When the calendar reaches December, many of us take stock of the year gone by: the W’s and L’s, the triumphs and tragedies, accomplishments and disappointments. For Ski Mask the Slump God, 2018 has delivered them all, in extreme measure.
There was Beware the Book of Eli, his third mixtape, released in May, which generated such memorable tracks as the kooky “DoIHaveTheSause?” and “Run”, but which left Ski nevertheless feeling disappointed, not reflecting “who I am as an artist.” There were the thrills of his own summer tour, Ski Meets World, which took him to European festivals and some of his biggest U.S. venues to date. And there was his selection as part of XXL’s coveted Freshman Class — arguably a year late, but who’s gonna quibble with that high honor?
And yet, in the middle of it all came one of the most devastating events he’s ever endured: the sudden, brutal murder of his childhood friend, trusted advisor and rap’s scorching new shooting star, XXXTentacion — a moment Ski Mask says will stay with him “always.”
Remarkably, in the wake of that horror, Ski has managed to end this emotional roller coaster year with his most fully-realized work to date, the debut full-length Stokeley, released Friday (Nov. 30) on Victor Victor Worldwide/Republic and titled after his own given first name — and that of his father, also a rapper. If Ski had already earned a place among next-gen hip-hop’s elite with 2016 and 2017 hits “Catch Me Outside,” “BabyWipe,” “Where’s the Blow” and “H2O”, Stokeley is a next-level achievement on which the artist seems to have found his voice more than ever. The rapid-fire lyrical dexterity and good-natured fun that have come to be his signature are still there — but so are other, more unexpected looks.
“I’m yelling, I’m rapping, I’m singing,” he tells Billboard at Republic Records’ midtown New York offices, on the eve of Stokeley’s release. “It’s fully me. It shows the variety of artists that I can be.” The set is undeniably eclectic: On the rapping front, his facility with rhymes and endless fluency with pop culture references has never been more obvious — Osama Bin Laden, Carmelo Anthony, Trix, Allstate and Pokémon all get mentions, along with Ski’s usual trove of cartoon references (including Stitch, Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nemo and Ned Flanders from The Simpsons).
Meanwhile, the good times are delivered on tracks like the bouncing “Foot Fungus,” “Adults Swim” and “Cat Piss,” on which his machine gun delivery contrasts with a cloudy guest appearance from Lil Yachty. Then there’s “Faucet Failure,” the album’s most unabashedly fun track, verses peppered with Ski’s signature “uh-huh” — which is just more evidence than ever of the writing the skills for which Ski Mask has been singled out among his peers, inviting repeated comparisons to “Golden Age” MCs like Busta Rhymes.
It’s the singing on Stokeley that may the biggest surprise. On breathy R&B jams “So High” and “Save Me, Pt. 2” (featuring Austin Lam), Ski Mask proves his raspy voice as adept at soulful melodies as it is at bar spitting. The melodic, bouncing, mid-tempo trap of “Far Gone” — maybe the set’s most of-the-moment sounding cut — alternates rapping and singing, and brings on Lil Baby for a verse. And the late-album “U and I” is a revelation: Ski singing the most sentimental lyrics he’s ever written, getting real about a relationship in a way that he admits “is not easy for me.”
And yes, the yelling: “Nuketown” serves up another staccato spray of verses along with a shouted chorus of “Cutthroat! Cutthroat!,” as well as an uncharacteristically scabrous Juice WRLD feature. “Reborn to Rebel” — a highlight and Ski’s favorite track on the album — gets political in a way the rapper never has previously, going after a government that turns a blind eye to injustice, over a wiry electronic riff. “I don’t care if you don’t care, we don’t,” it cries, recalling a latter-day Public Enemy or Death Grips, one of Ski’s favorite acts. And then there’s the volatile “La La”, inspired by thoughts of X — and not coincidentally produced by Ronny J, who also worked on the pair’s iconic, raging collab, “Take a Step Back.”
Many of XXXTentacion’s artist peers understandably paid tribute to the late rapper on their summer tours, but none did so as extensively as Ski Mask — his de facto brother, who he grew up with and discovered music with in South Florida. When I saw Ski Meets World at Queens, New York’s Knockdown Center in September, I was struck by the way that at least half the show was a tribute to young Jahseh Onfroy, who was killed only two and a half weeks before Ski’s tour commenced.
