Armani Caesar admits in hindsight that 2020 was an odd time to drop off a debut album.
By the time The Liz arrived in September of that year, she was already a buzzing lyrical talent, having been celebrated for penning one of the year’s best verses. But the pandemic was in full swing, leaving her unable to announce her arrival through any of the traditional routes. All of her interviews were conducted via Zoom, and she couldn’t appear on Sway in the Morning or the L.A. Leakers to showcase her freestyling. Then two days before the project was set to drop, Griselda’s DJ Shay passed away, and Caesar decided to delay the album a month out of respect.
Despite these hurdles, The Liz arrived with a good deal of fanfare behind it. Griselda’s first lady easily embraced the gritty disorienting soundscapes of her label’s founding triad, but tracks like “Yum Yum” and “Drill a RaMa” tiptoed into trap territory more frequented by Megan Thee Stallion or 21 Savage. These stylistic changes were intentional, as the album remained one of the only last avenues at the time for Caesar to showcase her talent.
“When I dropped The Liz, everything was shut down and I couldn’t do s–t,” Caesar says. “I had to show and prove any way I could. Everybody looked at me when I signed and expected me to fail, so I had to show and prove that I wanna put on the girls from Buffalo, and that I can really hold my own with these guys.”
Armani Caesar explains this while dining at a dimly lit restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. In a way, it feels like she’s making up for lost time. She’s celebrating the release of her next album, The Liz 2, in the way she wanted to celebrate its predecessor: with a swanky album release party surrounded by friends and colleagues, sipping $12,000 Remy Martin out of a $675 crystal glass.
“On ‘Queen City’ it starts out, ‘this year I’m on the same s–t but way bigger,” Caesar said. “That’s real. My life has literally been a movie, and every song on this record is about something that happened within the time frame I was making it. I didn’t have to pull from anything.”
The Liz 2, which dropped Friday (Oct. 21), is an even bolder record than its predecessor. Caesar dabbles in party tracks and sings on multiple songs, with tracks like “Snowfall” nosediving into R&B. Singing is a tool Caesar kept in her back pocket for a while now, (In 2018 she toyed with melodic hooks on Pretty Girls Get Played Too) but never has her crooning felt so front and center to her work.
“She’s commercial,” says Westside Gunn, who serves as executive producer on The Liz 2. “We wanna show Griselda fans that she can do everything, because a lot of people were like: ‘Oh you’re just signing her for the way she looks.’ We wanted to show them we signed her because she’s dope.”
Griselda supporters are ferociously loyal to the group’s signature boom-bap sound — but Armani Caesar seems to shrug off any worry that fans wouldn’t appreciate a musical change from the first lady.
“I look at this –t like Grand Theft Auto,” she says. “If a motherf–ker walk past you and call you a b–ch or punch you in the face — OK well, if somebody punch you in the face, that’s different — but essentially, if somebody is saying something rude to you, who cares? Can’t nobody tell me that I’m a bad artist. I’m not perfect, but at the end of the day I’m very much me and I stand on that.”
Armani Caesar met Westside and the other Griselda family members when she was just a teenager. A verse she casually wrote in the lobby of Buffalo’s Buff City Studios had caught the attention of Benny The Butcher and Conway the Machine, who quickly brought her into the Buff City fold. Westside Gunn was in the midst of a rapping hiatus at the time, but he and Caesar formed a deep bond. She ultimately left Buffalo to attend North Carolina Central University, but when Griselda broke out, she was Gunn’s first phone call.
“They taught me the game,” Caesar said. “A lot of times women get in these relationships with men with money and they expect to be kept — and for me, all of the men with money I’ve been around, they’ve taught me how to have my own. You can’t fall to pieces ’cause there ain’t someone around to take care of you, you gotta be able to still hold it down.”
Below, Griselda’s first lady speaks to Billboard about The Liz 2, navigating fame as a woman in Hip Hop, and more.
You’ve had such a steady rise within Griselda despite everything. Where did you learn how to navigate the industry so well?
I’m a person that always is learning, and always very intentional about what I feed my ears and my eyes — because I feel that’s what propels you and turns you into the person you are, and I always knew that I wanted to be successful. But I also know with all of the s–t going on in the world right now, it’s very easy to be brought down by anxiety and depression, so I wanted a different perspective. I got into reading a lot.
What’s a memorable lesson you learned from something you’ve read?
The book The Four Agreements. It’s based around the No. 1 rule: Don’t take anything personally. Nine times out of ten a person doing something to you don’t have nothing to do with you. A person can come up and punch you in the face right now, and nine times out of ten that don’t have nothing to do with you. That’s something within that person that is saying I don’t like you because my life is f–ked up. I look at everything like that.
