If there were to be a film made about Ryan Trey’s life, he’d want the opening scene to take viewers through a long, beautiful drive through his home city of St. Louis. Between its glittering city lights and serene landscapes, it would be easy to fool someone with the façade. Then, he would want to delve into what’s really going on.
“It’s really not all as it seems — it’s almost like a mask,” he tells Billboard. “The way it looks is completely different from what’s actually going on. The things that are happening, the violence, and the things people go through personally [that] if the movie were to keep going, it would turn into an action movie.”
By the time Trey reached his early twenties, the R&B/hip-hop artist had already racked up millions of streams, couch-hopped for months in Los Angeles, was featured in BAPE and Reebok’s new Club C and Instapump Fury collaboration campaign, and grabbed a rare co-sign from Bryson Tiller. If there’s one thing Trey has remained throughout all of these chapters, it’s self-aware — particularly of the numbness that’s creeping up on him with his increasing fame, and the way the hurt from his past is affecting his current actions.
He’s chronicling these life lessons for his listeners on his recent project, A 64 East Saga. The title is a reference to all of his late-night drives on I-64, where a majority of his breakups, phone calls-turned-fights and anticipation before wild nights with his crew took place. After some time, he started to prefer the silence of these drives.
“It clicked for me later on that you should embrace being alone, because it’s only temporary,” he says. “There will come a time where everyone is going to want to be around me doing what I want to do, wear what I’m wearing, sing what I’m singing. Let me embrace this loneliness right now, because it’s not going to last.”
This month, Trey will kick off his A 64 East Saga Tour, as he takes the stage in Los Angeles on Jan. 20 and New York City on Jan. 25. He recently sat down with Billboard to discuss the meaning behind A 64 East Saga, growing pains, his progression as an artist and more.
A 64 East Saga is a clear reference to a highway. What’s the significance behind this specific route and the value it holds in your journey?
It’s the main highway that you take, and it goes all the way from Memphis to Chicago. Actually, it probably goes even further than I even know, because I was in Virginia for an HBCU tour recently, and we saw 64 East there. The heart of it runs straight through the middle of St. Louis. Anywhere you need to go, no matter what age, no matter what you’re doing, you have to take that highway.
All the experiences I’m trying to get off my chest on this project came from things that I did in that city that involved me having to take that road. Whether it was going to see different girls, them blasting me on the phone, me crying on the highway, me going to see my guys, parties, all of that, everybody knows I wanted to pay homage to my city before I did anything else in my career.
Although my fans love the project, it was really about paying homage to the people I know at home — people who know exactly what that highway means and the significance behind it.
It’s been over three years since you released your last project, august. What would you say is the biggest difference you see in yourself since then?
The innocence is gone. I remember writing august during my first big breakup. We were together for five years and she was my best friend. It was the first time I experienced someone betraying me like that, so it was more about me asking, “Why?” Now, being in the game and building my own confidence, being around my guy Bryson Tiller and seeing a lot of different types of people, it really exposed me to sinning and toxicity.
I feel like it helped me and hurt me because it made me numb to certain things. At the same time, I also kind of miss being that kid who thought everything could be perfect. I approach things with that numb type of perspective now. I really don’t think twice about some decisions and I’m just living. Kind of sad when you think about it, but at the same time, it’s what made 64.
What’s the verse or song on A 64 East Saga that most accurately portrays your message?
“64 Interlude,” because it comes from a real story where I was at a party and I only went because I needed to blow off some steam after getting into it with my girl. Her friends saw me there and I had to come up with the master escape plan. That’s the story of my life, and a lot of artists who are trying to balance who they’re becoming and maintain a relationship. That whole record, there’s certain lines in there where it sums up me still trying to portray that innocence that’s not there anymore to someone I’m doing wrong.
There were times where I’d be caught in the act and I’m still being manipulative afterwards. It’s weird now, because I’m almost becoming the person who hurt me on august. Does that even make sense?
It does make sense. You know how they say, “hurt people will hurt people”?
Exactly, and I don’t like that about myself. In the moment, I don’t realize it and then I feel bad afterwards and that verse really portrayed that. Even though I did something that I wasn’t supposed to do, I still tried to flip it on you. That was the best verse on the project because it was so real.
When I heard the opening of that song, the “This what happen when I…” part, it immediately reminded me of Bryson Tiller’s infamous intro lyrics on “Exchange.” Was that intentional?
I didn’t intentionally mean for that to sound that similar, but if that’s the record where I pay homage to Bryson, then that’s great, honestly. Bryson is someone who really opened a lot of doors for me. I don’t ever mind the constant comparisons, because it’s just human nature to compare artists to the closest similar thing to them at first.
For example, I love Don Toliver, but it took me this most recent project he just dropped for me to completely separate him from Travis Scott. It’s just human nature. So I’m never bothered by the comparisons because even I do it as a fan.
Tiller really opened the doors for vulnerability. He says things that people were thinking but didn’t really want to say. He told me this quote one day: “Good artists take, great artists steal.” Good artists try to take and copy the legends and recreate what they’ve already done. I think the best artists know how to just get inspiration, like a painter or a basketball player, and apply it to yourself.
You’ve mentioned before that you “prefer loneliness.” Between that and naming your project after your late-night drives, I’m getting the feeling that this might be an important theme in your life right now.
That’s really what 64 is, in summary. It’s been a long time since there’s been a project out that I can solely ride at night to. I said it in one of my trailers that when you’re alone in the car at night, that’s when you’re the most vulnerable. I know everyone has been through that. Being alone and being in your feels. All the emotions are on display when you’re by yourself.
64 was for making a sound for my generation that you could really tap into that specific vibe to. Everything is super lit right now and I love it, but I also wanted to give the other side of the spectrum of being alone. When I was writing 64, I would be going out of my way to see people and do things that weren’t really in my element at the time, because I just didn’t want to be lonely.
Have there been any other growing pains that have come as a part of this journey?
It’s a lot of new “cousins” I’ve gotten recently. I remember back in 2017, before I met my manager and before I met anybody in the industry, we were couch-hopping. At the time, there was nobody around to give me a place to stay or eat. We were sleeping in cars at one point. Now, I have so many “cousins” in Los Angeles who hit me up that I didn’t know about. That’s not really family to me.
Another growing pain is going through the “underrated” phase. I’m just as good as, if not better than, my peers. That work ethic that I have to have to prove that. I see a lot of tweets that are like, “Ryan Trey is so underrated.” I remember seeing that before for some of my favorite big artists today. The pride in me and competitiveness in me is like, “Wow, I can’t wait.” For now, I’m just keeping my head down and working, because I know it will come in due time.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far?
Seeing my fans telling me that I really executed on this recent project. We were going to drop it last year, but with the pandemic, we didn’t think it was the best idea to drop new music while nobody was outside. We waited a year to drop it and to get reactions like, “You did exactly what you had to do,” or “This is exactly what we needed.” That’s the most fulfilling feeling.