Real n****s go hard (pause, no homo): iLoveMakonnen
SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:
A warning before we begin. This podcast is explicit in every way, and this episode contains racial and homophobic slurs.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:
It's the night of the 2016 MTV VMAs. Rihanna just walked away with the big Video Vanguard of the Year Award.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELECAST OF 2016 MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)
DRAKE: She's someone I've been in love with since I was 22 years old.
MADDEN: Oh, gosh. Wait, wasn't this the same night Drake went in for a kiss?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and Rihanna dodged that mug. And after the show, all the celebs pulled up to her after-party.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's like a VMA after-party at Up & Down. And I guess it was Rihanna's after-party.
CARMICHAEL: The party's at NYC club Up & Down, and one of the attendees happens to be Atlanta artist ILoveMakonnen.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And so everybody was in the building, you know what I'm saying? And we playing music, everybody's dance, have a good time, said what's up to everybody in there, all the stars, everybody who was a thing, right?
MADDEN: Fashionistas, models, influencers, pop stars - the room is heavy with the who's who of the music world. The lights are dim, bottles and balloons everywhere. And Makonnen - he's mingling in the back with some of his fashion designer friends. They even took shrooms earlier in the night, so everybody was feeling, you know, nice, having a good time. Until...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Drake and Rihanna walk in, and everybody moves out of the way. And they got big security. And I ain't seen Drake in a minute, you know what I'm saying? So I - Drake, Drake, Drake, what's up?
MADDEN: A couple years earlier, Drake and Makonnen had made magic together when Drake turned Makonnen's viral song "Tuesday" into a Billboard hit and signed him to his label OVO.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And so then Drake look at me. I was like, Drake, what's up? And he looked at me like, look, the next time I see you, I'm going to f*** you up for talking s***, da-da-da-da-da (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: Though Drake and Makonnen had officially severed ties months before, it had been a while since they'd seen each other face to face. But Makonnen still didn't have any reason to think that there was any love lost.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Whole security, everybody looking like - you know what I mean? They seeing Drake is, like, disgruntled. He about to - so they all looking like, what's the target? And they see Makonnen and they're like, huh? Everybody just kind of looked confused, like, I don't know, you know what I mean? That ain't no muscle to go and beat down type s***. Like, you know, bro, look, chill. So they just kind of walked on and then, you know, I just felt like a lot of - you know, like, weird - and 'cause Rihanna kind of looked at me and was like, what the f***? Like, n****, this is my night up in this b****. What the f*** are y'all doing? And I was just like, look, I don't know what's - I'm going to just get up out of here.
MADDEN: With these type of vibes, Makonnen realizes it's about time to go. He starts making his way to the exit.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I don't know what's going on. I'm just going to go ahead and leave 'cause even everybody was - what you do to Drake? What you do? I'm like, I just said what's up, you know what I mean? I don't know what's going on. So I was like, all right, let me get out of here. So then as I'm walking out of the club, I see other OVO dudes, and they're like, Makonnen, what's up, bro? What's up? I'm like, bro, I don't know what's up. Y'all tell me what's up. Your man has just chomped me down saying - you know what I'm saying? - he going to f*** me up next time he see me. So I'm out 'cause I don't - you know what I mean? I'm not trying to cause no problems up in here at this little nice, queer-friendly establishment, you know what I'm saying? So I'ma dip. And so I dip.
And then, you know, I tweeted out and like, yo, like, I don't know what this about. And then one of his assistants from one of his little fan sites said you should take that down because this and that. And I'm like, how? Take - like, what are we saying, y'all? It's like, I'm not - I don't have no communication with y'all, right? And then when I see y'all in public, it's like, y'all want beef. And I'm like, I don't have no beef with you. So what is the beef about?
MADDEN: What is the beef about?
CARMICHAEL: This question has followed Makonnen for years, and just about anybody who witnessed Makonnen's rise has speculated about his fallout with Drake. It always felt deeper than just two rappers on the outs.
I feel like there's a strong perception that the reason that relationship fizzled - you know...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Was because I was gay?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. I don't think that's the case 'cause me and him wasn't talking before that, you know what I mean?
CARMICHAEL: Now, Makonnen wasn't out at the time, but the way he anticipates the question - it speaks volumes. He's heard it a million different times, a million different ways.
MADDEN: And even though it shouldn't matter, the real question is why hip-hop cares so much in the first place.
CARMICHAEL: Maybe nothing is more clearly defined by rap than the fragility of Black masculinity and the perceived threat to masculinity that queerness poses. I'm Rodney Carmichael.
MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.
CARMICHAEL: And from NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.
MADDEN: Where we confront the double standard that's become the standard.
CARMICHAEL: On every episode this season, we tackle one unwritten rule of hip-hop that affects the most marginalized among us and holds the entire culture back.
MADDEN: And one that a new generation of rap refuses to stand for.
CARMICHAEL: Just as Makonnen was making it cool to get emo in the trap, the industry turned its back on him. So we're lifting the veil on the story of ILoveMakonnen and grappling with the ways his presence brought out rap's worst behavior.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's just nervous. This is - I'm nervous.
CARMICHAEL: You're nervous?
CARMICHAEL: Why are you nervous, man?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: You know, this is a lot of conversations and thoughts I've had in my own head...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: ...That I've yet to, I guess, express in public.
CARMICHAEL: On this episode, rule No. 6 - real n***** go hard. Pause - no homo.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: Man, I'll never forget how I found out about this dude. So I'm at the office one day at Creative Loafing, my old paper in Atlanta - R.I.P. - when one of my coworkers, the homie and former culture editor Gavin Godfrey, burst into the office. He'd just gotten hip to the latest rapper bubbling up in Atlanta.
GAVIN GODFREY: I'll never forget. There was this kind of, like, chubby kid with the little, you know, S-curl thing going on.
CARMICHAEL: And right off the top, Gavin saw something in Makonnen.
GODFREY: Like, a very loud, like, kind of neon greenish hoodie. It was just like - he was - it was peacocking.
CARMICHAEL: So Gavin starts running down dude's discography, pulling up videos, playing joints off his mixtape. And everything about him - it's just hitting different.
GODFREY: Like, you saw him, and you couldn't take your eyes off of him. And so I was like, everything that I see, and now I need to hear what's going on.
CARMICHAEL: He plays a song called "Too Much."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO MUCH")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) You've been fronting on us hard too much.
