Hip-Hop

6lack Had To See Who He Was Outside of Music Before Scoring His Biggest Hit

"I need to be getting my life in order so I can be able to create music freely, happily and easily," the rapper tells Billboard as he celebrates his first top 5 single and prepares his next album.

If you listen to 6LACK's verse on Guapdad 4000's 2019 track "Prada Process," you'll hear a man speaking on fate, timing and unexpected interference: "For every time I thought I was ready, I had to find out that / God was on the sideline, yelling 'Time out.'" Little did 6LACK know that, the following year, his life would change during a pandemic, putting a halt to his creative process so that he could focus on himself in 2020.

"I've always just made s--t happen for myself, for my family, [and] for music," says 6LACK on pausing his career. "I know how to work under pressure, so I thought it was a moment of like, 'Bruh. Just push through.' God was like, 'Nah, bro. You not pushing through this time. You need to sit your ass down. You need to talk to a therapist. You need to have the conversations that you're scared to have. You need to get the people around you on the same page because you can't keep moving through life expecting people to know [how you feel] because that's how it's been so far. You gotta switch the s--t up.'"

That fortuitous pause not only reinvigorated 6LACK as he entered 2021, but caused a massive upswing in his creativity. In the last few months, the LVRN polymath has racked up a bevy of features, including on Melli's "You Ain't Worth It," Lil Durk's "Stay Down," and most notably, Lil Tjay's "Calling My Phone." After being released on Feb. 12, the latter is already a smash, debuting at No. 3 this week on the Hot 100 -- a career-best for both rappers.

6LACK spoke to Billboard on notching his first top five Hot 100 record, how the collaboration with Tjay came about, taking a break from music, his hopes for performing again and what to expect from his third album, which will follow 2018's East Atlanta Love Letter.

You've been connecting on the features front as of late, cranking out verses for Melli, Lil Durk and most recently, Lil Tjay. Did your creativity see a spike during the pandemic? 

Oh, nah. It took big dips. It started off that kind of way for me. I was living a kind of life to where I was working so much and I was on the road that I didn't get to tend to a lot of other things outside of music. So, when I had to sit still, I had to face a lot of stuff. I had to actually do work that wasn't music-related, because I was sitting in the studio nonstop trying to figure out what I need to do musically to progress. I would sit there for days, weeks and months. 

Sometimes, I would get something out of it, and sometimes, I wouldn't. When I started to focus on my life, I’d ask, "Who am I? What am I trying to get towards? Who am I trying to be? How do I get inspired in another way?" Because I can't just always directly pull from music. I need to be getting my life in order so I can be able to create music freely, happily and easily. I took big dips, for sure, but I feel completely more tapped in than I've ever been.

When you hit those dips, what did you concentrate on to break you out of those ruts? 

I would travel places where I can get in the car and just go. I didn't have to go to the airport and feel crazy about where I was going and if I was safe. It would be moments of when I would spend time with family, friends, my girlfriend and actually having conversations that I needed to have versus thinking that my source of life and creativity is totally music. 

Yeah, that's what I do, that's what I love and that's what I'm good at, but I think I was in the mode of thinking that's just who I am and anything that I do or figure out has to come from the realm of music or my responsibilities as a musician. I'm just a person in general. I'm here to experience life in as many ways that I can and I was just limiting myself subconsciously. I didn't do it on purpose, but like I said, you'd be in work-mode and you think you're doing what you supposed to do. "Okay, I'm accomplishing goals and I feel like I'm in the right place." But if you leave anything else behind, then it's going to catch up with you later. 

Do you feel doing those features allowed you to get in your bag more creatively versus focusing on your individual tracks? 

It's always been the perfect exercise for me. Even before I knew who I was and I was making my own little mixtapes in school, I was taking other people's beats and I was figuring out how to put my voice on somebody else's [track] that I like. That was always my way to figure out how to be versatile. I couldn't be versatile or think I can do anything if I didn't actually say, "Oh, I like that song. It's a different genre. Let me put my spin on it. Let me try to catch a vibe, but find a pocket for myself."

I think, if anything, it exercises me, and makes me know my abilities more when I go back to myself, because maybe I hopped on a Selena Gomez track [2020's "Crowded Room"] and it got a little bit of pop-crossover appeal to it, but I'm still comfortable. I still enjoy it and know how to get in and do my thing. Whatever I learn from it, I just bring it to my music. If I have a transition or moment that I want to sound crossover, alternative, R&B or rap, I'm getting my practice. 

Talk about the comfortability you felt when you jumped on Lil Tjay's "Calling My Phone."

My A&R Tim sent it to me and honestly, sometimes when I hear certain things, it's like I don't know what I'm gonna say, but I already know that it's written. Whatever I do, whenever I plug up, sit down and start recording, it's going to feel natural. It's going to feel confident. I'm not going to have to do multiple takes. It's just going to come out. 

The production and the song that were already there just made me feel like this is in the realm of what people would consider what I do. This is my bag. I can easily get in here, find a pocket and make it feel good, feel confident. 

I did the verse and I was still leaving that weird little space I was talking about just in regards to creating in general. So I didn't listen to it for maybe a couple of days, and then my A&R hit me about it again. I said, "I might take another pass at it, but let me just listen to it again. I haven't listened to it." I heard it in the car and I was like, "Oh nah. We good. (laughs) Let's send it off." It passed the car-test, so it was straight. 

It passed the TikTok test too, because when the snippet first came out, fans started going crazy for the full version. 

