“I want it to be the perfect album. I’m just putting the pieces together, that’s really all it is,” a relaxed Belly quips over the phone, regarding his upcoming highly anticipated Midnight Zone project. The first piece to the puzzle was Friday’s (March 23) release of the YG-assisted potential banger “4 Days,” which came to fruition after the immediate chemistry that developed from the first studio session between Belly and DJ Mustard.
The XO artist wouldn’t go as far as to say the album was done, but established that they “have a few joints” and are in the “decision process.” Belly guaranteed that the Midnight Zone project would see the light at some point in 2018, and confirmed appearances from The Weeknd, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, French Montana and NAV.
The 34-year-old is counting his blessings since making the move to Roc Nation in what he credits as “one of the best decisions” of his life. In recent weeks, photos of Belly and JAY-Z hard at work in the studio have gone viral. The Mumble Rap artist detailed how crucial Hov’s presence has been for his creative process going into his sophomore LP: “[JAY-Z] still works like he’s broke. I think that’s amazing. We’ve been in there late some nights. It’s dope having him there and being involved with my album. He’s taught me how to approach things differently and to take my words more seriously when I rap.”
When the subject of lifestyle changes impacting his art is brought up, the “Might Not” rapper insists that we may need to schedule another interview to properly dive into the topic. Belly says he knew things had to change when he woke up one morning in a daze on the floor of his NYC hotel room. “I guess I had passed out and fell on the floor. I was out cold for 16 hours,” he somberly explains. “I woke up and one whole side of my face was bruised. I just knew that something like that could happen, and you may never wake up from it. Everything changed for me after that day.”
Below, Billboard and Belly discuss learn more about Midnight Zone, JAY-Z’s impact in the studio, his friendship with Kevin Durant, why year-end lists don’t matter, Mumble Rap going under the radar, and get a behind-the-scenes look at the “4 Days” video.
Billboard: How did “4 Days” with YG and DJ Mustard come together and what is the title’s significance?
Belly: Me and DJ Mustard linked up, as we both respected each other’s art and wanted to work together. I went over to his studio, and the first time we worked together we created “4 Days.” I just kept hearing YG on it, and I wanted to throw him on there. The first mixtape I released — and what I would say my resurgence was — was titled Up For Days. I don’t sleep. I wanted to reincorporate that.
A lot of times I don’t really work with people based on a look. I work with people I know, and that I think would bring something to the music. Ultimately I think that’s the best way to go about it.
What made YG the right choice?
Since I moved to L.A., YG been showing me love and that’s been mutual. I felt like it had to be YG on there. I can’t hear a record and hear someone on there and be like, “Nah I’m not going to call them.” I reached out, and he did it right away with no hesitation. That’s why I like to work with guys that I know because there’s no industry shit. When you’re dealing with people you know, it’s easy — it’s like dealing with friends.
What was the creative process for the “4 Days” video?
We just wanted a visual depiction. We didn’t want to tell any stories or get into any craziness. I wanted to bring an abstract feeling to the song. Millicent really captured the beauty of the random moments, rather than try to detail everything and put it in the video. We shot it in L.A. with just some fly shit — high-fashion. It was mad fun too, we had a good time shooting. I stumbled off set by the time it was done.
When can fans expect Midnight Zone to release and what can you tell us about the album?
Right now, it’s slated to come out this year, 100 percent. I keep reopening shit and going back into it. I want it to be the perfect album. I’m just putting the pieces together, that’s really all it is. The Weeknd jumped on some shit I had that was so insane, I can’t wait for the people to hear that. Nav and I got a record. YG and Ty Dolla $ign are on there. I got my own family producing on it — The Animals, Ben Billions. DaHeala executive produced it. On the sonic side, it’s like a family affair.
The whole thing is special to me and it has a whole different feeling to me because I took care of it. I approached the situation with so much more care than I approach my mixtapes with and I’m meticulous. When I approach my mixtapes I’m very calculated. With this, this is my baby. This has to be everything I want it to be and more.
You have French Montana on there too?
French Montana is definitely on there. That’s my brother no matter what. I’ve probably known French for the longest in the industry — over 10 years. Me and French get in the studio and have a conversation and make a dope record based on the chemistry between brothers. I’m really glad I got a dope record with French. I got him rapping on my shit like old French Montana. I can’t wait. I was a fan before I was ever a friend, so it was dope to see him like, “Hold on let me put this pen in this paper and show you what’s up.” He killed it.
What about Pharrell?
Pharrell had produced a record for me fully and then he produced one and is featured on it. There are just some other things I want to figure out. I don’t like to put certain music some way for a look. I’d rather put it in the best home where it belongs. I feel like me and Pharrell are so similar in the creative sense. Whenever we get in the studio, it’s a good time and good chemistry. I like to re-approach the situation sometimes.
Being in the studio with him is like every five seconds being a learning experience. Even when I wasn’t working with him, he’d be in the same studio and pop up on me in my room. He’d give me three pieces of advice and just walk out before I even really knew him like that. I was like, “This guy is fucking dope.” It was amazing. Just popping up on the young dude saying, “Try this” or “This sounds dope.” Coming from Pharrell, that’s a huge confidence booster and he’s always dropping gems. That’s one of the people I look up to the most in this shit. His humility is incredible.
— BELLY (@reBELLYus) March 6, 2018
So the album is finished, but you’re still tweaking things as you go?
Yeah, we got a few joints done. It’s just about deciding now. We’re in the decision process.
What impact has signing with Roc nation had on the trajectory of your career?
