From True Laurels Volume 2 (January 2014): In recognition of Asaad's Flowers II dropping today, here is the cover story from Volume 2 where I met up with him to discuss the album in its development, the issues he'd be dealing with in his absence and what plans he had for his career, moving forward.
Last month I headed to Wilmington, Delaware to meet Assad—the controversial & talented Philly rapper who I’ve been following for about three years. I drove up from Baltimore with my friend Keem—who snapped the photos—on what was a strange, but favorable, 70-degree Saturday. We went to Delaware, not by either party’s preference, but because Asaad had a role in a video being shot for Philly rapper, Theodore Grams’ song, in which he is featured. The meeting-spot was an independently-owned insurance office in the middle of a huge highway that belonged to one of Grams’ friend’s’ parents. About ten minutes in, Asaad showed up with his manager, Kevin. As he walked over towards me, he cracked a smile as if we had met before. The approach was funny when I thought about how much it belied the crazed & unpredictable persona that he’s had on the internet. When he learned that I was from Baltimore he immediately went into fan-mode about The Wire. “A lot of people don’t know that some of The Wire was shot in Philly,” he said. “They used to be on my block, offering kids $50 to be in a scene. Man...my life is like The Wire.”
The first project Asaad dropped, Flowers, came out in November of 2009 when he was just 18 and resembled soulful rap from the likes of a Common and The Roots. It was an emotionally-driven record that showed a street kid’s dealings with relationships, getting blunted and having fun. Over beats that were felt like they were meant for open mic sessions, there was a joy in his voice that hasn’t been consistent in his work since then. In 2011, Asaad’s project, Dirty Middle Class, carried on the theme of Flowers but his flow and lyrics became sharper and more hard-hitting. From the project’s “Dirty White Leathers”: “True this: stressed genius would rather be clueless/ Instead I'm X-ing dream-girls off of my to-do list/ With a Pac moxy, a working-class hero's hubris/ With the world on my shoulders, damn et tu Brutus!” Dirty Middle Class is also where Asaad started to adopt trap instrumentals (see: “Mr. White Lighter (27)”). Since that sonic shift in his music, he’s been tireless with his self-releases, putting out six projects between 2012 and now, including White II, which had over 30 songs and was promoted as a “triple-disc” mixtape. A lot of material? Hell yeah, but for a person whose early-childhood room was his beat-making dad’s studio before he was born, he sees it as second nature. “Yeah I’ve been around it since I was a baby so it was like fate,” he said. “All the stuff I did in the past is light compared to what I’m doing now. I was always in an uncomfortable situation while I was recording. This time everything was set up great. I was in great studios. Had good people around me. Another thing is that, this time around I physically wrote all my songs instead of putting them together in my phone.”
A common theme throughout the day was Asaad’s denouncing of his previous music-making methods. He continuously brought up being around the wrong crowd of people over the past few years. As a speculating fan, I figured that’d be why his music went from Flowers to Black History Month II, a Carter II-esque mixtape that he put out last March where he unofficially changed his name to Saudi Money. The focus in each of its 11 songs was money and doing whatever it took to get it. “Before, I would be in a room full of dickheads and they’d just be praising me for no reason,” he tells me while eating a turkey hoagie. “So I was taking that energy in and I’d rap just to rap and then end the song.” To him, Kevin has been the biggest catalyst in his newly-altered outlook. Since the two linked up, Asaad has given up smoking, drinking, his phone, Twitter & Instagram—all of which were probably tools in creating his online persona as a livewire. He said that Kevin, as a manager, gives him a sense of direction that he never had. Together they’ve started a new hashtagged movement, #goodcouldbebetter, a slogan that was also in “Dirty White Leathers”. “When you think about #goodcouldbebetter, it’s like our motivation,” Kevin told me in the insurance office’s parking lot while we waited forever for Grams’ team to properly set up the video. “You see what’s going on up and down the East Coast: every city is getting gentrified. The people being removed don’t know where to go. This new music is a product of that. It’s really intelligent. He’s talking about some recent struggles and mistakes he’s made. You look at him and you see the tattoos on his face and you can easily stereotype him but you gotta get into the story.”