Yeah, I think that's what pushed the record over the edge, honestly. I'm a big student of the Internet, and I know that as much as I know how to exist without it, I also been on it for so long that I've been able to learn so much from it. 

There was just a lot of conversation around the song and I was picking up on it. I was like, "This don't really feel the same like a lot of other moments." He was previewing it on his own. His fans were super invested. Before I was even involved, they were telling him who they wanted on it. They had an idea who they wanted on it. He introduced the idea. It wasn't who they thought. So you kind of had people going back and forth about it like, "Eh. Is he gonna kill it? Is he gonna..." 

You had other people who were like, "What's up with y'all? Y'all don't think this man is going to come through?" I was just watching it all like, "Y'all gonna owe me an apology in two days because when this s--t drop, you gonna f--k with it." So I felt like I was gearing up for something the way that people were talking about it. 

By the time it dropped, the conversation piece was so big that the people who said something either changed their minds immediately or they tried to stand on their word and everybody was like, "Bro. Shut up. That s--t is hard." (laughs) It ain't gotta be your favorite, but look at the numbers bro. People f--k with it. (laughs)

The blueprint Tjay used to build hype around his record, is that a method you plan on utilizing for yourself and your new music?

Yeah, we've always done things on our ends -- more like storyline-based -- and I think it's been a privilege to dive into another world where things are a little bit more quicker in your face, viral, and impulsive. His fans are really active. So I think it's cool to pick up more people like that, people that might not necessarily be in my age bracket to have related to or grown with me, but can hear a cadence or flow and say, "Let me go check him out," or "I guess I'll listen to 6LACK now." 

If anything, I feel like collaborations in general are always a plus. We're here to create for ourselves, for other people, work with other people, and combine forces. If it ain't that, then it's selfish and it is maybe a little bit insecure. If you f---k with something, f--k with it. It ain't even about if you like something, you gotta make music with people, but it's the same as like whatever is going on the internet right now with this WizKid tweet that I put up. It's like, all I'm doing is saying that I love something and that other people would love it.

People don't really know. When you say something like that, they start to compare or they think it takes away from somebody else. I'm not mentioning nobody else's names. I'm speaking on what I'm speaking on. This is good and why would you not want to get that suggestion? That's how we find all of our good music. When I heard Frank [Ocean], I said, "Have you heard that Frank? Because you need to hear it. Have you heard of The Weeknd? Because you need to go hear it.” That's how we pass music that we really, really love.

How would you assess 6LACK now versus East Atlanta Love Letter 6LACK from 2018?

I'm way more honest. I think my career has been progressively me trying to get towards honesty and get towards clarity. I took people through a certain time period. I group those two albums [2016's Free 6LACK and 2018's East Atlanta Love Letter] together -- even though they're different and I think there's progression in between. I put them as one in my eyes because I was trying to get to where I am right now as far as, “I have exhausted doing everything on my own. I created everything by myself in a room and I got this. This is my story and nobody can really help me with it.” I've done that. I've got that out of my system, and now I'm at the part of my career where I'm like I just want to make the best music I can make. The only way I'm going to do that is by collaborating with people. The only way I'm going to do that is by doing stuff I haven't done before.

I really care about this. I really wanna be here. It's not just about making my kind of vibe for my core fans. No, we're here to break this s--t open. So how we gon' do it? That's the big difference between me then and me now. Now I'm at the part where I'm ready to make myself feel how I feel when I listen to a WizKid album. I want that same feeling. I want to give people that same feeling like, "Have you heard this s--t? Because you need to."

Your DJ said in a recent interview you have a Kobe Bryant-type competitive streak when it comes to performing and being on the road. How have you been able to maintain that intensity during the pandemic -- so when that time comes to perform, you're ready to go?

Honestly, just by being a fan of the music again and remembering that I'm a consumer. I think my competitive nature isn't even an aggressive one. I love the art of thinking competitively. My version of competitive is f--king with somebody's album and being like, "I wanna make something in my world that has that kind of impact, because I know how it makes me feel."

When I get inspired by what other people are doing, other people's movements, or other regions starting to pop, it makes me want to get my own s--t popping. I'm just anticipating the day where we get to do shows again, 'cause I already know it's going to be a completely different thing. Fans ain't gon' respond the same way and I'm not gon' perform the same way. We're finally outside bro. We gotta really run this sh-t into the ground. We gotta have fun, spread love, [and] link up. We gotta be safe. It's a long list of things that be running through my head everyday, so I'm waiting the same way everybody else waiting -- patiently. When it's over, it's a wrap. 

Are we getting an album this year?

Yeah, of course. I'm coming up on my three-year mark. I know everything else was two years apart, so this will be my first time kind of making it to the three-year stretch. Obviously, the way that I'm talking about it, it's really important to me. So I haven't put a specific date on it because I know how important is for me. The introduction and the sophomore were one thing, and were both like an introduction to me. I think that this is the part where you just separate yourself and you say, "I know what y'all know me for and that's still here," but I'm a n---a that's growing. You're about to get whatever that it comes with.

I'm not asking for what you think about it, like if you want the old me. People will literally be like, "We f--k with the old 6LACK," but if you do the same thing three times in a row, the same people will be like, “You still wearing the same s--t? You still doing the same thing?” That's been throughout our whole entire culture, so I can't really know that stuff like that exists and allow it to stop me from being a leader. I just gotta be ready to jump out and be like, "This is me. If you ain't coming with me, somebody gon' come with me."

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