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First Look Friday: AKAI SOLO Demystifies New York’s Rap Renaissance

Photo of Artist by Michael Petrow

In this month’s First Look Friday feature, AKAI SOLO surveys a New York rap boom that’s deeper and far more decentralized than it appears.

At a glance, New York’s current roster of rap renegades presents as a loosely unified front. But to hear AKAI SOLO tell it, the city’s rugged and raw renaissance is the product of several collectives converging after years of circling within proximity of one another. Like entire planets pulled into a sprawling and unmappable orbit by the sheer magnitude of their respective gravities.

The Flatbush-born rapper is no exception. Though he’s had a relatively quiet 2021 (so far) AKAI and his cohorts (all multi-hyphenate rap minds or, as he puts it, “Gilgameshes”) have spent the last three years building one of hip-hop’s most exciting regional circuits, both physically and creatively. The bars range from scattershot chaos to careful excavations of personal and societal trauma. The beats oscillate between grainy loops of B-side soul ballads and polymath drum-and-synth experimentation, hitting every possible shade in and outside of those parameters.

Across the eight solo and collaborative projects he’s released since 2018, the rapper’s own abilities are evident and show signs of perpetual growth. A thoughtful and plotted pen contends with a tendency to go full galaxy-brain. Yet every word has weight and every syllable is precisely placed. And at no expense to his pacing, which has the even pull of a well-rolled blunt.

Next month, he’ll send up True Sky, a cerebral and soul-bearing project produced by Navy Blue that began over a game of FIFA in 2018 (he watched, Navy played.) And later this year, he’ll drop his debut with billy woods‘ Backwoodz Studioz. But as he readies this year’s assault, AKAI allowed us to pick his brain a bit and guided us through the amorphous rap movement that is gradually taking shape in New York, surveying the city’s rap boom, what binds the main players, and what’s still ahead for a collective that’s deeper, and yet, far more decentralized, than it appears.

For this month’s First Look Friday, get acquainted with AKAI SOLO and the broader New York rap cosmos.

Let’s start at the top. You grew up in New York, right?

Yes, sir. Flatbush. But I live in Bushwick now. I moved here during my junior year of high school. And then I stayed out here ever since. Now I live on the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg. My girlfriend just told me I live in Williamsburg. Definitely on the R of the word on the map. So, I don’t believe in maps or the things they try to impose on my psyche.

I can’t imagine developing the type of intimacy you must have with how rapidly the city has changed over the years. 

It’s one of the most jarring things because it’s a kind of phenomenon where you always feel like you’re on acid when you’re walking down a block. It’s just so strange, you have this side-by-side split vision when you walk through places that you grew up in that’ve been hit with the influx of gentrification. It’s one thing to leave a place and then come back to it and just be confronted with that. But to watch it happen around you is another type of a slow push with the knife in the side.

I feel like the technology must have been mastered. When I was younger, things like construction and building were significant things, but they took a significant amount of time and you could just turn your back on it for a while. But now it’s like you see the scaffolding and that’s it. That’s the timer bro. You see the sign for the condominium, you see the vision on the front of the property and then you come back in three months and there’s a whole structure, there’s a door. And you’re like, “What?” And you come back four months later and it’s being viewed. Then next month people live there. It’s just so freaky. It used to take forever for something to get renovated or for something productive to get built. And now, all of these time bombs that are meant to upset economies and communities pop up in record time.

Have you ever thought about how seeing that type of consistent destruction and creation, more and more rapidly over so much time, has informed your writing or the way that you see the world?

For sure. I feel like I’m being actively desensitized to the process, but also humbled by it simultaneously. It’s just everywhere. So I have no choice but to take a step back and analyze it. And it’s crazy because it’s just how I feel about resolve, it’s a conceptual thing. Conceptual things are foundational. They’re interdisciplinary. You find them all across the board. That’s why those are really powerful things too. That’s what constitutes a supreme rapper too. You transcend your original physical set value and stumble into a purely conceptual space for mortals. You become an idea. [The Notorious B.I.G.] is like a thought process now. JAY-Z is a thought process, a lifestyle. 