I tell Ski that the show was almost like watching the two of them as co-headliners. “Because he was there!” he replies. “Every time on that tour before I went on stage I swear to God, every time, I sat there and tried to go into meditation. And in my head, I would be like, ‘Jahseh, where are you? You’re here now, right?’ And I would just feel his energy. And then I knew I could do it. Like, every time before I go on stage, I’m nervous. But I have Jahseh there with me now. It’s crazy.”
As much as X’s death was a gut punch for Ski Mask, it was also a gut-check. “It’s gonna sound weird, but I’m gonna say that after Jah died, it woke me up to a lot of things,” he admits. “And one of those things was that I need to take my music seriously, and that I need to wake up.”
Never far from his mind is a conversation — argument, really, as all brothers have — that the two had on the day of their last performance together. It was May 13th at Rolling Loud in Miami, scarcely more than a month before X was killed. “He told me that my vision was blurred,” he recalls. “I don’t remember exactly the word he used, but he said basically that my vision was blurred, that my decision-making wasn’t what it used to be. And I was basically like — I argued with him. But he was trying to tell me about myself, and how I could do better for myself. And I wasn’t trying to take it like that, I was taking it as, ‘You’re just trying to show me that you’re better than me. I already know you’re better than me!’ That’s how I felt at the time. It wasn’t jealousy, it was just me wanting to be my own man, seeing how much Jahseh was his own man.”
After X died, though, his words to Ski rang true. “I seen that my decision-making was blurred,” he says. “I thought what I was doing at the time was cool and was working. But then after he died, I seen what he was saying. I was like, ‘Bruh…’ I was going down a bad path, my career was going down a path that, if I didn’t change it soon, it was gonna be seen in a certain way forever. I see that now. And that’s what he was basically trying to tell me. Literally, he said this: ‘There’s a cliff right there, and I’m telling you there’s a cliff, and you’re still gonna keep walking towards that cliff while I’m telling you it’s there.’ And what I said back to him was like, ‘Yeah that cliff could be there, but there could be a strong tree branch hanging off that cliff that I could grab onto after I walk off that cliff, that I could always…’ Just back and forth. Brotherly love.”
Was XXXTentacion’s death, then, a motivating factor for Ski Mask to do better, to create Stokeley and what follows it? “It’s so sad to say that though,” he says. “But you know what’s crazy? When he was alive, he was like, ‘You’re gonna surpass me. You can adapt to people more than me.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? Look at the music you make!”
He continues: “I’m gonna tell you right now, I feel like he knew he was gonna die. I feel like, on some spiritual shit, he fucked with some spiritual shit and he knew he was gonna die on some shit. So basically, when he died, it’s not like it told me to step up, because I already knew what I could be. But I just felt like now, I have him, with his hand on my shoulder whenever I need it. So it’s like, anytime that I feel like I need to jump an obstacle, he’s gonna help me jump those extra two inches. And every time I need to feel good about myself, he’s gonna put his energy and help me to see that, to see something good.”
Balance — in music, and in life — is important too, another lesson Ski learned from X. That topic comes up when our conversation turns to the currently-incarcerated Tekashi 6ix9ine, who Ski admires but believes “didn’t balance it.” “It doesn’t look good for Tekashi right now,” he concedes. “But one thing I will say is that when X talked to Tekashi, he took advice from X. And this is something that X taught me too, is to balance out the negativity. I’ve got to balance out the negativity. And that’s what Tekashi was trying to do. There’s always a ying-yang in life. With everybody. There’s evil in all of us. It’s just about how you balance out the evil and the good and having faith in yourself and how you carry yourself.”
As justifiably proud as he is of Stokeley, Ski sees the new project as just one step in an ongoing evolution, and a bridge to something beyond just rap. He hopes the mix of sounds will liberate him to, in the future, to do what he wants, and as X famously believed, make music without limits. “On the next album, you can really expect a lot of variety, maybe singing, yelling and rapping in one song,” he teases. “The new album has substance, but it doesn’t have enough. But now I can actually make the music I want to make, which is gonna be just…music. You’re gonna be, ‘This n—a’s not a rapper anymore!’ That’s what I really want, whereas you can never know what to expect what he’s gonna do next, because it will never sound the same.”
