On a balmy, autumn day in October, Belly sauntered into Ju Lan Club, a quaint, modern Chinese restaurant adorned with dark, rustic wood walls and dim lights, nestled on a relatively quiet block in the Flatiron district of New York City. It’s one of his “favorite” restaurants, an under-the-radar eatery that allows the Palestinian rapper to unwind and one he frequents each time he visits The Big Apple.
As he takes his seat at the table, the restaurant servers storm into the room, one after the other, and lay out Belly’s favorite appetizers in front of him — crispy rock shrimp tempura, lobster rolls, fried rice. The well-mannered MC graciously thanks the servers and reaches for the rock shrimp and details what’s left of his brief NYC itinerary.
He’s currently in New York on a short break from his stint on close friend and frequent collaborator The Weeknd’s Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour to promote his newest effort Mumble Rap. While the phrase has seen a surge in usage as an artist descriptor in recent years, Belly’s not the first rapper – or the second, or even the 20th – that immediately comes to mind. Rather than join in the rancor stemming from the old school vs. new school rap divide, Belly says he often finds himself defending “mumble rappers” and on his newest project, he’s giving the term a whole new meaning.
“I felt like the term was so disrespectful, because I love everything that the young generation is doing right now. I think they’re doing incredible things from music and culture to dress code. Everything is coming from their generation, so for us to downplay [them] and call them mumble rappers is like kind of fucking wack to me,” he tells Billboard. “Rap is supposed to change. It’s supposed to do new things. And that was my way of taking the word back.”
Below, Belly discusses the therapeutic writing process for Mumble Rap, being affected “every day” by Pres. Trump’s travel ban, and how JAY-Z inspires him to write his best work.
Billboard: So you’re releasing Mumble Rap as a cassette tape. How’d you come up with that idea?
Belly: I think the sound, the feeling — it reminded me of an era. It was reminiscent to some shit I grew up on. And so I felt like it’d be dope to have a cassette tape and music that matched it really well.
Was the title of your project a subtle shot to today’s “mumble rappers?”
For me, I do all kinds of music. A lot of people don’t know me for my rap shit. A lot of people know me for my more melodic, more radio [records.] I did a couple of freestyles to allow people to see like, “Oh shit, he can rap!” One thing that bothered me when that happened, people would start asking me questions like, “Well, what about these mumble rappers out there?” and I’m like, “Mumble what?”
[Eventually] I was like, “You know, the best way to take the power away from this word, that these ‘rap purists’ are trying to coin, is to create an amazing rap project where I actually rap my ass off and call it Mumble Rap and every time you think of “mumble rap,” you think of this amazing rap project that came out and the amazing things the younger generation is doing.
A lot of people are too pure with this [rap] shit… When you look at hip-hop, we’ve always had guys that could really rap, and guys that know how to get by with just making dope music, and don’t have to necessarily know how to rap. We’ve had guys that were just bigger characters than their music, so their characters carried their music — we’ve had that since back in the day.
But, every single era pretends like, “Oh that never happened before, this is brand new.” All this shit is recycling itself, so I could never look at rap and be like, “They’re wack for doing this.” I may not like all the music, but if your music can move the people, you’re doing something.
How’d you piece the whole project together?
I was working on my official album and I finished it rather fast and I had all the singles I wanted to put out. Like Abel [The Weeknd] came through and gave me something so monstrous, Pharrell [Williams] gave me something that was legendary, [DJ] Mustard gave me something crazy — and I felt like I had a real, bright album that had hits on it and I was covered.
I needed to make sure that I put something out that first of all can express those dark moments that I felt — and second of all, I wanted to put something out to showcase me rapping, and I think [Mumble Rap] was the best way to do it. Technically, I finished in two sessions. Boi-1da came in and started playing me beats. Everything me and Boi-1da did was done in two sessions, which is about seven or eight joints.
What’s the chemistry like between you and Boi-1da in the studio?
I’ve known him for years. It’s like working with my brother. He’s been involved in at least every project I’ve done.
What type of environment do you prefer to record in?
It’s not systematic for me. I’ll just write with no music, no nothing and then try to apply it to music and sometimes, a beat will speak to me. Like I’ll almost hear what it wants me to say on it. With Boi-1da, he was playing me the joints and I was conceptualizing them in my head as he was playing them and writing them down and then by the time I had picked out what I wanted, I kind of knew where to go with everything. I wrote it in one session and recorded it in the next.
