hit Amir and said I’m a little overwhelmed, not because of everything that’s been happening, but because I really feel the responsibility that I have to these people. For the first time, it wasn’t about where were interviewing or how are we going to get this. It was like, these people really need what we’re giving them.

I remember telling him [reads from phone]: “I’ve been struggling a bit with the humility I’ve been experiencing lately. So many people are in need of our message. The pop-up destroyed me. I could barely keep it together, but I did. From the comments to the reviews, I really feel the weight of the responsibility. It’s a beautiful feeling yet it’s a humility I’m overcome with.” He said: “It can be in the millions. Just have to remember why you are doing this, who you are doing this for, and the constant reminder that God is in control. You got this.”

If I had to choose, it’d be “Legacy,” because that’s what it’s all about. We’re doing this so that we can leave a legacy behind for other people to follow and choose and figure out what’s good for them out of what we’ve done.   

What would you title this chapter of your life?

Thrive. The last chapter of my life was really about consistency in all aspects of my life. My health, my relationships, music, my family, and just wanting to be really consistent and working on my reputation as a man. I am getting to a point where people are starting to look to me as a decision maker or for advice or guidance. I’m no longer that 21/22-year-old kid shutting up, just wide-eyed at people.

Now people are coming to me and being like, “You’ve been doing this, this and that.. How do you do this, this and that?” I see my family a lot less. The industry we’re in doesn’t really permit at lot of habits for taking care of yourself both mentally and physically. That chapter of my life was really about being consistent.

With this album coming out, of course I’m going to continue with the consistency, but I really want to thrive this year. I want my people to thrive. I want us to use what we’ve learned, what we retained, and our experiences to really take things overboard and push it to the limit. Get in the trenches and let’s make it work. We’ve learned our lessons and we have more lessons to learn. We have enough and we know enough.

It’s like getting in a car and getting ready for your trip. It was a journey to even get to the point where you’re going to take this trip, right? You probably planned this trip for three or four months and you save up the money and you figure out where you’re gonna go. Then the day has come and everything is packed. We all in the whip, we got the gas, so let’s rock. Where the destination is? We don’t know, but we on the road so let’s thrive. I feel like that’s where we’re at right now.