CARMICHAEL: And Makonnen - he's singing over trap beats, not mumbling melodies, but straight up singing like a trippy drippy trap Liberace.
GODFREY: It struck for me. I was like, this kid sounds like a weird pop star from, like, the '80s. He had these, like, Tears for Fears vibes going.
CARMICHAEL: And when he played the video for "I Don't Sell Molly No More," I saw the vision.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T SELL MOLLY NO MORE")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) West Coast Makonnen, the best thing going. They really like my movies. It's the best thing showing.
CARMICHAEL: And forget low budget. This video - it was zero-budget. He's rolling through the East Side, trapping out a vintage ice cream truck with all kind of strange things hanging out the window - mannequin heads and whatnot - talking about I got the gas and the coke. I don't sell molly no more. It was total tragicomedy.
GODFREY: You know, in Atlanta, our history is, like, we really celebrate and pride, like, our weirdos, right? Like, our creatives who are just out there, eccentric, have done some of the greatest, coolest things in the city. Think about, like, Andre 3000. You think of really anybody in Dungeon family - Joi, Gipp. Like, these folks, they have this kind of vibe, this really, like, you know, I'm me and there's no bones about it.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Atlanta might be known for producing some eccentric cats, but no class of ATLiens was weirder than the class of 2014. I'm talking Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, OG Maco. But Makonnen - he almost made everything else out of Traplanta sound normal in comparison.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONIGHT")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) You've been cheating on, cheating on me. So I've been cheating on, cheating on you. You've been cheating on me, Brianna.
CARMICHAEL: He didn't just sound different. He was coming at rap from a totally unique point of view. Makonnen felt foreign from the vulnerability in his voice straight down to his swag.
GODFREY: To see this kid, especially in hip-hop, with so much, like, machismo - he was just, like, bragging about how he was into, like, the cosmetics industry.
CARMICHAEL: Before Makonnen touched a mic, he was a bona fide hairdresser. He grew up with a beautician for a mom and would practice his skills on mannequin heads, dyeing their hair in rainbow colors for fun. It was while he was at beauty school that he stumbled into music.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: So some of the students at the school were doing music, and so they'd let me sort of, like, tag along and learn under them. And one of the guys, Eddie Hollywood, was, like, a real trap star - you know what I'm saying? - really been in the streets and all that. And he had gotten in trouble with the law and all that. So he was in beauty school doing something positive with his time. And then he had sort of, like, you know, changed his life over and got reborn again Christian, and so he started doing, like, crunk church music, right? And so I was - that was my first introduction to the Atlanta music scene, was through the crunk church music. And so this was, like, praising God, having gospel music message behind it, but in the trap style.
CARMICHAEL: Makonnen started producing beats in his bedroom using an old BR-1180 and a keyboard, just messing around.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: A lot of my first early songs were just jokes - you know what I mean? - just jokey, like, trolling songs where I'm just in there just doing a whole radio show by myself, you know? Like, my mom would be at work from, like, 8 to 4. I would be in there from, like, 11 to 3 and just going, just silly - right? - and just saying all type of stuff and listen back to it and be like, oh, my God, this is so stupid. Nobody ever going to hear it, and then delete it.
KASMIK: When he first started, he was just producing beats, and then I was like, oh, these are good. I'm like, why don't you let me sing to your - you know, some of your songs?
CARMICHAEL: That's Makonnen's mom and first collaborator, Kasmik. She'd been a musician back in the day, so she helped him out with recording and even hopped on some of his early joints.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: So because my mom started helping me really work on my real songs to where she started telling me how - teaching me how to song-write and all that.
KASMIK: In a sense, he really learned on his own, but I taught him some fundamentals. He really wanted to produce for others. He's very good at arranging and coming up with different parts. He has a very good ear, and he's good keyboardist.
CARMICHAEL: But it was Makonnen's voice that really set him apart.
KASMIK: Oh, I thought it was awesome. I thought his voice - it was different, you know, because when you come from a gospel, you know, R&B - you know, the way that he was singing, I was like, mm. And, you know, Makonnen is genius in the way that he uses his voice because he knows how to hit all the notes, but he will slide off a note. It's his own special way of doing, you know, where it almost sounds off-key, but then it works.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Singing) Can you tell me if you're ready? Do you want (inaudible)? Making love ain't going to (inaudible). Can you tell me if you're ready?
CARMICHAEL: Basically, Makonnen was queering the trap, bringing the glitz and glam of pop radio, folk music - hell, even opera - to the streets. And within a few years he finds some folks in Atlanta who were down with what he was doing, Awful Records.
FATHER: There's some fringe people that would come around every once in a while because they saw it. This was, like - this is a very welcoming group, clearly.
CARMICHAEL: That's Father, the founder of Awful Records, a whole slew of young cats who took psychedelics like Makonnen, threw parties and made some of the weirdest, hardest ATL hip-hop this side of OutKast, like Father's breakout single, "Look At Wrist," featuring Key! and Makonnen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AT WRIST")
FATHER, KEY! AND ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) Wrist, wrist, wrist, wrist, wrist, wrist. I want my wrists so cold, pneumonia in my fist.
FATHER: Like, you know, some of us in the crew are also very - you know what I'm saying? - like, moon, space, stars and, like - you know. So he kind of was, you know, into that group of, like, you know, just extended thought, you know? So there was members of crew that he could melt with like that. So, you know, just free thought, free thought, no judgment.
CARMICHAEL: What was lesser known at the time was that he was collaborating with some of the biggest and best known producers coming out of Atlanta - producers like Mike WiLL Made-It, Sonny Digital, Metro Boomin. And these were the cats putting Atlanta's trap sound on the international map. And they were passing Makonnen around from studio to studio, almost like a cheat code.
FATHER: It was, like, the quintessential, at that time, Atlanta producers, like that, wow. Because, you know, you would come back through every so often and then just tell us, like, you know, just crazy-a** tales and just random industry secrets. And we're - you know, we're just all in the - we're all in the living room just like, OK, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: Even though he was making a name for himself and moving fluidly between the city's mainstream and otherground scenes, Makonnen was still struggling to break big in Atlanta. By 2014, he was on the verge of giving up. Then one night while he was at Mike WiLL's studio with the duo Rae Sremmurd and some more industry cats, a song just flowed right out of him.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I ended up, you know, like, freestyling "Tuesday" right there 'cause it was, like, Monday night, you know, and turned into Tuesday morning. And I'm like, we got a little clubhouse. We in a little clubhouse. I got out in the clubhouse s***. Like, hey, you know, little club going up on Tuesday. And this just started, you know what I mean? I started going with it there - girls in it - and just made the whole little song right there on the spot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUESDAY")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) Got the club going up on a Tuesday. Got your girl in the cut and she ain't choosy. Club going up on a Tuesday. Got your girl in the cut and she ain't choosy. Club going up.