What’s your songwriting philosophy?
It’s like cooking – some things you slow cook, and some things you flash fry.
Why lead with “Lullaby” as the first single off the project?
It’s the most introspective record on there. I feel like as much as there’s a little pocket of people who do know me, there’s a whole bigger pocket that doesn’t and I want them to know me and understand who I am for real before making pre-judgments.
What experiences inspired that record?
Pain, and a lot of shit I don’t talk to people about. I don’t have a significant other to sit down and discuss shit [with]. I don’t really talk to my homies about shit — it’s just me. I talk through the music. So [“Lullaby”] for me was therapy. It was necessary.
It’s hard for me to be open with anybody else. I can say that I lost relationships over that. I’ll be fucked up for three or four days, and the person I’m with just doesn’t understand why, and I’ll never be like, “Oh, this is how I feel.” I just keep to myself until I figure it out in my head. For me, a lot of the women who have been in my life have always wanted me to be more open and tell them my problems, but it’s just not how I am.
Back when you released Inzombia in 2016, you said that at that time, you were in the “darkest place I’ve known.” How does Inzombia’s Belly compare to Mumble Rap’s Belly and your current headspace?
They’re still in similar places. I think Inzombia was actually me being in the dark place and speaking from an inside perspective. A lot of what’s on Mumble Rap is me getting out of that place and talking about what happened when I was actually in that place. Mumble Rap is basically the outside looking in perspective of the same scenario.
Talk a little bit about your journey from “Immigration to the Trap.” What was it like growing up in Canada after you migrated there?
It was a culture shock. It was the first time I saw a microwave, but yeah, it was a culture shock. Canada is a great place, man — much more understanding, I think, than if we would’ve come here. With my family, my father wanted to come here and wanted something bigger for us, and more opportunities for us. A lot of other people don’t have that choice. They have to leave their countries — and because of that, they have to come here and end up in dire situations and do shit to get themselves out of those situations.
So, it’s like — you took yourself out of a bad situation to put yourself in another bad situation, most of the time for your kids or for something bigger than yourself. And I felt like nobody has ever really highlighted that. A lot of men that come over here and leave their whole lives behind aren’t doing it for themselves nor by choice, they’re doing it for the children. A lot of people are forced into these situations, immigration straight to the trap. It’s not like they come [from] immigration to the mansion.
It’s immigration to the grind, and to come up out of that is special, and I know there’s a lot of people other than me who had to do that so again, I had to highlight it and let people know that there’s somebody just like you. I had to let the young immigrants know that this is possible. Fuck what this donkey that we have for a president is telling you. As immigrants in this country, you have opportunities. This country was built by immigrants.
Speaking of the president, how has the uproar surrounding Trump’s immigration ban affected you personally?
It affects me every day. Only my immediate family lives over here. My uncle lives in L.A., my mom, dad and sister all live back home now. My sister lives in Egypt, and my parents live in Jordan — so that means that anybody else from my family can’t come here. That, to me, is heartbreaking. If I want to celebrate something, if I want to get married and wanted to bring my extended family, I can’t even do it because they come from places that are “terrorist” hubs or whatever words they want to use. But when a terrorist shoots up a crowd and he’s not Arabian, he’s a gunman or “lone wolf.”
It’s just racist. It’s racism, classism, it’s so many things in one — and it’s a regime now that he’s trying to push that’s so reminiscent of a dictatorship, as opposed to a presidency. There’s no class or grace in what he does.
There’s this haunting, ominous chanting in the beginning of “Mumble Rap” that makes it seem as if we’re listening to a death scene in a horror film.
Man, DannyBoyStyles played the first two seconds of that and I was like, “What is that? I need that.” It was villainous to me, so I did my villain vibe on it.
The project has its somber moments, but it also has a few celebratory tracks on it like “Make a Toast” where you go from being “stuck between a rock and a hard place” to celebrating performing at the Barclays Center. How were you able to overcome those hardships to be able to enjoy your success and accomplishments?
