C.S. Armstrong Sheds Light on His Darkness on New Album 'Truth Be Told': Premiere
If you walked into C.S. Armstrong’s home right now, you would be greeted by the sounds of Buddy Holly, John Lee Hooker, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and Paul McCartney. His physical home embodies his musical home: the blues. His hip-hop delivery is rooted in gospel and the blues, and now Armstrong is finally ready to welcome the world into his most intimate home -- his soul -- through his first official project titled Truth Be Told, premiering below on Billboard.
“When I heard the music, it was so visual,” Armstrong tells Billboard. “I saw so much.” And so, he had no choice but to make Truth Be Told both a 10-track album and six-part short film. The visual component was inspired by a fan named Racheal Weathers whom Armstrong noticed on Instagram when she used his song “I Can’t Forget” as the soundtrack for her Instagram story.
Armstrong and Weathers collaborated over the course of two months to produce the short film, while the music has been bubbling for the better part of six years. The stories within, however, have been developing for Armstrong’s entire life. It’s only now, at 32 years old, that the Houston native is comfortable with telling his truth.
Listen to Truth Be Told and watch the music video for “Swang” -- the short film’s first installment -- followed by his full conversation with Billboard below.
How are you?
I’m feeling so many emotions. Big, big week for me, so I’m like on top of the world -- to be totally honest. I feel great.
Good. That’s a great place to be. I’ve never put an album out into the world, but I have experienced putting out something you’re proud of and feeling that on-top-of-the-world emotion, and then sometimes there’s a major crash after that.
Right. Well, for me, this is the first project that I’ve built up to. So, I just put a lot into it, and it’s just like, I wasn’t nervous until we submitted everything -- artwork, videos -- I was like, “Wow, it’s really coming out! That’s amazing!”
Did I understand correctly that you’ve been working specifically on Truth Be Told for six years? Or just music in general?
I was in a group called CharlieRED, and we toured with Action Bronson for a little bit. After the tour, I kind of just needed a break from New York, and I moved out here to L.A. Literally, I want to say for about the past five and a half, six years, I’ve just been in the studio recording. I got signed with Alex Da Kid. I eventually parted ways with him. Then I started working with Dr. Dre, then I started working with Terrace Martin -- all of these people are very avid studio rats. So, it’s like, I have literally been in the studio locked in for five or six years.
This particular project, though, I worked with this producer Torky. He’s from Berlin. It probably took us about six months to create it, but the stuff that I’m saying on it are things I have never said over the past six years in my music. I’ve never been this personal in my music before. I’ve never been this open, this honest. A lot of people used to tell me my problem with my music was it was really vague, and they couldn’t connect with me as a person. I don’t know, when I met with this producer, he started playing me stuff and literally all of my story just started to flow out, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not gonna fight it.’ So, I feel like I haven’t been recording these particular songs for six years, but I do feel like my process and journey led to these songs.
Before we dive more specifically into Truth Be Told, I want to peel back some layers on experiences that led you to producing this project. Starting, of course, with your mother being a domestic violence survivor, which your track “Black Woman” and “WWW” are dedicated to. What was your mother’s reaction—or your family’s reactions in general—when hearing these songs for the first time?
Wow, Megan. I wasn’t expecting that question. Wow. If I’m just totally honest with you, my mother and I, we don’t get along. I haven’t spoken to my mother in almost a year. I actually did send her “WWW” because I had a show for New Year’s, and I went to Fort Worth with Leon Bridges, and I performed this song, and Leon wanted to perform the song with me. In the video, Leon is like, ‘I’m talking to your mama! She’s an extraordinary [woman].’ I was like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing moment.’ So, I sent the video to my mom, and she started crying.
Just to dive a little bit into that. To witness my mom -- I feel like I do music just to tell her story because her story is so powerful to me. She went through a lot to protect her sons. My brother was born in Germany -- he was born in ‘92, myself in ‘86 -- and when I first experienced my mom being abused, I tried to defend her. He would push me away, and then it became a thing of protecting my little brother.
My little brother is pretty much my pride and joy because he’s the thing I tried to make sure my stepfather never hit. So, I think those things and that pain -- because it’s hard to even talk about it now -- I actually had a realization when my mom got a divorce. Years later, my little brother is grown now, and a few years ago, I asked my stepdad, like, ‘Why did you hit my mom?’ We both kind of cried, and he apologized to me. He told me his side of things, and I still don’t respect him as a man. I will never respect a man that hits a woman, but at least I got that off my chest because I went through a lot of mental damage of wanting to kill this man for the abuse he put my mom through.
This is the first time I wrote about it in songs like this -- “WWW” and “Black Woman” -- because it was like, wow, this black woman so close to me went through so much, and this is only tip of the iceberg with her story. That inspired me for those two songs, for sure.
Then, you spent eight years in the Army. In hindsight, do you feel that growing up in that environment perhaps made you want to run away and fight “the bad guys” in a way that you couldn’t with your mother’s abuser -- your stepfather -- or demons inside yourself?