CARMICHAEL: When he dropped "Tuesday" on SoundCloud in the summer 2014, the song was so addictive it caught fire quick.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It started - it took off, you know what I mean? It was really going crazy to where it's like it's a local legend, and everybody who on the ends is hearing it.
CARMICHAEL: Man, "Tuesday" was so Atlanta off jump 'cause here's the thing about the trap capital - everybody's got a side hustle. It ain't just the dope boys and the dancers. Even the real estate agents got a trap mentality. Everybody's fueling the underground economy, one way or another. One person's work week is somebody else's weekend and the party don't end.
GODFREY: Like, Atlanta, we know how to party, right? And I feel like we can find an excuse to turn any day into an event. And I think "Tuesday" really got at that. But I think it was also, like, you know, weirdly - I remember hearing it was a good nod to, like, service industry people in Atlanta who, actually, their weekend is a Monday or a Tuesday. So they felt, like, seen for the first time. But I also think it was just, like, you know, Makonnen, again, is such this weird kind of oddball guy. So it makes sense that it's like, yeah, I party on a Tuesday. Like, why not get crunk, you know, on a school night rather than, like, the weekend because, like, that just seems like something so weird that, like, I should probably embrace that, right?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: So I was becoming, like, local, you know what I'm saying? You a champ here. You got the song. It's dope. It's real. It's authentic. Like, we really coming out on Tuesday now. Like, it's really a movement for the community, you know what I'm saying? Like, this s*** is really hitting us. We really living this one. And so Atlanta just started, you know, just going - we just started having the best time - you know? - like, every week on Edgewood and all that, wherever at - we just having a great time.
CARMICHAEL: Makonnen had been on the bubble in Atlanta for a minute, just waiting his turn. But now that he had a club banger in his back pocket, it felt like he was about to blow.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And then, like, Wiz Khalifa and them start playing it. And, like, you know, like, it started getting in the industry and people was playing it. And then somebody texted me or I got a tweet and it was like, Drake and Makonnen - fire. And I was like, bro, Drake and Makonnen would be fire. And then I saw the next tweet, and it was, like, from OVO Sound. It was like, have a wonderful Tuesday. And it was, like, Drake, ILoveMakonnen remix "Tuesday." And so I was like, oh, s***. And so I started playing it, and my friends pull out their cameras and they reacted. And I was like, no - like, what? Like...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What the f***? This is Drake. This is crazy. (Laughter) This is crazy. What the f***? There's no way this is real right now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's 2B (ph) camera this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUESDAY")
DRAKE: (Singing) Squad going up. Nobody flipping packs now. I just did three in a row. Them shows is back-to-back-to-back now.
CARMICHAEL: Now, understand, this was the era of the Drake feature. You knew you were out of here when Drake hopped on your joint. And Atlanta cats were already basking in it. He'd given Migos their first breakout hit when he jumped on "Versace" a year earlier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSACE")
DRAKE: (Rapping) Versace, Versace. Medusa head on me like I'm Illuminati. Versace.
CARMICHAEL: He'd done the same for an artist on the come up named Future when he hopped on "Tony Montana."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONY MONTANA")
DRAKE: (Rapping) You see the Stallion, passenger a stallion. N***** getting nervous.
CARMICHAEL: Now it was Makonnen's time to feel the Drake effect.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It was amazing. I was so happy. And I was like, damn, I got to get in touch with them. Like, you know what I mean? Like, Drake - you know what I mean? Like, I don't - I never even talked to him about this, but it's like - he done blessed me with the version - our song going crazy. And now, like, s***. My stock done went up, like, overnight.
CARMICHAEL: With Drake on the first verse, "Tuesday" went from an Atlanta thing to a national thing. Makonnen was popping up everywhere - Power 106 with J. Cruz and Justin Credible...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Liftoff. Power 106, Cruz and Credi (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's right.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Makonnen...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yo.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Is on the liftoff.
CARMICHAEL: ..."The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")
JIMMY FALLON: ILoveMakonnen. The Roots. We'll be right back, everybody.
CARMICHAEL: ...Even Nardwuar.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NARDWUAR: Who are you?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I am ILoveMakonnen.
NARDWUAR: Makonnen, welcome.
CARMICHAEL: The song was doing numbers. It climbed to No. 12 on Billboard's Hot 100. And when Makonnen officially met Drake for the first time, he finally felt like he was on the inside. And Drake saw Makonnen as more than just a one-off, too. By September that same year, OVO signed Makonnen to a single deal, and they rereleased his EP under the label. Now, if this was a different story, this would be the part where he launches into superstardom. But this ain't that story because after his signing, it felt like all the hype behind Makonnen just came to a standstill.
GODFREY: There's probably a lot of stuff we don't know. But I remember - it wasn't a moment. It was more just like, where's the music?
CARMICHAEL: Again, Gavin Godfrey.
GODFREY: I was sitting there waiting for the music, you know, and I - it became clear to me. I was like, damn, did they just want "Tuesday"? So I thought, OK, if Makonnen - if you could actually just sit him down, take that hustle, give him the resources that an OVO and Warner Brothers or whatever, who was it was at the time could provide, you could really, really tap in and make him the superstar that people were saying that he could have been. And that didn't happen. He was just kind of sitting there. And I thought that - I always thought that was really weird. Like, something had to have been up if they weren't trying to come up with the next "Tuesday," you know what I mean?
CARMICHAEL: Just like Gavin, I was feening for another hit of Makonnen, too. So where was the music?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: It wasn't super clear why the music started slowing up at the time. But looking back, there was one interview that feeds into the most persistent rumor. A few months after OVO rereleased Makonnen's EP, he made an appearance on Hot 97 with Ebro.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EBRO: He's professing to not selling drugs anymore.
EBRO: And he's turning up on Tuesdays.
EBRO: Makonnen's his name. Give it up for him.