Because when you make it through those somber times and heartbreaks, you celebrate. I think I finally cracked the code. For a long time, the way I felt was damaging me instead of making me stronger. I gained weight. I ballooned up to about 300 pounds, I was depressed, and the only reason why I made music was because writing was an outlet for me. I hated going out. I couldn’t fit in any clothes and I’m a fashion guy. That shit killed me.
I was in a deep depression. I was in a dark hole. I walked away from being an artist, because I allowed the things that were weighing me down to drown me and then once you let go of that shit, you flow – I think that’s what happened to me. My mentality changed and I’m blessed for that because there were times when I almost died because of how bad my brain was. When I did drugs… that part of you that’s like, “I might die if I don’t stop,” wasn’t there for me. I was like, “Fuck it.”
I woke up on bathroom floors. My face was so purple because I’ve been laying there for so long. And when that shit started happening to me, I was like, “If I don’t start using this to empower me, it’s going to kill me.” Everything changed from that day.
You’ve already received the JAY-Z stamp of approval after inking a deal with Roc Nation in 2015, and he recently shouted you out in an interview. How does it feel to have JAY-Z as a fan of your work?
It’s finally cool now, because for the first few times I was around Hov, I was a fucking bumbling idiot. The first time I met him, I actually told him, “Yo, don’t expect me to be smooth around you.” That was my idol growing up, and until now, he’s still the epitome of what a career should look like. I think that, to me, was a huge confidence booster. When I write rhymes, I pretend that he’s across the table ready to grade me, and it always kept me sharper.
When I met him and he spits back certain bars to me, I’m like, “I knew if I took that approach, it’ll work out for me.” Just having him be the imaginary professor that I never had.
What’d you think of 4:44?
It was incredible. His ability to challenge the status quo is amazing to me — you’re supposed to stir the pot. Hov didn’t do that to fill a void, in my opinion — he did that to spark something. He did that to spark the person who is supposed to fill that void. That’s a special project, and if you don’t take it as such, then that’s your opinion. Maybe we’re wired differently, but I feel like you’re probably smoking crack if you don’t think that’s a good project.
Inzombia was stacked with features from Young Thug, Future and Ty Dola $ign. Why’d you only feature Pusha T on the entire Mumble Rap tape?
Pusha wasn’t even supposed to be on it – it was supposed to be no features – but when I did “Alcantara,” I kept hearing the third verse was open. So I did the first two verses and I was planning on doing a third, so I just left it open to do a different vibe and not be in the same pocket as the first night. Every time it started, I kept doing “Yuuugh” and I started doing Pusha verses and I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” So it was a sign like, “Maybe I need to get Pusha on this song.” But that’s the only song I really heard somebody else on.
Now it seems you were inspired by the film The Wolf of Wall Street for the video “P.O.P.” What was the initial concept for the video?
Honestly, I owe [Director] X all the credit. Really with “P.O.P.,” my original concept was just something abstract. I didn’t want to have any storylines. I wanted women portrayed in an empowering way, using symbolism ,instead of the other way. X took that tiny spark and made a fucking forest fire. I’m really controlling with my visuals — people know my visuals are different from what other people shoot — but with him, it was really easy to let it go, and let him do this thing. He came through, and it’s probably one of my favorite visuals.
Was the Blac Chyna cameo intentional?
Nah, me and Blac Chyna have known each other for a long time, and the thing is, me and Drake had a song out like 10 years ago, and she’s been a fan since then. When she first heard “P.O.P.,” she was like, “Nah, I gotta be in this video.” Everybody was like, “Oh you taking shots?” But I made that song when they were still together. I don’t look at it like I took shots at anybody, I look at it like I gave y’all a scenario about the power of pussy, and I showed you what it could look like. No shots though. Shout out to Rob!
Do you feel like you’re slept on?
That’s another thing I’m trying to overcome now, because I’ve been blessed to be around so many great people. They’re the ones who are always like, “You know how great you’re doing, right? Don’t look at someone else and think, ‘Why are they there and I’m here.’ You know how amazing you’re doing right?”
When I hear that from guys I’ve looked up to my whole life, it reminds me… slept on is always a good thing to feel, because it makes you go harder. Sometimes, we focus so much on the facts that we don’t realize how much people love us and support us and uplift us. And I think now that’s where my focus is going to.