Once you tap into that and you have it to inform your writing or your creative pursuits, the sky is not even close to the limit. My conceptual weaponry is definitely just like those sentiments. It’s madness, resolution, destruction, creation and freedom. And they force me to steal myself and walk into a space as bias-free as I possibly can be and just try to receive something. 

That’s a good point. That pain, chaos or something destructive aren’t inherently evil or malevolent forces. 

Yeah. You can come into contact with these things on the precipice of a great breakthrough. Generally, when it happens and that’s what reminds you that they had any meaning in the first place. So, you don’t have to be hopelessly in pain. But you don’t strangle yourself with the ideas of hope or suffering. You moderate your exposure to it. 

How would you describe what’s happening in New York rap right now. From the outside feels like a unified front, but it also seems more decentralized than past movements. 

I feel like the best way that I would describe it is like an organized chaos. Because something that I find interesting is when people mention it or try pick my brain about it, the perception is like we’re a great big Justice League in space, in the watchtower. And in certain cases I agree with it, but I feel like everyone has their own ship, everyone’s at the helm of their own agenda. And whenever the matter is pressing enough or we just happened to be in the same town, if we all look up and see the same sign like, “Hey, we should do something about that.” But other than that, everyone has a little Batman in their mind. They’re just like, “I don’t got to stay in this fucking watchtower, I’m going outside.” So, when those two things happen at the same time, it does breed an interesting relationship. And even the rate at which it develops is interesting. 

It’s like, everyone’s a Red [Power] Ranger. No one is interested in being secondary and I personally love that. I like the fact that everyone wants to be the author of their narrative, no one is trying to take a back seat in the construction of the perception of their existence or their legend. And I feel like that’s a common trait from all of our DNA structures. Not trying to be smothered by the voices of outsiders. You have to be here, be present, go on your own expedition, ask your own questions. This is not a movement of naysayers. This is not a movement of bandwagonists. 

So you’re all the main act in a way. But it sounds like you’ve found it just as hard to define as we do. I kind of see you, MIKE, Pink Siifu, massaai, and Adé Hakim (fka Sixpress,) at the core of it, with tentacles sprawling out all over the place. 

The entire thing is that everyone you just named has a movement. MIKE has Slums. I have Tase Grip. Siifu has the GK fam. So, everyone had a thing and we were all really in the middle of solo expeditions, trying to survey the land. And then we bumped into each other. And then some people saw us bumping into each other on some weird-ass Nat Geo shit and pulled their phone out and recorded it. But everyone has a thousand people behind them. 

Can we talk about your upcoming album, True Sky, a bit? It’s produced by Navy Blue? 

Oh yeah, he’s fully in the rap simulation now. He has his binoculars on. He produced this whole album.

What was it like working with him? How did you meet? 

I guess I’ve known him for about three years at this point. Siifu introduced me to him. I had met him around the time when we were finishing up Black Sand. But yeah, he’s also a Gilgamesh. When he put me on to the fact that he produces, I was just like, “Bro, you’re sitting on the MoMA of beats and it’s just ridiculous.” He was like “Nah.” That whole thing was really thanks to him. And it was pretty calm, he’s a goofball and I guess I’m a goofball in bad places. 

What was the process behind this project? 

Well, I’d pull up, we’d watch some funny shit, eat some food, and I’d watch him play some FIFA. To play soccer video games, to play football video games, your brain is just wired differently than most people on earth. That’s how I feel. But the shit was fire. He’d have some beats tucked or he’d be making something. And I’d just be like, “Yo man.” And I’d just start rapping over it. That’ll secure the beat and then we’ll just build on it. It just happened naturally. We were chilling on one of those days and then I was just like, “Yo, we should make some shit.” And then he was like, “Yeah.” 

