6LACK has no problems in Toronto. A sold-out show at the historic MOD Club Theatre, a VIP lounge full of some of the city's biggest hip-hop faces, and an enthusiastic team decked in all black outfits. It's like he never left home. But he isn't home. Backstage, his tour manager jokes with me about the presence of ketchup chips—a product unavailable south of the border.
"They ain't got 'em down there," she tells me. I laugh and ask why—adding that I've never fully understood why the US couldn't just put ketchup and salt on their chips like the rest of North America. Before she can answer, we both go silent: 24-year-old Ricardo Valentine—stage name 6LACK (pronounced "BLACK")—has begun to run through some vocal warm-ups.
"So why you wanna love me so bad, why you wanna love me so bad?" he belts to a room containing just the two of us. Near the end of "bad," his voice slips. He doubles back. "Why you wanna love me so bad, so bad so, bad-aa-ad." That time was better. He continues. "Haven't you heard about my miserable past—criticalpast, pitiful past? I swear no matter what I touch it breaks, I no longer wanna see your face." His voice is like a glass cutter, and although I can't tell who he wrote the song about, an urge filles me to pull my hoodie tighter and drop my eyes.
In front of the only mirror in the green room, he fixes his audio pack and I ask for a shot. His reflection smiles a sheepish grin as the shutter clicks. I check my monitor: turns out I can neither see his smile or his eyes—only his dark silhouette, and my face in the corner of the frame.
Carlon Ramong, 6LACK's creative director, opens the door beside us to let us know it's show time. With no questions, we all grab our gear and head downstairs to stage left. At the bottom of the steps, a shotgun cartridge of tour members and security huddle around the door to the stage. Suddenly, an audience member taking the wrong path to the bathroom screeches her dusty Vans to a halt beside us. Clearly in disbelief about how she had got back here, she opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. Only a second or two goes by before a security guard exiles her back through the general doors with a tight grip on her shoulder.
Valentine, hanging his head and humming to the roars of the crowd, doesn't seem to have noticed. He steps into the room, and swaggers on stage as soon as the beat drops. 10 songs later, there are audience members crying and wailing. Whether it's out of pure fandom or some sort of emotion evoked by his songs, I'm not sure. During his encore performance of hit single PRBLMS, Valentine personally passes a stuffed black bear doll (reminiscent of his signature logo) to an audience member. With a quick bow, he hops off stage, and sprints off to the green room.
Upstairs, Valentine buries his face in his hands, and looks up to a welcome sight: Cash, the Weeknd's manager, and XO artist Nav, are standing with open hands. A quick dap, and a strong hug, Cash tells Valentine he hasn't seen a performance in the city like his "in a long time." Nav, notoriously photo shy, agrees to a single picture with the Atlanta artist. Cash tells me and the crew they'll let it slide for one reason.
"This one is family," he says, and at the time, I'm not sure what it means. Toronto and Atlanta, despite both being monumental forces in modern hip-hop, are light years apart. Days later, however, it starts to make sense: the Weeknd makes a Tweet announcing he would be "popping up somewhere in LA tonight." Lo and behold, it was 6LACK's final west-coast stop.
All photos by the author.
Jake Kivanc is writing the Bible of Toronto hip-hop. He's on Twitter.