It’s been nearly two years since Kendrick Lamar released his critically acclaimed album DAMN., which featured only three guest spots. Two of those were filled by Rihanna and U2; the third was by a then-unknown Zacari Pacaldo on “Love.” Zacari’s stellar vocal presence on the song put the young artist on the map as the video eclipsed 80 million views on YouTube.
Entering the inner circle of Top Dawg Entertainment is a difficult task, but Zacari is the latest artist to sign with the label, and the singer-songwriter from Bakersfield, Calif. has spent recent months hunkered down in the studio, fine-tuning his debut project.
Nearly two years to the day that Zacari broke into public consciousness comes his TDE debut with the Run Wild Run Free EP, which he crafted from his recent experiences in Alaska. From the wispy subtlety of the Lil Yachty-assisted “Young & Invincible” to the frosty echo of the title track, Zacari has turned into far more than a guest vocalist with this scintillating fusion of psychedelic R&B, alternative and trap.
Billboard hopped on the phone with TDE’s new star during his run through Austin for South By Southwest to discuss the EP, his infatuation with wolves and why there is no other presence from his label on his debut project.
What do you want people to get out of this EP?
I think the title track of the EP is a good example of what I’m trying to get out of it. I want people to feel like they are listening to something that is musically free, like they are having a breath of fresh air before they go back out into the real world.
How long had you been working on this EP? How many songs were recorded before you finally settled on these seven?
I’ve been working on this EP for almost 3 years now. I’ve recorded probably 200 songs.
Has the novelty of joining a lauded label like TDE worn off yet, or are you still in awe of everything that has happened over the past few years?
I’ve been in awe, but it’s a different feeling right now. It’s not really awe anymore. I feel charged up. It went from an excitement with what’s happening to more of a new focus on what’s to come. All the shit happening right now just pumps me up to go harder rather than just being caught up in this moment. I don’t know. I’m trying to soak it in and relax, but I’m just looking forward already.
Let’s talk about the artwork. Where did this idea come from?
This was a dream of mine. I’ve always loved wolves and they’ve been part of my life since I was younger. We shot the music video for “Midas Touch” in Paris and had wolves for the music video. The guy that owned the wolves had a whole animal farm and invited me to come back and meet his wolves, which was something he didn’t normally do. We went out to the countryside of France and this dude has a big estate with all these animals on it and he let me go into the wolf cage and meet all the wolves — the whole pack. The actual cover art photo was shot on an iPhone.
What’s with the infatuation with wolves?
The lone-wolf thing comes from a very specific encounter that I had with a wolf while working at the Katmai National Park in Alaska. I worked at this lodge that’s in the middle of nowhere. One day I had to get wood for the lodge, and I would normally see bears everywhere. But on this day, I saw an animal that I thought was a bear because it was so big. It ended up being a wolf. A lone wolf among the bears, which is odd.
The thing is, when you see lone wolves, they are skinny and they almost look sick because it’s harder for them to survive. But to see a lone wolf thrive like that on its own was the whole inspiration for this project. Just having that confidence and doing things on your own and figuring out by yourself. A loneliness, but not a dark side of loneliness, but the positive side of loneliness.
The musicality of this project feels like something that was built on the positive side of loneliness, where you have the freedom to be wild.
Exactly. It even relates to being in the wilderness with wolves. It’s like how the animals are. That’s the whole feeling I wanted to get of freedom in loneliness and freedom in trusting myself amongst the bears.
How come Lil Yachty was the only featured artist that made the cut in this album?
I had met Yachty at Coachella and he was just one of the cool artists that actually talked to me for a minute. He had asked for me to send him music that night and I did. Just a few weeks later he sent me the verse for the song that became “Young & Invincible.” I didn’t even have to ask him specifically for the verse. It just came together, and I’ll always fuck with him for that. He’s a humble artist that I can actually still talk to and text. It was very natural.
People are going to wonder why there isn’t a TDE presence on the album. Was it a conscious decision to not include any of your labelmates and establish yourself outside of the crew?
[Laughs] No, I tried to get verses from everyone. It’s just that everyone is very busy. But we have made a lot of music together and there have been times where we may make a cool song but it’s not anything that we want to put on our projects. When the song is right, you’ll hear it. I don’t want to just put out songs just because they have a Kendrick or ScHoolBoy Q verse on it. I want to make a specific, classic song with these guys. When I do make these songs with these artists, I want to make sure it’s really special and never forced.
Have you already started working on a full-length album?
Oh yeah. We’ve been thinking ahead and there are songs that didn’t make the EP because I’m saving them for the album. It’s going to be a whole new sound for us, too. The sound of it is a little different. It’s a little bit bigger energy on this next one.
You are currently performing at SXSW and performing this new material in front of people. What has that experience been like for you?
I just had my first show and it was crazy because the audience actually knew the lyrics to my newest single “Midas Touch,” which was surprising because you never know how people are connecting with the music. These songs just came out, so to see some kids pull up and know the lyrics was pretty cool because I wasn’t expecting that.
Is that feeling because you take great pride in being a songwriter?
Aside from being a singer and a performer, a songwriter is like a separate art to me. So to see people resonate with the words that you bring it’s like being a poet. But all poets can’t sing. So when you make poetry and you put it into a place to where kids can sing it out loud and memorize it, it’s pretty awesome because then you realize that you’ve done your job. The words that you’ve said have actually stuck rather than just some melodies that are being catchy in their head. That’s what it’s all about.