Hip-Hop

Belly Can Finally Celebrate His Birthday In Peace

Belly
David Black

Belly

It's days before Belly's 37th birthday, and the XO / Roc Nation rapper is for once happy about celebrating his born day. After an uphill battle with his fluctuating weight and mental health woes, he's finally looking forward to embarking on a new journey -- one that will provide light and clarity along the way.

"For a long time, I was kinda just down in the dumps and in a dark place," Belly candidly revealed to Billboard Monday afternoon via ZOOM. "37 is special. It signifies how long I've been able to be in this game. [I've] been blessed to stay in this thing, do what I love for so long, and support families in the process. It's just a blessing to be back."

Belly's newest chapter doesn't solely hinge on triumph and spiritual liberation but addresses his return to music. After a three-year hiatus, he storms back with two new tracks on this 37th birthday (April 7), including "Money on the Table" with Benny the Butcher, and "IYKYK." His lyrical fervor and weighty metaphors are as punchy as ever, especially on the former. Colliding with Buffalo's reigning rap champ, Belly barrels through the track with fury, making his collaboration with Benny a hearty listen for hip-hop lovers.

With a new album in tow, Belly looks to capitalize on his happiness, freedom, and newfound peace with music luminaries The Weeknd and Jay-Z by his corner. "I've been blessed to be around guys like Hov and Abel [The Weeknd] and a lot of guys I've been able to learn from in this industry," he says. "I think that's what I use as my greatest motivation."

Billboard spoke to Belly about his new tracks, finding peace during the pandemic, and how DMX's hospitalization reminds him of his former self.

You teamed up with with Benny The Butcher on "Money on the Table." What intrigued you to bring him into the fold?

He's definitely one of my favorite artists. I just think his approach to his craft is so dope. It's so well-thought out and calculated. He makes things feel like a movie. Again, being a student of the game, it was really refreshing to see somebody that gave me that nostalgia on the sh-t I grew up on. That's a feeling that I always strive to achieve with my music, as well. It was a no-brainer. It was super easy for us to connect.

Because of the whole pandemic going on, he's honestly one of the only features that actually pulled up on me. It happened right before all the lockdowns and s--t. He pulled up on me at the crib and we did the record at my house. When those type of things happen, the energies are just special. Shout-out to Benny, man. He's a great dude, great artist and great person.

Because of your songwriting abilities and love for different genres, which artists would you say continue to push you creatively on the hip-hop and R&B side?

You look at The Weeknd and what he's able to build -- he builds entire worlds. He's not just releasing music to you, he's giving you an entire well-thought out world of characters with movies for every damn video. I think you gotta watch that and you gotta take what you can from people like that, because he's a genius at what he does. Even at other things that he's put his hand in, he's proved how meticulous he can be, and how creative he can be at the same time.

I think somebody else is Hov [Jay-Z]. I thought about this [Sunday night]: We had an earthquake out in LA and it was at 4:44. In my head, it made me think of the album. It's just crazy because you think about it now, for him to put an album out that late in his career, for it to resonate the way that it did and actually be topic of discussion [is amazing]. And honestly, some of the content for how polarizing it was and creating that dialogue and debate around that subject matter is damn near impossible to do that late in your career. I watched that too because I'm not young in this [game]. A lot of people are going to learn about me fresh and find out about me now. I'm not new in this and I've been in this game for a long time.

I've always watched the guys that have longevity, because I'm like, "OK -- how did they reinvent themselves? How did they re-approach the craft? How did the level up? How did they elevate things?" I've always watched those things -- and I feel like Hov is probably the best example of watching somebody come in and out of music whenever he wants. To be as big as he is on the business side, and be somebody that gives back... I watch all of those things. I know all of those had something to do with the fact that he's been able to live this long. All these things make him that great person we look up to. There's so many different things that made him this. I just try to learn.

How have you been able to maintain those brotherly bonds with a Jay-Z and The Weeknd outside of music?

I think they're in a position in life where they're completely understanding with people's situations. When I had to duck out and kind of find myself again, I didn't drop an album for three years. What label would have kept an artist signed without dropping albums or even having their face on social media? I feel like Hov and Roc Nation understood that. They were like, "Yo. Give him his time. Let him do his thing."

I feel like if I was anywhere else, it probably wouldn't have went that way. I think them being that understanding... I didn't really have to be on [phone] lines with them everyday. I didn't have to do that. I just knew I had two guys in my corner no matter what, and they knew what I was going through, at least subtly. They didn't know the details in and out, but they knew I was trying to get myself right again and I had to sit my ass somewhere and figure out my mental, my physical and my spiritual to get back to 100.

I've always appreciated your honesty regarding mental health and how it has always been an uphill battle for you. What's been your day-to-day journey like mentally during the pandemic? 

I would definitely say it started as a struggle. I was already going through a quarantine myself. I wasn't leaving the house. If you remember, I had lost a gang of weight. Leading into the pandemic, I had gained a bunch of weight back. I was like, "Man. I don't wanna leave my house." Again, my mental state wasn't in good place either -- and then the pandemic hit.

The beginning of it, it messed me up. I was going crazy, eating everyday. Anything I can get my hands on. I was drinking liquor damn near everyday, and buy the time however way I could. I think that was a good thing though -- because when it happened that extremely, it made me go, "Hold up, I gotta really do what I gotta do." That's when I made a rule that I gotta be active at least two hours a day, no matter what I was doing. I'd wake up and some days I didn't wanna get out of bed. I ain't wanna drag myself out of bed and turn the lights on, put the shades up -- nothing, bro.

Especially after Kobe passed, I was really on some "Mamba Mentality " s--t. On some, "What would Kobe do?" I swear to God that was going through my mind so much when I was trying to lose all the weight, and get myself back into physical health.

I sustained injuries too. It was tough to get my body back to where I needed it to be, but that was something that always motivated me. That's where it all started. Once you start that structure and that kind of routine, it starts to help up here, too [points to head]. That's what really started to do it and I found that during the pandemic.

I know you also have endured battles with drug addiction. DMX is reportedly in the hospital fighting for his life after an apparent overdose. Because of your personal experiences, when you hear about other rappers going through those similar hurdles, mentally, how does that affect you?

It's rough, bro. It's sad. I'm never somebody that judges nobody. I see people being on the negative side of the story, but bro, you don't know peoples' struggles. You don't know what they had to do to turn to what. If you were blessed enough where you didn't have that type of mind where you had to turn into those things, God bless you, man. You shouldn't be trying to throw that in people's faces. I always felt that way.

With X, he's somebody that was an icon growing up. He was really an icon. Maybe some of these kids nowadays don't know, but [he was] a real icon. One of the biggest artists. When I was growing up, he was in the movies, making hits. He was doing everything. So I never judge. I pray. I for real prayed, and I'm still praying for X man -- because we can't be losing icons right now.

We know about your accolades on the songwriting front, but do you feel you deserve your flowers as a lyricist? 

Look, man. I've seen Dame [Lillard] and Russell Westbrook say something recently -- because everybody is talking about them not having the chip -- and look man, I've been blessed enough to be in this for 20-plus years and do what I love everyday. I grew up idolizing Biggie, that grew into me idolizing Hov and studying him, pretending I was writing raps in front of him like he was going to grade my raps. I got that dude calling me, telling me, 'Look how talented this dude is." Hearing him say those words and being able to be a part of history in so many facets of music -- whether it's behind the scenes or in front don't matter -- I think all that to me is more than enough.

At this point, if I do get the flowers -- and of course, everybody wants that s--t -- I can't lose focus of being grateful for everything that I've been able to get and accomplish. I think that's a new thing. I used to be so ambitious when it came to that. "Underrated. Man, I need people to recognize." Now I'm like, "You know what, man? God recognizes." He provided for me, my family and helps support dozens of other families. How can I ever pretend that that is not ever enough.

It's been three years since Immigrant, what can fans expect from you this upcoming album?

Honestly man, it's a celebration of me coming back and being able to do this. It was times during these last couple of years that I stopped believing that I would ever get the chance to be Belly, the rapper, the artist ever again. I just didn't have the confidence or the passion. I feel like now being able to do it like this and have an album of this caliber, sh-t man, it feels good. I think the celebration is what I want people to look forward to. To me, I think that's going to be the most important part. I got a gang of people on there. I'm not going to say who's on there just yet.

What reawakened that creativity? 

The songwriting side helped me a lot.

Writing on After Hours?

Yeah, that was the only thing I wrote on during my hiatus besides trying to work on my s--t. Abel would be like, "Fly out here. Let's work." I think that really inspired and reinvigorated something inside of me, like, "Yo. I do love this s--t, man." I love making this s--t. I love the poetry behind music. That's my favorite part of it. I can't ever walk away from that. I feel like the break I took was necessary, but me coming back now is just as necessary.