It’s been incredible. I can’t tell you how blessed I feel to be a part of that family. It’s a family vibe. It doesn’t feel like I’m dealing with a big corporation and getting lost in the sauce. That was before I even had a personal relationship with Hov. The people in the building made me feel like family.
When I met JAY-Z and we started communicating, I just realized I was in the right place. The approach they take is artist-first. Having one of the most prolific artists of all-time at the helm definitely makes treating artists right a priority. I got the greatest fucking team behind me. Outside Roc Nation, my management has been rocking with me for over 20 years. They were very confident in the decision. It may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
What were those recent studio sessions with JAY-Z like?
Just to have the involvement of somebody I’ve idolized my whole life is amazing. A lot of the credit people give me on certain shit, I’m like, “[JAY-Z] taught me to do that.” I’ve been listening to him my whole life, but he’s taught me how to approach things differently and to take my words more seriously when I rap. It’s dope having him there and being involved with my album. [Him] having a hands-on approach with it is incredible. I think he’s trying to instill his greatness, and show me his perspective from an outsider’s approach. Sometimes you overthink shit. It’s the greatest blessing.
Is there one thing that stands out that he taught you and you have used going forward?
I can’t highlight one thing, but I’m going to say work ethic. [JAY-Z] still works like he’s broke. I think that’s amazing. We’ve been in there late some nights. He’s the epitome of what you want a career to look like. For him to be at the pinnacle and still take the time to come do sessions with young guys is a blessing and it shows a lot about his character, love, and passion.
What is your relationship with Kevin Durant?
When I first moved to L.A. and put out Up For Days, he was the first person to pull up on me at the studio. Shit was crazy. He came and listened to the whole mixtape before it came out. He told me when he went through his injury, Up for Days helped him get through it. It was overwhelming at that point. He’s somebody who’s always been involved, and a fan since I’ve moved out there. He’s a great dude shout out to [Lola Plaku] for connecting us.
What is the biggest impact your lifestyle changes have had on your art?
This is a real topic that might need its own interview. I think everything from the confidence I feel to even the air in my lungs just having more breath to breathe. I feel better. I think it translates to the music, which sounds better and life gets better because of that. I’ve been in some dark places, and one of my greatest accomplishments is bringing myself out of that. Music is what I love and that’s what I’m going to do for life. That’s how I breathe. It translates into the music, life, and friendships.
Was there a rock bottom point you reached that made you realize things have to change?
Yeah, I woke up on the floor of my bathroom in an NYC hotel room. I guess I had passed out and fell on the floor. I was out cold for 16 hours. I woke up and one whole side of my face was bruised. I just knew that something like that could happen and you may never wake up from it. Everything changed for me after that day. I started taking my physical health more seriously. In turn, it helped me out in every single way.
How did writing save your life?
I say writing saved my life because I’m not the one who opens up to people about personal shit. If you want to know personal shit, listen to my music. A lot of people that have that strength to be able to speak to people about their shit could usually resolve their shit much quicker than being in their own head about it. I’m in my own head about it until I write about it. It’s almost like I take the weight off my shoulders and put it on the paper. That’s the greatest relief I could feel.
Why don’t you mind giving away potential hits that you’ve penned?
Just because I made or helped make the music doesn’t mean I should be the vessel. Sometimes, the music goes way further with a different vessel. Sometimes, the music doesn’t match you. I just love to make music, but sometimes, I know I would never put out a particular song. When I’m in the studio, I’m not making Belly music, I’m making music. What ends up riding the Belly vessel will be that and then everything else will find a home.
You’ve voiced your opinion in the past against publications’ year-end lists. Why do you feel Mumble Rap went under the radar?
I’ll be honest with you bro, fuck all those lists, number one. For somebody that spends so much time on my craft, sometimes, it would be nice to be acknowledged. That’s really why I got mad. Outside of that, those lists really don’t mean shit to me. The power of those lists comes from the fact that some of us really sacrifice friendships and relationships in our life to do this shit. Don’t overlook me because you want to put the name you want on the list so you get more retweets and likes. Don’t do that. If you’re a music blogger, take a musical approach to shit and tell the truth.
Mumble Rap was the best rap project of last year. Nobody can shake that. How about this, we’ll hire a linguist and put it up against any rap project you want and we’ll see. Let’s let the facts speak. I’m a fucking student of the game. I’ve been a fan of rap albums my whole life. That was the first time in my life I felt that I put out something harder than every rap album that came out. That’s facts and nobody can deter that.
fuck every year end list that tried to write me out of history. lyrically, 2017 belonged to me. Mumble Rap was the hardest, most under appreciated body of work to come out this year. In my humblest opinion..
— BELLY (@reBELLYus) December 28, 2017
On “Make a Toast” you pay homage to some rap legends, what inspired you to do that?
I’m a student. What kind of dirtbag would I be if I didn’t pay homage to the guys that showed me the light? Being a young immigrant and coming to this side of the world, hip-hop to me was like finding a new color in the spectrum. That’s how hip-hop felt to me. I was young and absorbing everything from that era. That’s when Biggie Smalls and Snoop Dogg were out killing shit. Right after that, [JAY-Z], Big Pun, and Eminem. This was my whole life. It’s not even like I try to pay homage, it’s just going to come out in the music naturally because this is what really sharpened my swords.
I do this shit for the music, not for the [accolades] or none of that. I do it because I need to, this is how I breathe. If anyone had a misconception, I don’t care about none of that. I care about my fans and being able to come out here and do what I’m destined to do. I want to make sure I make music for the rest of my life, and I want to make sure my fans are happy with it.