CARMICHAEL: Even though it was supposed to be a coming-out party for one of rap's hot, new emerging artists, it turned into something weird. Ebro, who's known for testing first-timers, he starts off fairly friendly.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EBRO: You gave Drake a pass. Keep it real.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I mean, it was Drake. It was - I mean, he...
EBRO: He took it to a...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: He took it to another level, you know what I'm saying? And it was great.
CARMICHAEL: Then Ebro gets in his bag a little bit and brings up the fact that Makonnen worked as a cosmetologist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EBRO: So cosmetology school was your way to be around women 'cause, you know, a lot of times we hear a dude going to cosmetology school, we thinking, you know, he's...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
EBRO: ...A part of - he's gay. Let's just say it. That's how we see it. Now, I know some straight dudes that do hair, but that's not common.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, I'd like to say it's a new day and age out here, and people's mindsets just need to open up.
EBRO: The cosmetology thing threw me for a loop.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I'm in the beauty...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I am in the beauty - I'm in the beauty industry, which is a billion-dollar industry.
EBRO: Let's - I'm going to be real. I thought maybe you was a gay artist.
CARMICHAEL: Now, understand, Makonnen wasn't even out. So Ebro's getting all worked up by even just the idea that Makonnen might be gay. And dude just won't let up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. But that's so cliche. Like...
EBRO: It's too simple, right?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. It's too simple.
EBRO: It's too simple.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's like, I mean, come on. So then if somebody start off wearing pink, oh, they're gay. Like...
EBRO: Right, right, right.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's like, we past all that, y'all. Like, that's what I'm saying. We got to grow the f*** up and be grown and stop being childish.
EBRO: Yeah. But skirts and fingernails...
CARMICHAEL: It was almost like Ebro was trying to yank Makonnen out the closet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EBRO: No, I'm not saying, but there are individuals...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Even though I still will...
EBRO: Didn't Young Thug have a skirt on with some fingernails?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: He had some fingernails...
EBRO: But he said he wasn't gay, so whatever.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Exactly. He ain't gay. But what does it matter if he was gay or if anybody was gay? Like, what are they talking about?
CARMICHAEL: Makonnen saw right through what Ebro was trying to do at the time, and he still does nearly a decade later. When we sat down to talk to him in studio, that interview was one of the things that came up. He still sees it as a prime example of hip-hop's masculinity being threatened.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Just stop 'cause you the one that's holding on to this ignorant masculinity bulls*** that's f****** up the community right here. You the voice on radio right here, Mr. Ebro, been up here all this time, and you trying to push a stupid-a** narrative on these young kids out here like, oh, you gay.
CARMICHAEL: Was hip-hop obsessed with whether or not you were gay from the start?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I think so. But hip-hop's been obsessed with that.
CARMICHAEL: Makonnen should know. He was a '90s baby coming up in LA just as rap was starting to traffic in those gangsta tropes, the same tropes that he was surrounded by on his block.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And so I'm just, like, a child, and I'm just seeing - you know, it's the '90s, so, you know, gang activity's starting to take off. And so my cousins are becoming Bloods over here on my dad's side, and then my brother's a Crip, and he over there with my grandma. I would see my gangbanging cousins get into a lot with my uncles and stuff like that, and they'd be fighting over this masculinity on who ain't a man type shit. And it's like, we over here gangbanging, and we doing push-ups and we fighting and shooting motherf******. We men.
But then my uncle's in there like, motherf*****, I'm taking care of seven - of my kids, my nephews, my aunts, my uncles, my mom, my pa, his - you know, his uncle. I'm taking care of the whole family. And, like, we come from real gangbanging down there, and you know what I'm saying? So it's like, we men. And so I'm just watching this sort of clash of masculinity happen in my house of you in the streets gangbanging, hip-hop, all this shit. We men. You know, young Tupac shit - we men. And then this older, like, nah, man, I'm - you know what I'm saying? Got my little job. I got my khakis on. I'm taking care of family. I could buy a car. I could buy an apartment. I got a complex. I'm handling business. I'm a man.
CARMICHAEL: Both extremes boil down to the same thing. They each define manhood as some form of domination.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I don't want to go outside and be gang banging, you know what I mean? Like, look at me. They all - everybody used to be like, you a little f**, you little light-skinned, mixed m***********. You a b****. You ain't - and so I was like - I always got picked on. So it was like gang banging was never going to be a route for me, you know what I mean? They was just like, you don't look like a gang man. You going to be a b**** and all that shit. And so I was like, I don't want to gang bang, but then I don't want to be known as, like, a square, you know what I mean? I don't want to be up there, like my dad and them, and being all, like, faking and shuffling, like, you know? Like, I don't come from that. And so it was really - I was really confused on, like, you know, what do I do?
CARMICHAEL: At this point, he's barely hit puberty, and already he's being told he's not man enough.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And then, you know, the whole thing for my people from the islands is like, we ain't doing no - you can't be a batty boy. No gay, no - you know what I mean? Like, so the f***** stuff, you got to cut it out and all that. So it's like they kind of taught me, like, no, that's gay. You can't do that, you know what I mean? We ain't doing that.
CARMICHAEL: What would it - what would they be calling gay in terms of what you were doing?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: You see the way you lay up on the couch like that, with your leg up and your - like your auntie 'cause, you know, you see your auntie and them go after work, you don't get a bowl of food. And they laid up on the couch watching their stories - you know? - and the little kid just go over there and emulate. And they're like - you know, hit your leg. You look like Lee (ph) and, like, oh, I didn't know. I thought - you know what I mean? - I thought auntie was doing - getting comfy. I was about getting comfy on the...
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And so, you know, everybody was big on that.
CARMICHAEL: The lessons in hardness were definitely in overdrive. But the men in Makonnen's life weren't the only ones showing him how to exist in the world and express himself as a man.
KASMIK: You know, I was burning with curiosity about why you want to speak to me.
CARMICHAEL: That's Kasmik, Makonnen's mom, again.
KASMIK: I know that Makonnen has done interviews, you know, and I can understand why. But nobody has ever asked to interview me. So I'm just wondering - yeah, why would you want to speak to me? What is this about?
CARMICHAEL: We're talking to Kasmik 'cause she's the first person who introduced Makonnen to the beauty industry.
KASMIK: So I would take him to work with me, you know, even when I was teaching at the school, at the salon, you know? So he's been around, you know, cosmetology for most of his life.