For the most part, I was buying most of what they were selling. Sure, Asaad’s former friends probably did have some impact in who he was becoming. I’ve gone through the questionable friend stage too, but an equal part of me sensed that there was some restraint in Asaad’s story. Either that, or he was so focused on telling me about his new music that he began to skim over the past. The new project that he’ll drop this year will be called Flowers II—a fitting way to start over. Our plan was to meet in Wilmington, kick it while Asaad finished his part in the video and then head to Philly to pick up the new project’s masters so we could all listen together. That never happened, though. For having a fairly simple setup, the video shoot took entirely too long. The bulk of my ten hours there were spent trying to tune out Theodore Grams’ lackeys as they told corny jokes and playfully shot blanks from the fake guns that were used for the video’s shootout scene. I couldn’t ignore Asaad’s energy, though. While he probably wasn’t as annoyed at the situation as Keem and I, he was clearly somewhere else mentally. He’d occasionally break from his anxious zoning out to joke around but mostly, he stuck to himself; he seemed focused.
By the time the sun went down, Grams finally called Asaad into one of the office’s rooms to shoot his part. Kevin asked me, “Yo, you wanna hear the unmastered version of Saudi’s new shit?”. I yelled “Hell yeah!” and got out of that office in a matter of seconds and headed to my car where he played us 25 minutes-worth of new material. It didn’t take long for me to notice how much more polished and locked-in he sounded on the new songs. Instantly, I was reminded of last June’s Cold Blue, which SPIN listed in one of its “most slept-on” lists. To date, Cold Blue is Asaad’s best showcasing of his versatility; on “Burn Tha Church/Family” he showed his ability to work auto tune, “New Drug” chronicled a failed relationship and “Holy Matri” is his best trap song yet. Still, for all of its positives, Cold Blue felt a bit thrown together and his high level of energy wasn’t maintained throughout. What Kevin played me felt like proof that Asaad had been in better studios with a clearer head. In a song called “Womp” he says, “Sleep don’t pay a bill/ I’d rather chase than fuckin’ chill”. “Angels” is a song that he had been raving about the whole day. After a night out with Kevin where he met some major-label executive-types that recognized and even approached him, he said he had to unload as soon as he got home. “Man, it was just a different kind of motivation. Knowing that top people are watching just made me go write.” I could hear the spilled-over inspiration, too. “Angels” is an inside-out revelation where Asaad sounds like he finally knows that he belongs. But the page-turning point of the night was an untitled track Kevin introduced by saying that it was the first song Asaad recorded after they’d come together. Over a simple soul-sampling beat, Saudi vented about being disowned by his parents, reluctantly having to return to his old neighborhood and how bad he wanted to succeed. It was the first time in a long time that, as a fan of his music, I didn’t have to lean on his skill or potential; he laid it all out so there could be no questioning. He was bare. The #goodcouldbebetter concept became real to me. As it wound down to its last bars he screamed, “Pusha T stole from me! He ain’t do me right.”
His seemingly one-sided feud with Pusha T, whom he says stole music from him, has gained him some not-so-positive attention. That, and the infamous artwork attached to his 2012 single “Boss Status” that displays Biggie & Tupac having sex which has, to an extent, overshadowed the music he’s been working on over the past few years. When I asked him about what impact he thinks the drawing has had on his career, he denied any affiliation to it and said that it was tampered with through whatever channels the song traveled. Whatever the case, he couldn’t disagree with when I brought up the unique space that he’s in as a rapper—having fans that have followed him from the beginning while there’s still people who’ve never heard of him in the same hip-hop circles. “On one end, I look at it like, I’ve never done shit,” he said wearing the same smile he did when talking about Flowers II. “On the other end, it’s like I got people that fuck with what I do. It’s weird. Rather than letting myself feel unbalanced, I just take it as motivation and I put all the energy from the support into this next project. Nobody is gonna be disappointed.”
Stream Flowers II below via Billboard: