On paper, you would expect August Alsina to be happy, if not straight-up ecstatic. In 2014, the rising R&B star reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with debut album Testimony, toured with Usher and won best new artist at the BET Awards. One of his platinum-certified singles, the 2013 breakout hit “I Luv This Shit,” topped Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Mainstream Airplay chart for two weeks. Another, 2014’s “No Love,” which featured Nicki Minaj, has more than 100 million YouTube views. His sophomore LP, This Thing Called Life, comes out Dec. 11, led by the single “Why I Do It,” a duet with Lil Wayne in which Alsina boasts in a swaggering high tenor reminiscent of Chris Brown, “I’m eating so good, and I’m still not done/No I ain’t stoppin’ ’til I got it all.”
But today, sitting in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, Alsina, 23, wears grimness like body armor. It’s in his eyes, currently concealed behind dark sunglasses; in the gravelly words that he deadpans in his Louisiana accent; in the funereal ensemble — black bandana, black jeans, black jacket, black Jordans, crucifix necklace — he wears on a November afternoon. “I feel older than I really am,” Alsina says flatly. “It’s because of the cards I was dealt.”
In May, Alsina revealed that he is going blind. He describes how a doctor told him that he had a degenerative eye disease, and that it was steadily worsening. Initially he refused to believe it. “I was like, ‘This n–a tripping.’ I went to see a few other doctors, but that was it — I had to accept it,” he says. “It was a very humbling experience. You take that for granted, waking up and being able to see.” He points toward a woman in a booth 15 feet away. “I can see her,” he says, “but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what she looked like.”
On top of that, in 2014 he was hospitalized for seizures that he blames on exhaustion. “I’m a sickly man,” he says. “I know that all of that has got to be for a reason. All this crazy shit didn’t happen to me just to happen.”
There is a desperation to how Alsina sings — not out of yearning for the affections of a woman, but from a hard life. He makes conventional R&B in a sonic sense, but lyrically, he’s like a New Orleans narcocorrido. “I came up in the 504 where the block stay hot/And the hot boys all tote Glocks,” he sings on “Shoot or Die,” his remix of Justin Timberlake‘s “Suit & Tie.” “How I came up is deeply rooted into my music,” says Alsina. “Because I come from shit. I come from nothing.”
Alsina was raised in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb, and his childhood was not a happy one. Both his biological father and stepfather were addicted to crack, and the household his mother attempted to glue together was shredded by instability. One day there would be lights, a TV on the wall and furniture in the living room. The next day, they would be gone. The family moved to Houston in an attempt to escape the claw of drugs, but it didn’t help. “Of all my childhood memories, I don’t have any good ones,” says Alsina. “I block shit out. The shit just make you coldhearted, to be honest.”
When Alsina was a scrawny teen in an oversized baseball cap, he began uploading videos to YouTube in which he covered songs by Lyfe Jennings and Musiq Soulchild. His vocal talent was obvious, but reality interfered; the laptop was pawned off, and later on, at age 16, he was kicked out of the house by his mother. He returned to New Orleans and sold drugs for pocket change. “It’s like, ‘Man, this shit f—ed up my life, so I’ma f— up someone else’s life,’ ” he says. “That’s how you think when you’re ignorant to the situation.”
On a summer night in 2010, Alsina’s 24-year-old brother, Melvin LaBranch III, was found riddled with bullets on a street in eastern New Orleans; he died early the next morning. Alsina pulls back his right sleeve to display a tattoo showing his brother’s birthday, the date he was killed, police tape, a gun, a bullet turning into a musical note and an eyeball. (“For the people who saw it and never said nothing,” he explains.) He says the murder served as a wake-up call that convinced him to dedicate his life to music. “If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says. “I’d probably be dead. If it wasn’t somebody killing me, it’d probably be me killing myself.”
Building off the buzz from his YouTube videos, Alsina connected with Noontime Management and relocated to Atlanta in 2011. The following year, he signed with Def Jam Recordings through The-Dream‘s Radio Killa Records imprint.
Alsina’s personal woes continued despite his subsequent career successes. He had surgery in an attempt to correct his vision, but his sight is still deteriorating. “I went back to the doctor recently and it got worse,” he says. “I’ma keep squinting until God takes my vision completely.”
His family remains a source of turmoil, too. In late October, Alsina tweeted a screen capture of a text message from a cousin who suggested Alsina played a role in his brother’s murder. Earlier in November, his mother, with whom he is not on speaking terms, took to social media to criticize Alsina for airing the family’s dirty laundry. “The people that you think are supposed to be there for you and be happy for you — instead they want to tear you down,” he says. “They would rather kill you than see you live the life God has given you. I don’t trust a soul now. I used to think that I would fall in love one day — the chances are slim to none now.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Alsina’s art is autobiographical, and derives much of its potency from pain. Perhaps this is a form of public therapy, and This Thing Called Life represents another opportunity to exorcise the specters that follow him. “It sounds like a sob story, but it should actually be inspirational,” he says of his life. “We all battling different things. Me? I’m just able to channel that through my music.”
Listen to August Alsina and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.