CARMICHAEL: Cosmetology - the same industry Ebro would call him out for being a part of. But this was also the place where he learned how to counterbalance all the mess he was picking up from the men in his life.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Oh, man, I learned everything about beauty from my mom, you know? I found that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty is not what everybody sees. I just saw a lot of caring, nurturing, loving - you know what I'm saying? - and support.
KASMIK: Again, that gave him an audience, too, to perform, I guess (laughter). You know, because of people, you know, loved him. Like I said, he's very friendly and expressive. And so, you know, these are the type of characters that you find in the beauty business. I mean, very expressive character. Everybody's a star in the beauty business. Even though we are creating, you know, stars, we're grooming them, we're helping people with their self-esteem. So he grew up in that culture, I guess you can say, where, you know, we help one another to feel better. You know, we tell stories. You know, we do dance, we sing - you know, you go to the salon or barbershop. You know what it's like. So, yeah, from a very young age, he was there.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And even in then, that's when I started to see trans and gays and - you know what I'm saying? - lesbians and all these different orientations. And then I got to really be around them and, like, you know, spend every day with them and learn them and, like, love them and be able to accept them. So it really resonated with me through a lot of different things in my life - of the world, of being able to dial in to the beauty business and see that I learned how to treat women. I learned how women act and how women are and why women, you know, are the way they are. And it was like - it was really a full women's study, you know, for me.
CARMICHAEL: Whatever internal tug of war Makonnen was feeling between these different ways of being only intensified as he fell in love with hip-hop. That's when he started to realize keeping it real was mostly just an empty slogan.
Once hip-hop entered the picture for you, how did that start to shape your views around what it meant to be a man or, you know, what have you?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. That's when it really got confusing, you know? Because it's like, I'm seeing - I'm thinking my gang banging cousins, them is men, you know what I mean? Because they go to jail and they came out and they still buffer, you know what I mean? And I'm like, damn, like, them man, you know? And then when I'm seeing hip-hop, I'm seeing a lot of people emulate the life and, like, wear the thing and start having a look. But it's like, I can tell, like, a lot of them ain't really from it 'cause I've seen my family from it to, like - you know, I've seen the tragedy of it. And it's not all that glitzy the way everybody on there making the seem, you know? Like, it ain't fun to be running around, red flagged up, out the way the videos be showing because it's like I'm seeing drive-bys in my neighborhood and stuff like that.
And so it's - hip-hop was coming in and, like, yo, these the men, these the dudes. And I'm just like, I mean, I guess. I don't know. I'm still a kid. Who am I to say what a man is, you know what I mean? And so I'm seeing my older brothers and them rock to the Jay-Z and all this stuff and be out here flossing and doing the whole, you know, I got the car. I'm a man. You know, I got the car. I got the girls. I - you know what I mean? All this. But then I would - you know, I would know these people, right? And so I would see my brothers and them and, like, the way they would - it was like a facade. I'm not seeing no man stuff, you know what I mean? But I'm do seeing that you quick to jump up and go out with your boys again to go hang out with so-called men. But when you're around the house, I'm not getting no man call - you over here calling me a f*****. You know what I'm saying? You dissing me because I'm, I guess, not as masculine or buff.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Black masculinity has always been challenged because of white supremacy - right? - and this sense that white supremacy feminizes Black men. There's been this idea that, you know, the performance of Black men has to be uncut so that folks have not any questions about what Black masculinity is, right?
NEAL: That's Mark Anthony Neal, a renowned academic and cultural critic whose writing on Black music and pop culture deconstructs the ways we define manhood.
NEAL: But when we talk about masculinity or femininity - right? - this is a social construct of what that is, right? So that's the clothes that we think men should wear, how men should talk, what kinds of language they use, how they walk. I mean, this is all stuff that's not coming directly from a biological affect, but specifically from young folks, babies, you know, growing up to adulthood, reading the signs of gender and how they're supposed to act as a man, you know, and playing out gender in that kind of context.
CARMICHAEL: This facade that Makonnen and Mark are talking about is one of the skills we use to measure ourselves within the culture.
NEAL: You know, when you think about, you know, a legible, something that you can read, you can recognize it, and there's certain images that when we see them, we don't even have to process them because they're so legible to us.
CARMICHAEL: Now, the way Mark explains his concept of legibility, it's as simple as the difference between seeing a Black man with a basketball versus seeing a Black man with a violin. One image is so familiar, you wouldn't even question it, whereas the other, it might give you pause for a second just because it isn't the stereotypical image you might expect.
NEAL: And if you think about, you know, hip-hop circa 2000 - right? - Jay's look, you know, as what Diddy's look, we could go on and on, right? You know, Ja Rule's look, right? Nas's look, right? They all look like they're hip-hop, right? Even as they're doing very different things. They have different skill sets. It is the look of hip-hop which allows it to be easy to be able to market them, right? And they take that basic image - right? - That's so accessible to folks, that's so legible to folks. And then they build out different kinds of personas and sensibilities out of that.
CARMICHAEL: Part of keeping up the front of legibility was distancing yourself from anything that was seen as other. And the easiest way to prove you weren't gay was by being homophobic.
NEAL: I think when we talk about queerness broadly in the Black community, but also in this case in hip-hop, it really has to do with optics. If Black queer men or Black trans men are too prominent and visible, it is a comment on the failure of Black men, quote-unquote, "real strong heterosexual Black men" and by extension, the Black family - right? - to produce men in that way. Hip-hop took that kind of notion to a different kind of level by presenting to us these readily available images of not just masculinity but hyper masculinity.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. If you're from a certain era of hip-hop like me, you might remember how ingrained homophobia was in the music. I mean, it's almost hard to know where to begin. You could damn near play a game of pin the tail on the rapper blindfolded and still be guaranteed to land on flagrant offenders spread throughout the last several decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY MOVE")
EAZY-E: (Rapping) All the way up his skirt because this is one f***** that I had to hurt, so...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUNKS JUMP UP TO GET BEAT DOWN")
BRAND NUBIAN: (Rapping) I can freak, fly, flow, f*** up a f*****.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAP GOD")
EMINEM: (Rapping) I'll still be able to break a motherf****** table over the back of a couple of f*****s and crack it in half.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIOR")
POP SMOKE: (Rapping) I can't f*** with these n****s because n****s is gay.