Ski can sometimes come across as his own toughest critic, but these days he operates with new belief in himself and a greater sense of purpose than even two months earlier, when we first spoke. His greatest source of inspiration continues to be his fallen friend.
“I just feel way more like I’ve taken charge of my situation,” he explains. “When I first met you, I was like, ‘Fuck! X is gone, and now I’ve got to do this thing.’ That’s how it was. But now I’m like standing up strong and like X is holding onto my shoulder, you feel me? All of these songs that I made for the album definitely were with the help of his energy. It doesn’t sound like his music, but I feel like in a way I can carry on his message. When you listen to X’s album, it’s an astral projection. He made you astral project. And I want to make theme-setting music, music that sets a theme without being cliché. I want to get to that. And I am.”
Below, he comments on some key tracks from Stokeley.
On the driving “Nuketown”, which Ski still refers to by its working title and hook line, “Cutthroat”:
It was called ‘Cutthroat! When I played it for you in September, it was. But when I put out the snippet of the song, people only heard five seconds. And they would be like, ‘Oh this is called “Cutthroat”’. But I didn’t want people to know anything. So when I dropped the track list, I changed the names so that people would be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I don’t want anybody to know what the song is until they click it. I also like to name songs things that have nothing to do with the song, but sets the theme for the song. So “Cutthroat” was changed to “Nuketown,” because Nuketown is a very famous Call Of Duty: Black Ops map for zombies. So “Nuketown” is basically — what do you think of? You think of an atomic bomb dropped on a town, zombies, nuclear mutant people. It’s just like anarchy, basically.
On the sentimental, ride-or-die “U and I”:
I like to just make flex music. So when I do make emotional music, it’s hard for me, because I feel like I’m cliché. But I guess cliché is the best thing sometimes, because it’s real. When you really put your real emotions into a song, people catch onto it more. It’s weird! It could be a good song, but if your real emotions are in it — like [Juice WRLD’s] “Lucid Dreams” — something that you’ve put your emotions into that day, people relate to it more.
It deals with a girl that I met before music, and that I’ve been talking to since then. Like, I would always look out for her because before music, I was homeless, and she let me sleep in her car. I mean, I could have always gone back to my parents’ house and apologized and been like, ‘I want to live under your rules.’ But I was 18, they wasn’t treating me fair, and I wanted to be my own man. And she was there for me. She had her own house, but she was sleeping in her car with me type of thing. So that song is about her. Right now, I’m single, she’s single, but we still talk. We’ll look out for each other forever.
On the crazy, good-time “Faucet Failure”:
It was one of the last songs done. It took me literally like ten minutes to make that song, which is the “Let’s make a deal, Rumpelstiltskin…” lyric. Yeah. Ten minutes! But there has to be the right energy. I walked in the studio, heard a beat, and I was like, “Hurry up, hurry up.” I was like, “Load it now, otherwise you’re not gonna catch this energy again.” You can’t replay energy. I made that song in ten minutes, man. Sometimes they come to me quick, sometimes it doesn’t. And I made a video for that song [with Lyrical Lemonade’s Cole Bennett]. It’s one of the best songs on there.
On the politically-charged “Reborn to Rebel”:
What I say on there is: “For us to survive/ We need to uprise/ Our people must sanitize/ The thought of demise of freedom/ Like Allstate, you’re in good hands with me though/ Taking our children they got us searchin’ like for Nemo.” Trump is taking little children away from their parents, locking them up! I don’t really get like political or emotional on a lot of things, but basically, I’m just sick and tired of fuckery in the world. That’s what that song was about.
It just doesn’t make sense to me that people would want their kids to live in a good world, and they want to live in a good world, but I just feel like negative energy and negative shit gets more attention than positive shit. And somehow people need to start making slow changes to try and change that. It’s not gonna change in a day, but it’s got to change. And the people who spoke about shit like this, like Martin Luther King, X, Tupac — about making small changes to really change the world — they died. People don’t like messages that everybody can understand and can make things better.