You’ve had a few comments in past interviews where you said you really pride yourself on being a child of the internet and knowing how to utilize the internet — but of course rappers are trolled heavily online too. How do you utilize what you’ve learned when it comes to your online presence?
I learned how to log off. For whatever reason these motherf–kers think they don’t have the power to press that button to turn that s–t off, and you have to pay attention to the source. If these are motherf–kers that actually know music talking about this, that actually have studied or have an unbiased opinion, then I pay attention to that. It goes back to sales too.
I was a marketing major in college and the No. 1 rule in that s–t is that everybody ain’t gonna be your customer. Nobody has 100% of the audience, not even Amazon. With that being said, I don’t expect everybody to like my s–t. Going in knowing that I have a lane and a market, there is so much freedom in that, because now I’m not trying to make music for everybody. If you go in with a clothing line trying to sell to everybody, then you’re not gonna have nobody. Crayola been selling colored pencils, crayons and f–king markers for years now, and thats it. They didn’t say, “OK, we wanna sell shoes.”
On “Survival of the Littest” you say “streets taught me everything a college class didn’t,” but it sounds like college taught you a good deal.
It taught me a lot. You can have all the book smarts in the world, but the streets will tell you how to apply it. The streets is practical learning. You actually have to go out and experience certain s–t. That’s like a person telling you if you touch the stove it’s gonna be hot — but you still gonna wanna touch it, and you may even f–k around and set some s–t on fire. You have to know when to apply that knowledge, and the streets is what taught me how to apply it. Especially when it came to hustling, but I didn’t know about marketing, per se. So the know-how that comes with marketing, that’s what comes from college.
“Catch flight not feelings” is a key mantra you rap throughout The Liz 2. Why does that phrase apply to you so heavily right now?
Because! You gotta stay out your feelings cause there’s no money in it. You gotta stay focused and I’m on the move. I’m making moves. I’m not about to be sitting at home over them n—as. There’s money out here, and the men are gonna come. They’re gonna be there. These opportunities might not be.
You also sing a lot on this record.
Yep! And the next project is gonna have even more singing. I might even just do an EP of just singing, because I’m really trying to work on it.
Westside Gunn described your overall vibe as “commercial,” do you agree with that assessment?
He always said I was gonna be the wildcard. The one that would be able to bridge the gap. I even got Kodak Black on my album, and that’s an artist that’s completely different from anything Griselda has ever done.
You spend a lot of time on The Liz 2 talking about the men that have scorned you, but you’ve also spoken highly of being surrounded by men. Truthfully, what role have men played in the rise of Armani Caesar?
The good part is that I’m mostly around men. I know how to get along with them, I know how to mob with them, I get along with them easier than I do with females, and they just taught me the game. Then I think the bad side is getting broken when s–t don’t work out. Instead of falling to pieces when relationships don’t happen, or when I get let down I go into beast mode.
What do you mean?
That’s one of the things that’s helped me write my records. Like ‘Countdown’ was one of those records where it was like, ‘I’m talking about putting a bomb in a n—a’s bed!’ But then it turned out to be a song ironically that most n—as liked. So weird. Either way, it’s about being an equal. You don’t get any slack just because you’re a woman. If anything, that’s your superpower, because you can look how you do and still make moves and hustle and go hard in this game and win.
How do you feel navigating this fame as a woman rapper?
With me, I hate being put in a box. Being a woman, I have ‘Thot S–t’ moments, I have moments where I’m on some “U.N.I.T.Y.” s–t, I’m on some gangster s–t… so with me I wanna be all of those things depending on the time of day. I just think as women there needs to be more of a diversification between, you know, you can make club music, you can have fun, but you still need to taken seriously and be able to talk about real issues.
Like on [Liz 2], I’m talking about, ‘Depression almost killed me, I wish I had a different life,’ — like, that’s a real moment. Everything wasn’t always good for me. I feel like people need to know that you’re human and that you have those bad moments and can still be this. That’s where the motivation comes in. Like if a person comes up to you and they’re just successful, that’s not motivation, that turns into envy. For a lot of the women on top, like Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, once you reach a certain point, people start to hate you because they just see you as untouchable. The perception is: we know everything about you, we know your story, we know you’re rich.
Has navigating fame as a woman in rap gotten any easier in your opinion?
It’s harder cause there’s always new levels to this s—t. At first people don’t really pay attention, then they say you’re not famous enough, then they say ok you’re famous so now we’re gonna pit you against this bigger artist. Like, “D–n, why can’t I just be me? Why do I have to be in competition with anybody?” They compare you to the first person they think of, and I don’t understand that shit. Then women fall for it but you gotta understand that men don’t be going through that shit, at least not as much. Men work with each other, do whole projects with each other. I want a female Watch the Throne!