CARMICHAEL: The irony of the prevalence of homophobia in hip-hop is that rap is - how do I say it? - gay as hell. I mean, rappers were OK with hanging with the homies, making music in cramped studios overnight with the homies, rapping shirtless and sweaty on stage with the homies, basically spending every waking hour being intimate with the homies. They just didn't want the homie to be gay. It's a fear that says way more about the fragility of hyper masculinity than it says about the object of their fear. So despite rap's homoerotic tendencies, this was the no homo era when rappers like Cam'ron took distancing themselves from all things seemingly suspect to a whole new level of absurdity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let me just say something. Are you gay?
CAM'RON: Not at all, far from it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So, like, why do people feel like they need to keep reinforcing that over and over?
CAM'RON: I mean, it isn't about being gay. It's about saying something gay. For instance, my man Jim Jones said, I'm going to beat you with that till all the white stuff come out of it. That's wild homo - told somebody else that. No homo. He ain't tell me that. You understand what I mean? That's a perfect example.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, my God. This is crazy. I'm not - I'm never going to understand it. My thing is, like...
CAM'RON: But this isn't even about being gay. It's about saying something gay.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is about letting someone know that you're not gay. Who cares, right?
CAM'RON: No. This is about saying gay things by accident. No homo. This isn't about a person's really being gay. We know that they're not really gay.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are going to rock the mic next hour. Cam, thanks for...
CAM'RON: That's a good rock the mic topic. No homo.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Have you - you see?
CAM'RON: Nah. Rock the mic is homo, if you know what I'm saying.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, it's not.
CARMICHAEL: In a word where no homo is the default, association with anything seen as queer becomes suspect too. So when Ebro started questioning Makonnen's sexuality in that interview, it could put anyone affiliated with him in the line of fire, especially Drake.
NEAL: Drake is an artist who's always been challenged by these questions of authenticity.
CARMICHAEL: Again, Mark Anthony Neal.
NEAL: Because his style of rapping, his affect. You know, obviously, he got some bangers that folks say that's a hip-hop record, right? But, you know, most of the time, he's doing this kind of weird sing-singy, I'm not quite a singer, but I sing better than most rappers who try to sing. And there's an emotiveness - and this is a key point, right? You know, audiences don't know what to do with Black men who are too emotive.
CARMICHAEL: Part of the polarizing response to Drake has been all about that sad boy emo-ness that he injected into rap. I still remember when the late DMX voiced his opinion on Drake on "The Breakfast Club."
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")
UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #1: What about Drake? You like Drake?
CHARLAMAGNE THE GOD: My man.
UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST #2: He didn't even say a little bit.
CHARLAMAGNE: DMX. That's my guy right there. That's why X is necessary in the game right there. Now, why don't you like Drake?
DMX: I don't like anything about Drake. I don't like his voice. I don't like what he talks about. I don't like his face. I don't like the way he walks - like, nothing. I don't like his haircut. I might just - let me shut up. I'll just stop right there.
CARMICHAEL: The same way DMX can't quite put his finger on it, there's something about Drake that just punctured rap's hard exterior.
NEAL: Because we think about women being expressly emotive, and in hip-hop, where emotiveness other than anger and rage - right? - and in some extent, reflection, there weren't a whole lot of range of emotions that you could express in hip-hop. And so Drake comes along and he's so emotive, right? You can't think of another rapper ever who begs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHINGS INTO SOMETHINGS")
DRAKE: (Singing) You can't just leave it off that way. Nah. Least do I get an invitation or something, a statement or something? Ask about that. You would say it was nothing.
CARMICHAEL: Through all the missed calls from exes and broken-hearted ballads, Drake presented a type of masculinity that went against the grain at the time. He was illegible to rap's hardcore sensibilities - too sensitive, too soft.
NEAL: And it was risky for him to break the mold of how much emotion that he could bring into his music. And to his credit - right? - you know, he became Drake because of that, because he was an outlier. I think because there is this kind of anxiety...
NEAL: ...About Drake's performance of hip-hop and masculinity, right? There're still cats who still won't admit that he's a hip-hop artist, right? There are cats who say that he was the death of hip-hop - right - because he brought this whole other kind - you know, so you get The Weeknd. You get all this. You get a sound - right? - this emo sound in hip-hop that had never existed before.
CARMICHAEL: Which is exactly what made Drake and Makonnen seem like a collaboration made in emo heaven. Together, they were making softer aesthetics a little more legible in rap. But if your authenticity is already under attack like Drake's was, it could also make a collaboration like this a liability.
NEAL: I think because he's already kind of a question to some folks, Makonnen becomes an interesting challenge for that, right? Because had he been a more kind of traditional, hardcore hip-hop artist, I think you can withstand Makonnen being in your universe. When you're Drake, that's a different kind of challenge.
CARMICHAEL: Now, all this was going down at the same time the cracks in Makonnen and Drake's relationship was starting to show.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: The EP was sort of, like, just automatically even happening. You know what I mean? But then I think it was, like, the second one afterward. And so the first one went good, and I got to go do the Loudest of the Loud tour. I went around Europe and the U.S., played festivals. Everything was going good. I came out on Drake's set at Wireless. But that's when I knew something was weird, because when I came out on set, it was - you know, everybody was kind of like, eh. And I started losing weight, too, right? And Drake had, like, made a little joke like, oh, you little Eric Benet looking-a** n****. You know what I'm saying? And then, you know, like, ha-ha. And then, like, I just started to feel this vibe, like a little - you know what I mean? Something was said about me, but we not - you know, I don't know.
So I'm like, OK. And so then when we go out to do the song, I'm just doing the hook. And as I was supposed to go into my verse, they just cut it. And I was like, oh. OK. Thanks. You know, And I just got off stage, but I was like, this is crazy. Like, the crowd is going crazy right now. They f***ing with me. Like, they ready to hear - you know what I'm saying? I was working, and they just shut it off. And I was like, all right. So then I left that, and then it just started - you know, it was just like, this is getting weird.
CARMICHAEL: When we talked to Makonnen, he made it clear that the whispers he was hearing weren't about his sexuality. It was mostly stupid stuff like years-old tweets dissing Drake and calling him names.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: People under your dad's (ph) comments saying, y'all need to drop him because he said that your song practice was lame back in 2011. And then he called you a red Elmo back in 2010, so you need to stop f***ing with him now in 2015.
CARMICHAEL: So was there one of the tweets of red Elmo?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Yeah. And I even told you, like, when that happened, I was like, bruh. Like, it could have been any popular name. Like, that's what motherf***ers do. Like, we f***ed up in the game, bro. Our little outlet, that's the only way of attention. You know what I mean? So it's like, it ain't nothing personal.
