When Ace Hood speaks about his return to music, he exudes an aura of positivity and unwavering energy. Rather than dwelling on the hindrances he’s faced over the past few years, the Port St. Lucie rapper is hitting the refresh button on his career with the release of his new mixtape Trust The Process, an “open letter” to his fans and the start of a new life after We The Best.
“I’m free from restraints, free from stigmas, free from the industry standards,” he tells Billboard. “I’m living out my purpose and living my life according to what inspires me and what moves me.”
Under the tutelage of DJ Khaled, Ace Hood (born Antoine McColister) spawned hits such as “Bugatti” — which peaked at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Hustle Hard” and “Body 2 Body.” As the then-burgeoning rapper gained mainstream traction, behind the scenes, he desired to step away from Khaled’s shadow to steer his own ship, ultimately causing a rift between the two.
With his newfound freedom, Hood unleashed his new mixtape Trust The Process on Monday (Aug. 21), the first installment in a three-part mixtape series. His latest project finds him uncovering the highs and lows of his hiatus over the 15-track effort. On the opening track, “To Whom It May Concern,” the rapper addresses his fan base and offers an apology for his absence while discussing his departure from the We The Best label roster.
Billboard caught up with Ace Hood, who further explained his now-settled feud with Khaled, the making of Trust The Process and what’s next for the newly-independent artist.
You haven’t dropped an album since 2013’s Trials and Tribulations. Why did you decide to drop this mixtape now?
I think we gotta rebuild. This is a whole new me, this is a more evolved Ace Hood. I didn’t want to just jump back in and give my fans an unexpected album. I’d rather get people excited about my projects so by the time I do give fans an album, they’re excited. I wanted to build up anticipation because I’m anticipating this as well and I think that everything takes planning and strategy. My projects are stories and there are steps like [on Trust The Process] I’m explaining where I am now and then it’s going lead to another story so that when the album gets here, you’ll have a full understanding. I let it all go for the first time and caught a vibe in the studio. I’m just interested in creating something with longevity.
Were you at all hesitant to head back into the studio after being away for so long?
Nah, I was actually excited because I set my intentions earlier on and really put my mind to it to make something special. I said I wouldn’t put too much pressure on it, I just want to be able to create in a very free space and just be as free as possible. As the project developed, we realized there’s a connection between each record, which made the project even more powerful.
When was the starting point of the project?
Around late May. [Foreign] Tech came with the instrumentals and we had an understanding of what we wanted to accomplish. I think there was an understanding that he had this new sound that he wanted to introduce to the world and he was excited about allowing me to be that guy to catapult it and I wanted to be the guy to catapult his sound. So we worked on it for a couple months and made sure each record flowed with the next record.
Describe your writing process.
I’m always trying to be present as possible. When I’m writing, I’m trying to think about what’s really happening to me. That’s why if you listen really closely, you can tell all my projects have a story. I don’t like having any outside voices. I sit there and think like what is it that you really want to say. I have these talking points. If I’m about to approach a record, like on “To Whom It May Concern,” my points were my label situation, my life, where you been, why was I away for so long, what happened between you and Khaled. So these talking points help me create my music. Anytime I go in the booth and as long as I meet those criteria, the record is going to be perfect.
How does the process differ when creating a mixtape versus creating an album?
A mixtape is more sporadic. I think that a mixtape could be something you just want to freestyle on, it’s you having fun as opposed to an album is structured; there’s the title of the project and you try to live within that bracket and an album takes a lot more work to me. I would approach an album differently than I would approach a mixtape because for a mixtape I’m going in there freehand like ‘Yo, play me a beat’ and for an album, I’m looking for a specific sound — it all has to connect. It’s all about the approach and that’s the main thing that separates the two. Back when I was coming up, albums consisted of real instrumentals created from scratch and mixtapes were just people freestyling and jacking for beats. But now times have changed so I don’t even call this a mixtape or an album, it’s a project for me.
You named your mixtape Trust The Process and the tracks that fall under the project are titled, “Play To Win”, “To Whom It May Concern”, “The Top”and “The Bottom.” Were these names intentional? What compelled you to title your project “Trust The Process?”
Yeah. I like simplicity, especially when it comes to titles, but I wanted it to be things that represented me and my process, as well. I’m in this game playing to win, I’m also “blessed,” so I wanted it to kind of be a story within the titles. That’s why I named it like that so even if records were different – I’m always trying to be creative with the titles – if the record talks about something I might pull one word from that actual record to consider it as the title.
What experiences inspired this mixtape?