That’s how I go about everything. I don’t really know how to spruce things up. That’s how I decided to make products in my head. I sit with the intention or the idea or the spark. I’m just like, “Hey, you want to make a project?” And if I say, “Yeah,” I get up and I begin taking the steps. I asked Siifu he was like, “Yeah.” And then we took the steps. Honesty is my best weapon, all that other stuff just hurts my head.

It’s at once the hardest and the simplest option. Have you been able to keep up your relationships through the pandemic? Have you guys been as tapped in through this as you were prior?

Right. I feel like my relationships with everybody has leveled down because during the first part of this, I definitely hit the quarantine thing really hard. I ghosted physically. Didn’t really leave the crib a lot. I didn’t see a lot of people for the first half of it. And then eased into it just because I was just being cautious for the people in my life. So I don’t just go out and mingle and run into the tampered environment without a care as if it was just my immune system I’ve got to look after. But in the last two quarters of this thing, I’ve begun seeing people more. And I’ve seen him more. The project started in 2018. But it was touched up a little bit. It was revisited up until this point. So, we definitely met back up and rejuvenated the idea and checked on it and tweaked it and did all types of shit. 

So you’ve just had this stashed for three years?

Yeah. I had the plan to stash it, but I was making it in mind. And I was going to drop it when I had the time I wanted to give it the attention it deserves. But at the same time, I treat my brain like a sponge and I consistently wring my sponge dry. So, that takes the form of me just writing endlessly. Whether I think it’s good or not, I always just drill at it. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have one line and that could be a whole 16. I could be walking. I could be in the Uber. I could be sitting down with intention but I always try to put aside some moments to write.

I feel like something passes through me and compels me to write. So, I just try to take advantage of every moment where I feel like there’s utility in my thoughts. And I just try to jot it down because when I look at all of the greats and who we call the Kings or “the nicest,” those are all people that have mastered maximizing utility of thought. And that’s the thing that supersedes the differentiating factors between them. Like verbiage, like approach or bar placement, all of those things are relevant, but what are the common traits that Lauryn Hill, Biggie, JAY- Z, NAS, and Kool G [Rap], all have? For me, it’s intention. It’s freedom within and without access to spaces. It’s a spontaneous generation of a freedom. Almost like a pocket dimension of liberation to be able to fully tap into your creative thing, which is absolutely revolutionary to me.

Is that what it means to exist in “Neo New York”?  You bring that up a few times on the record. 

Well, Neo New York is the space and thing that I’m dubbing these movements. When the East Coast came out, people were calling it the New New York. And I was watching G Gundam and they’re all in the future and all of the colonies are revitalized versions of their predecessors. America is Neo America and France is Neo France. I thought it’d be clever, like we’re a revitalized version of the direction the city’s moving and what would be more fitting and true to my brain than Neo New York.

But on a broader scale, to inhabit that space, it definitely means that you’re keeping the principles themselves because the game is just to revitalize. To know that’s a foot and not be smothered by it you have to come up with new strategies. Objectivity is key. That’s what I feel like I’ve learned even trying to navigate this space, trying to be an artist. Taking things personally will eat you alive. And you have to be very thoughtful with what you take personally. If you don’t take too many things personally, you don’t ever let that compromise how genuinely you approach it. 

And walking the tightrope with that is always fun for me. Because another thing that I feel like that depends on is your relationship with honesty. Keeping it clear but not to the point where your honesty and what is divulged compromises your security or the preservation of your narrative. 

Would you say that is something shared between most of the folks that are in this collective of rappers and producers and musicians with you?

I don’t know if anybody would word it the way that I do, but I would think so. I don’t like speaking for people, but I guess the concept of the objectivity needed to preserve your heart. To make sure that your intentions are not taken advantage of or misconstrued in a way that strays away from their origins. I think everybody’s trying to preserve their narrative. That’s key. That’s primary. 

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