CARMICHAEL: But maybe the clearest evidence the things were falling apart was Makonnen's Tim Westwood freestyle, where he spent almost 20 minutes freestyling and dropping hints about his shaky label situation over nothing but Drake beats.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: And it's like, OK, Tim Westwood playing all these Drake beats and I'm over here freestyling. You know, I'm rapping. I'm eating s*** up. And so now people are like, oh, he talking about Drake? He's going after Drake.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) Motherf***er said I got dropped. Ha-ha. That's some motherf***ing hip-hop. S***, you know that's a motherf***ing lie - only place I dropped that is in my goddamn pants size.
And it's like, OK, so I can't - you know what I mean? It's like - and then he turned the comments off on it because then they start saying, this is a trash freestyle, n**** didn't - because I done freestyled for, like, 20 or 30 minutes over all these different type of beats. So everybody - you know, and it's like, you going after Drake. You bit the hand that fed you, and all this s***. And so I'm just like, OK. Who do I talk - who can I - where's my outlet to say this isn't what it is? And I was like, all right. And then I posted - I did my next EP, right? And nobody promoted it. Drake didn't put it on the thing, and it just felt like it was dead silent. So I was like, you know, I don't want to be over here.
KASMIK: I know he said that he wanted to leave. And I was like, you want to leave? What? It seemed like he wanted to leave. So I'm like, well, if that's what you want to do, go ahead and do it, you know? But I know if - look, if you're in a situation where you're wanted and you're valued, you know, and you're respected, you probably won't want to leave that situation.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: That's when I left and went to Portland and started doing all my internal stuff like that. And I was like, you know what? Maybe it's me. Maybe I need to come out as gay and be honest with myself and all this other stuff. I'm expecting other people to be honest with me out here. And so maybe people looking at me like, you a fraud. You fake, n****. We know you gay and you ain't out. So I was like, all right, well, whatever. I'm going to go ahead and come out as gay, and let's see what that do.
CARMICHAEL: And what did it do?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It blew up.
CARMICHAEL: In early 2017, a few months after his move to Portland, Makonnen took to Twitter to say what was on his mind. We asked him to read those tweets.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: Someone said to me, next time they see me, they was going to f*** me up. I said, next time I see me, I'm going to love me up. As a fashion icon, I can't tell you about everybody else's closet. I can only tell you about mine, and it's time I come out. And since y'all love breaking news, here's some old news to break. I'm gay. And I told you about my life. Maybe you can go live yours.
CARMICHAEL: Word about Makonnen's announcement spread fast.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: That s*** went all over the news. And then, you know, everybody started, you know, packing their bags, trying to figure out how to make their exit. Because if, like, if bro's gay, then I guess all y'all might be gay? I don't know. But, you know, then you saw it. You saw the whole situation, the whole parting of the seas where everybody was like, we was not in the club on Tuesday. We don't know nothing about molly. Don't - never heard of Makonnen, none of that.
CARMICHAEL: What do you mean?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: When I came out of the gay, everybody who I was working with, my whole community from Atlanta - not even just from Atlanta, because at the time, my Atlanta relationship got strained because they felt like, oh you ran off with Drake, and now you left the whole team. So it's like, OK. But y'all know Atlanta. Y'all know I'm being the realest Atlanta motherf***er in this game right now, coming - doing this, coming out as gay. And so it's like, we all going to be silent on that. Ain't nobody going to really say s***. You know, we're going to try to work with you because maybe that gay s*** might work - you know what I mean? - but we ain't really trying to - you know what I'm saying - work with you.
CARMICHAEL: One group that had something to say was his one-time collaborators, the Migos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP IT (REMIX)")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Singing) Teach me how to whip it.
CARMICHAEL: In an interview with Rolling Stone, the group questioned Makonnen's credibility, calling it a contradiction that he could somehow rap about trapping and selling molly while simultaneously being a gay man. According to Makonnen, no one from the label ever reached out privately, either. When we reached out for this story, an OVO rep hit us with the no comment.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: They've never spoke to me or spoke on any of this stuff with me, so I just feel like OVO has been done with me since "Tuesday." You know what I mean? Like, we ain't never really had no let's do some s*** with you, because - you know what I mean? I guess I'm just me from Atlanta. You know? I mean, I represent that. And I guess they only looking for a certain type of representation to be around. And so I guess it's the more harder thug, I go to jail type s***, I'm a thug motherf***er from Atlanta. I feel like they feel like that's what they can associate with. And then when they was trying to associate with me, it was like, I guess I am the thug motherf***er from Atlanta and all that, but I also am gay. And if you really know thug motherf***ers in Atlanta, you really know they ain't gay.
I knew that this was going to piss everybody off more than make everybody happy. I knew that more people were going to leave me, then run towards me. You know what I mean? That's why I did it - you know what I mean? - because I was like, I can't handle this fake s*** anymore.
CARMICHAEL: The way Makonnen sees it, it's like rap's growth is stunted around some real archaic ideas of masculinity. And hip-hop, as a result, has been slow to evolve.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's like, hip-hop about to turn 50 years old. And so I was like, let's imagine if hip-hop was a person, and let's look at all the transitions that person went through and all that stuff. It's like, would we consider that a real motherf***er, or would we consider that the fakest motherf***er around? Now we got babies out here. We got Lil Nas X and all these other little - the littles again. We got new group of littles again and littles that done grown into fathers and grandfathers. Y'all still ain't saying nothing? What's going on with hip-hop?
CARMICHAEL: In the years since splitting from OVO, Makonnen is often written off as a one-hit wonder, but that's furthest from the truth. In a lot of ways, his influence is more present now than ever. The truth is he's become something of a cult hero for a lot of artists on the rise. His emotive sound could have passed for one of the biggest generational shifts in music, the rise of the SoundCloud era, from Lil Yachty...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE NIGHT")
LIL YACHTY: (Singing) I know you want this for life.
CARMICHAEL: ...To Trippie Redd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** LOVE")
XXXTENTACION AND TRIPPIE REDD: (Singing) Please don't throw your love away.
CARMICHAEL: ...And 6 Dogs...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOSSING")
6 DOGS: (Singing) Tear-stained racks...
CARMICHAEL: ...To Juice Wrld.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCID DREAMS")
JUICE WRLD: (Singing) I still see your shadows in my room.