Life issues. I was trying to figure out my own thing and how receptive people will be to my new energy and the new vibe. All that I was dealing with behind the scenes like my personal life, not being on the music scene and wanting to be on the scene, family, bills, trying to stay in a good headspace and not be stressed out, but I knew that everything will work out for the greater good.
Speaking of this new energy and new vibe, where does this calmness and positivity come from?
Life and these all these experiences. My spiritual practices, yoga, meditation, help me stay zen and remain calm. I’m just always trying to stay centered especially in a game where there are so many snakes and people who act like their on your side but they’re not really on your side. I had to understand that the glow is in me and the more centered I am, the more I’m able to identify who’s right for me and helps me to remain strong.
On “To Whom It May Concern,” you said “No more We The Best, but Khaled still my man/ Critics want the beef but I’m not feeding them.” What’s your relationship with Khaled like now? Why’d you feel the need to address the rift between you two?
Because it needed to be said. It was time to say something. The fans deserved that. I’ve been quiet long enough. Not just from the music scene, but in general. I’m not usually seen in the media and I’m not into the wildness, but it was important that I address that and I couldn’t come back and not address that. I chose to handle it with love. I could’ve been malicious, but I don’t think that energy generates anything positive.
We had some discrepancies earlier on when I made my decision to be a free artist about two and a half, maybe three years ago. I was doing my own thing and wanted to learn more about the industry, started asking a lot more questions and things became a little difficult and raised some eyebrows. Khaled and I had our issues, but I think the important part was that we were able to have a conversation, regardless of all the naysayers and all the noise happening on the outside.
We came to an understanding and we’re brothers. We laughed about it. It’s love. I’m a big believer in laws of attraction. Whatever you put out is what you’ll receive in return. If I bring you up and you decide to leave, I’m going to feel a way about it, but we were able to get through it and say you know what, I love you brother and I can’t wait to support you on your new journey.
Aside from your label woes, what else or who else were you addressing on the tracks like “Life After” or “Get To Me”?
It was really like if the shoe fits, wear it type of thing. I was mainly addressing my fans. I wanted to write an open letter to my fans, but in a way, sort of wrote a letter subconsciously to myself really. I wanted to be able to address certain things, be done with it and move forward. “Life After” was me explaining where I am and what’s happening in my life and how we were able to pull through, “Life After” We The Best.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent artist?
Funding is probably the larger thing because in order to do a lot of the things whether you’re trying to push a single to the radio, it takes a lot of money. As a businessman, you’re always told to never use your money and to set aside funding so you can live your life and can separate business from personal. Also, like you said, you get to steer your own ship. You don’t have any labels or anyone barking down your neck about what they think is best or creating a false image of me.
I get to make my s–t, look the way I want it to look and I get to walk my own path. I get to say “Nope, I don’t want to do that.” I’m the boss. If you work for a label, you work for those people and in your contract, you’re agreeing that since we’re funding you, you’re going to give us what we want in return. There are no restraints and that’s great about being independent.
Why do you think a lot more artists are going this route and becoming independent?
Independent artists are thriving now because the game has changed. Radio was so strong at one point – it still is – but not as strong as the streaming platforms. Nowadays, if I don’t have radio but I have millions of streams, I’m still popular and hot. There are underground artists selling out venues and you may not know them and might not hear them on the radio, but they’re winning. If I’m already independent and I’m selling out shows and earning streams, then all I have to do is keep going and then I’ll make more money and build more relationships and add more pieces to my puzzle.
What were you trying to achieve sonically with this mixtape?
I wanted people to feel it. Tech did a great job by putting emotions into his music like these crying sounds and other powerful sounds he was using. I loved that. It blended so well with my vocals and my passion. You can rap the lyrics all you want, but I really wanted the people to feel what it is that I’m saying, what went through, feel who I am, feel my process.
Which song would you say is the cornerstone of the entire project?
“Play To Win.”
Why that song?
Because I’m playing this game to win. At the end of the day, I think that explains my circumstances the most. I had my wins, I had my losses, but I got back up. That pretty much sums up my life. It’s spiritual, it’s who I am, it’s what I stand for, all that and more to me.
What song was the most challenging to write?
Probably “To Whom It May Concern” because I wanted it to inspire people and I wanted to make sure that I covered all basis with it. I want people to know you don’t have to live by the restraints of the others, of the industry. I ain’t no gimmick. I want the fans to be inspired.
After laying out everything on Trust The Process, where do you go from here?
On the next project, there’ll be straight bangers. We can go live life now. The more that I grow and evolve throughout life, my fans will get those experiences and that’s what’s so great about being a free artist, I’m allowed to grow and evolve.