When The Weeknd walked on stage to accept his American Music Award for favorite soul/R&B album at last weekend’s AMAs, he rattled off a familiar list of thank you’s: Kanye West, Max Martin, Ed Sheeran and his fans all among them. One name the Toronto-based artist also mentioned was Belly, his fellow Canadian and frequent collaborator who co-wrote six songs on The Weeknd’s smash hit LP, The Beauty Behind the Madness, including Hot 100 chart topper “The Hills.” Today, Roc Nation announces it has signed Belly to a new record deal, with his first album for the label expected out in 2016.
Born in Palestine, Belly, aka Ahmad Balshe, moved to Canada with his family when he was seven and has been making music as long as he can remember. His 2007 debut album, The Revolution, was a huge hit in Canada, winning him a Juno Award for rap recording of the year and landing him in the studio with Snoop Dogg, Juicy J and more. But after a hiatus from releasing albums, it was his long-term friendship with The Weeknd that would eventually raise his status as a writer and performer in the U.S. Now, Belly’s latest project Up For Days — which features Travi$ Scott, French Montana and Juelz Santana in addition to The Weeknd — is helping him step out from behind the scenes, not to mention a slot on his fellow XO member’s The Madness Tour.
As Belly releases the visuals for his single “No Option” and a new song called “Money Go,” he speaks to Billboard about his past success in Canada, his familial relationship with XO, signing with Roc Nation and what’s in store for the future.
Congrats on the Roc Nation deal. How did that come together?
It’s exciting stuff. I want to say it was just a complete focus on my craft and my music and I put together a project that I felt like was representative of me as an artist. And I think I just got the right ears with it to the point where Jay Z was interested and heard it and invited me over. And we had a conversation and that was that, you know? A man’s handshake, that’s all it takes sometimes.
When did you first get into music?
I wanna say my whole life; I can’t really remember a time in my life when I wasn’t at least writing, whether it be writing words or creating music. My earliest memories are doing both those things.
Your first album came out in 2007 and got you a lot of critical acclaim and success in Canada. What was that experience like for you?
I mean, it was amazing. At that point, Canada was — and still is — a pretty important part of my career and who I am. And to be accepted at home first was always my goal. I always wanted to be a household name where I’m from before I went out to the world and gave the world my craft, you know?
You took about a five-year break between albums. Why the time off?
I’m somebody who really likes to, rather than rush things, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. And for me, I knew that to come over here and to play in the big leagues, per se, it was going to take a lot more than to sit around and keep making the same type of music I was making before. I felt like I needed to experience more in my life, I got out more and traveled and did things, I wrote a lot more, did songwriting for a bunch of people. And it led me back and that’s where I’m at right now.
What did you learn along the way that made you feel like, now it’s time to kick start things all over again?
I can’t say it was one thing, per se, it was more of a feeling. I just had a feeling that I was ready to make this music again and give the world what I wanted to give them. I felt more like they were ready to accept me and accept what I had to bring at this point. It was more of a feeling; I had a feeling it was time again. That’s usually how I go about things, with my gut feeling — no pun intended.
When did you meet The Weeknd?
We met years ago, man, just organically, really. We met, he came by my house through a mutual friend and we’ve been homies ever since. This is really a real organic relationship. As an amazing of an artist as everybody knows he is and as great of a musician as he is, I think a lot of people don’t realize how great of a person he is. And I think that’s really what made me and him click, is that as a human being he’s one of the coolest, most down-to-earth guys that I know, and that made me click with him for that reason.
How did you get down with XO?
It’s a family thing, man; we all know each other and respect each other, respect each other’s movements, respect each other’s art. You know, everybody in the immediate circle I have the utmost respect for. Everybody really is talented and one of the greatest at what they do. It’s not just a bunch of guys that are just there standing around — everybody’s bringing something to the table. It’s beautiful to watch.
Tell me about what you’re working on now. You’ve got your latest project Up For Days, right?
Yeah. I put out Up For Days, basically, the first version came out in May, and that’s really what sort of kicked the doors down for me again. And what I’m working on now is basically a sequel to that. I’m excited; I’m making the best music of my life, I’m in the zone and feeling the best I’ve ever felt, and that’s really translating into the music that I’m making. So I’m just excited to let the world hear it soon.
How about your new singles as well?
Me and The Weeknd got a new single… It’s really strange for me to call him The Weeknd, so I’m just gonna call him Abel. [Laughs] But me and Abel got a new single coming out called “Might Not.” The core fans and everybody already know about the song — it’s lived online for a little bit — but now it’s about to be really out there to the world. So I’m just excited until it comes out. And I’m excited to make music with my actual friends; that’s one of the coolest things in the world.
What do you see for the next couple months?
Oh man, I’m already cooking up for 2017, man. Got 2016 sewed up already. I don’t stop cookin’ up. We’re so ahead of schedule, you know, it’s a blessing. I got a bunch of remixes I’m dropping online, the “Might Not” single and video coming out in December. There’s a bunch of stuff coming up in the next couple months to keep everybody entertained.
What would you say sets you apart from the rest of the music world?
I don’t like to focus on what sets me apart, I think I just do me. And the phase of music we’re in right now, there are so many people trying to force things. But you can’t force passion. I’m passionate and I’m very distinct with my vision and I know exactly what I’m trying to bring forth. I don’t try to bring a certain sound out; my sound is my sound because I’m just being myself in the studio. It is what it is. And I feel like it translates and it’s gonna work. It’s just my reality; I found a way to explain it through this and give it a feeling.