CARMICHAEL: The SoundCloud era gave us more of the feels than almost any in the genre's history. It was time for tears and turning up. These were artists who didn't abide by rap's static rules of masculinity. They rocked nail polish with the face tats and were as likely to shop at Hot Topic as they were at Footlocker. One of the torchbearers was the late emo rapper Lil Peep.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWFUL THINGS")
LIL PEEP: (Singing) Bother me. Tell me awful things.
CARMICHAEL: Before his untimely passing, Peep and Makonnen dated briefly.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I had a, you know, relationship with him, and then he ended up coming out as bisexual to his fans, and that gathered him a whole new support and was able to give healing to his fan base before he ended up passing on. But it still has helped them heal, you know, because it's like, somebody else is able to show us it's OK to be us.
CARMICHAEL: They even worked on a whole album together that Peep once described as one of the most legendary albums of all time. It still hasn't been officially released, but the single "Sunlight On Your Skin" gave a peek into their relationship.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNLIGHT ON YOUR SKIN")
LIL PEEP: (Singing) Come. Let's watch the rain as it's falling down, it's falling down.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Singing) Where I want to be again and again - alone, you and me, just skin to skin.
CARMICHAEL: Whether the industry wants to acknowledge it or not, Makonnen queered the trap. His sound, his style, his voice - hip-hop might not have been ready for it. It might have puffed out its chest and said, no homo. But that couldn't erase his impact. Like so many queer artists before him, Makonnen laid the groundwork that others are dancing on now.
What's your hope for queer artists in hip-hop in the future and whether or not the culture and the industry has space for them?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: It's always had space. It's just been in the back. You know what I mean? It's just the background space. But the queer - they definitely always been here, but hopefully now they can get more accepted and move into the forefront. You know what I'm saying? We're appreciative and thankful for your achievements and your, you know, efforts that you provided to the hip-hop culture, which, you know, allowed us to keep being diverse and keep thriving and accepting these new acts and new artists and these new groundbreaking things that we've been able to enjoy since then. It's OK to be yourself. It's OK to be an individual, and it's OK to go and support those individuals. You know what I'm saying?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: The biggest thing I walked away with after spending a couple of days with Makonnen is this - dude's good. And I mean that in every sense of the word - the music he's making now, the life he's living in Portland, even the freedom that he clearly feels in his own skin. It's easy to write a story off as an OVO tragedy, but that's just a footnote in a career that didn't start with Drake and definitely didn't end after it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ILOVEMAKONNEN: My name is ILoveMakonnen. I live out here now. I've been living here five years. I love Portland. I love the state. I love all y'all creatives out here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I love you.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Rapping) I got the gas and the coke. I don't sell molly no more.
Since I've came out as gay, everywhere I walked through, everybody has bowed down to this gay s***. So it's like - it don't feel like it's just Portland. I feel like it's the whole world now. You know what I mean? I haven't had an issue being gay. Now it's like, oh, s***. We listening to stuff. We making stuff. Like, good. Thank you because last time everybody just wants to hear, is he gay? Is he gay? Is he gay? Is that the dude? Is he talking about this? Like, dude, get off of that. Move on. And I feel like the people here have been moved on from that, and they don't care. They're into the music and stuff like that and the arts and the expression of the person. You know what I mean? And so, yeah, it's been very good. And I want that to go worldwide, and I feel like it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPENDIN'")
ILOVEMAKONNEN: (Singing) Winning - I'm winning, winning. I'm winning, winning, winning. I win. I'm winning again. So I'm spending. I'm spending, spending. I'm spending, spending, spending. I'm spending. I'm spending again. I'm spending. I'm spending, spending. I'm spending, spending, spending, spending.
CARMICHAEL: Next week, queer aesthetics take over the mainstream.
SAUCY SANTANA: I had to let people know, like, no, I got my own career. I'm my own entity. I'm talented, and I'm going to make this work.
CARMICHAEL: Saucy Santana takes us through rule No. 7. It's on the next episode of LOUDER THAN A RIOT.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARMICHAEL: LOUDER THAN A RIOT is hosted by me, Rodney Carmichael, and Sidney Madden.
MADDEN: This episode was written by Rodney Carmichael and Mano Sundaresan.
CARMICHAEL: And it was produced by Mano Sundaresan. Our senior producer is Gaby Bulgarelli, and our producers are Sam J. Leeds and Mano Sundaresan. Our editor is Soraya Shockley, with additional editing by Sam J. Leeds.
MADDEN: Our engineer is Gilly Moon. Our senior supervising producer is Cher Vincent. Our interns are Jose Sandoval, Teresa Xie and Pilar Galvan. And the NPR execs are Keith Jenkins, Yolanda Sangweni and Anya Grundmann.
CARMICHAEL: Original theme by Kassa Overall, remix by Suzi Analogue. And scoring for this episode was provided by Suzi Analogue, Ramtin Arablouei and Kassa Overall. Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact-checker is Candice Kortkamp.
MADDEN: Like and subscribe to us, y'all. And if you have thoughts about this episode and you want to talk back, hit us up on Twitter. We're at @LouderThanARiot. And if you want to email us, it's firstname.lastname@example.org.
CARMICHAEL: From NPR Music, I'm Rodney Carmichael.
MADDEN: And I'm Sidney Madden. And this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.
ILOVEMAKONNEN: I made "Tuesday" at Mike's producer's house. Mars and the other Ear Drummers and Rae Sremmurd was there, and it was - they wasn't even fully formed yet. It was - they were still, you know, getting their footing and stuff. And they - I remember when they first met me, too, at that house. They came downstairs like I was Kanye West or somebody. And I was like, I don't know what Mike is telling motherf***ers out here, but y'all are goddamn acting a little too crazy. I mean like, bruh, I barely got a quarter tank of gas outside. Y'all looking at me like I'm, you know, somebody.
CARMICHAEL: How did they come downstairs? What did they do?
ILOVEMAKONNEN: They was like, oh, Makonnen? Bro. Oh, man. Like, yo, big fans, bro. And I'm like, big fan? Like, I don't even have nothing out. Like, what are those people talking about? He's like, no, Mike showed us this. Mike showed us that. And their just spirit in their eyes was just so, like, yeah. And then they was like, all right, Makonnen's about to work. And they was like, all right, bet. We fixing to sit back here. And they just sat in the back and was just, like, looking and like, oh, s***. He about to do it.
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