Right. So, at the same time, my grandmother, she had two children: my mom and my uncle. My mom is a very strictly education-based, don’t smoke no weed, no alcohol, nothing. She has four Master’s degrees. Travels everywhere. That’s her life, but my uncle -- her brother -- is very much so a gangster. He’s in the streets, in and out of jail. My mom doesn’t want me hanging out with him, but I’m like, as a kid, ‘Why? This is my uncle.’ I love my uncle like I love my mom. Why can’t I hang out with him? She would never tell me, so that would make me want to sneak with my uncle. I got exposed to another side of life, which was the southside of Houston, and I started gangbanging at the age of 16.
When I turned 19, things started to get really bad for me in Houston, and like you just said, the escape was the Army. It was a vivid escape for me, too. I remember I was driving home, and I could see the Houston skyline. It was like there was a very clear voice saying to me, “There’s more for you than this.” I will never forget that. Literally, I went to the mall [and] talked to a recruiter, and they had me out of Houston in two weeks. That was very much so me running away from all my pain. The abuse, the streets, the violence, the things I seen, the church. Yeah, it was me running away from everything and really finding myself.
From what year to what year did you serve?
I went in in ‘05 and got out in 2013.
And so, 2013 is when you started really getting into music. Is that when music introduced itself as your main outlet or had it been part of you previous to that?
I started music early in Houston, like playing the piano in my grandmother’s church. Then when we moved to North Carolina in ‘97, I picked up the alto saxophone, and I started playing in jazz bands. I was playing in a lot of bands, and that’s how I fell in love with jazz. From there, when I went into the Army, I actually was singing the national anthem a lot in the Army. I remember, actually, in the Army there was a talent show, and my friend was like, “Yeah, you should do the talent show. You always singing in the barracks!” I was like, sure, and I did it, and I won.
I remember after the talent show, this older guy came up to me. He was like, “A lot of people wish they had what you have. Please take care of that gift.” I can say that exact moment in the Army -- I would say in ‘05 -- was the moment I decided I’m gonna do music full-time.
In “Reason,” you sing, “Went into the Army at 19, didn’t think I was gonna make it, but I did/’Cause I got a reason, reason, to be here.” Twofold question: Why didn’t you feel you were going to make it? What is your reason to be here?
I’ll answer the first question. I didn’t think I was gonna make it because a lot of friends -- not a lot, but two of my friends killed themselves in basic training because of that exact reason that they couldn’t make it. To be honest, it was a culture shock for me because I wasn’t used to people telling me what to do. I remember the first night I got into the Army, into basic training, I had a dream of my mom waking me up for school. I jumped up, and I hit my head on the top bunk and looked around. It was like the middle of the night, and I looked around like, “Wow, I really fucking came to the Army. I can’t believe this.” From then on, hearing the drill sergeants yelling at me -- it was just a lot to deal with, man. A lot of stress.
But I remember getting out of basic training, the thing that really kept me going was my little brother, man. I wanted him to know that I started something and I completed it. That got me through a lot of things. The reason, to answer your second question, the reason I feel like I’m here has always been to speak to the ear of the world. To speak love, to speak truth, to speak honesty, and to not shave any corners with that truth. I feel like I avoided that for so long because I didn’t know how people would [listen] to a soldier singing the blues. Is that something people relate to?
It’s a lot of steps in life that I was afraid to share with people, and I didn’t know how my family would react to saying things like, “My uncle jumped me in when I was 16.” How my mom would react to “WWW.” Yeah, that’s a lot of pain for everybody, but I feel like that’s necessary pain for you to face to move forward. So, I feel like that’s my reason to be here is to be a vivid truth for people at a time where everything is a facade. Everything is smoke and mirrors. With Instagram, with social media, you don’t know who people are. With rappers, you know, with a lot of things going on. I feel like it’s a great time for somebody to stand for simply the truth. And I know the truth varies from person to person, but I mean truth as pain and love. Everybody relates to pain, everybody relates to love, and everybody relates to honesty. Those three things together is truth.
You may have already answered this when describing why you think your reason to be here is, but what does Truth Be Told mean to you?
Truth Be Told means an arrival for me. An arrival of balance. I feel like life is never a destination. It’s always a constant journey of refining and getting better. I covered over it a little bit, but I feel like I’ve finally arrived in space where I’m finally OK with the truth and being honest and telling that truth. That’s a very literal thing, but I had a couple titles written down but kept going back to Truth Be Told. And then, playing on the #TBT factor: it’s a lot of memories that are going into this projects. It felt right. Truth Be Told. I’m finally telling my truth through music. People didn’t know a lot of these stories, and maybe it’ll inspire people as it did Racheal with the “Reasons” video to express their truths and share their own truths. Maybe it’ll be a trend for 2019 and ‘20. Never know.