Whispers rumbled through my hotel in Atlanta on a Thursday evening in late August. Quiet ones. Record label Disturbing London had flown the long journey across the ocean for Red Bull Music Academy's Culture Clash, but if you were to listen carefully – to mutterings in the hotel bar or hushed, awkward elevator conversation – then, supposedly, not everyone booked had been granted entry to the US. The plan was for Disturbing to represent British music in a soundclash, going to battle in the classic Jamaican fashion against three other international crews with the winner decided by the crowd after four rounds. I was most concerned with the fate of A2, the exceptionally talented, somewhat enigmatic rapper-cum-producer who had recently signed to the label, and was the reason for my trip.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I questioned who lived behind his online avatar entirely. Throughout his career he had been at odds with this era of self-promotion and over-exposure. In London, his music drifted from speakers and headphones, but he, the man, largely skated along unseen. He resurfaced every so often to unveil a new creation, most often a blend of modern R&B, soul and confessional rap, stirring together a cocktail of sound until the word "genre" was rendered useless. Whatever you'd call it, the introspective music felt like the Arctic soundtrack to wintry British afternoons or late-night romances warmed by liquor and windows shut tight to the rain.
Early EPs like November 2012's Hennessey Thoughts and May 2013's Faded Photographs, were rap, slow-burning melodic memoirs about a fast life with big money; late-night diary entries on the plagues of his present and optimism for the future. The production was minimal, stripped back, allowing his hoarse voice to illuminate sincerely on some of his deepest thoughts.
Outside of the music, I knew little about A2; his Instagram was sporadic, tweets cryptic, interviews were rare. But as he put it on "Outer Limits", almost in a nod to his growing circle of listeners: "to my city I'm a treasure." And he was right. While the tides of Black British music continued to drift over mainstream and even international shores, he remained the culture's best kept secret. So as I leaned in on conversations, late on that Atlanta evening, I wondered if his already elusive presence would escape me completely. Then in the near distance, beyond bellhops pushing luggage racks, the roll of suitcase wheels signalled the arrival of a slim 6-foot man dragging a carry-on bag towards the lift. As he walked past my shoulder, I recognised the figure from music videos and rare social media snippets as A2. He nodded cordially as he passed, and then disappeared into the open lift. I smiled to myself, relieved.
"I didn't know you existed," I joked to him the next day, once we were finally sitting together by the abandoned warehouse that would later host the Culture Clash on the outskirts of the city. He laughed quietly to himself, leaning in from the chair opposite me. His demeanour, he said, with eyes low, head slightly bowed, comes from growing up in Croydon, south London, where you couldn't be loud. "If you was loud you were attracting too much attention. It was almost embedded, just do your thing in silence. You stay lowkey." Before he became A2, he was just another young boy growing up in south London with Caribbean roots, hearing his Dad play reggae and soul, his mother Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston. Then, when away from the house and spending time with relatives, he remembered sitting in his uncle's BMW, listening to jungle or tagging along with older cousins who adored speed garage and So Solid Crew. At an early age he says he felt touched by music, and then later in life, wanted his music to do the same.
Further into in his adolescence, like many of his contemporaries, he dipped into grime – a period in his life that I hesitated to ask about, all too aware of how it's become a cliché when talking to British artists whose music vaguely resembled something close to rap. "Around 2003 to 2007," he began, not at all irritated, "I used to go to sets like Heat FM, Axe FM, Rinse and all of these places. I used to love it. Pull up, there's like ten man in there, fighting for the reloads. I used to love that shit. I feel like it was a period of my life, a growth; like learning the ropes." He spoke about getting into production in his adolescence too: "I got Fruity Loops from like 13 and that's probably where I first started. If I never got that, I probably wouldn't have been doing music."
But grime was only a phase, and once he'd exerted all of that youthful energy, sprayed enough bars over chaotic instrumentals, turned up at enough sets, he decided to mellow his sound, calming as he matured into a young man. He picked up habits, he said, like drinking Hennessy and smoking, and no longer felt the urge to spend his free time tussling for the mic in youth clubs and community centres. Instead, he evolved into the artist that would become A2, offering sombre, downtempo melodies and obscure samples, stepping off the well-travelled road off his past into new sounds.
He had since left teenage years in Croydon behind and moved into the music industry, a fantasy land where silence could quickly spell decline, where the most successful are often those who shout the loudest; a philosophy he did not share. "Do you care about the perception people have of you?" I asked. He shrugged. "Not really, If I'm honest. I'm not out there like that, even though in this day and age it's almost unheard of." He paused. "I was on the phone yesterday and someone was telling me, 'yo that lowkey undercover shit, you can't do that no more.' Oh, so this is an act now? I've got to flick a switch and say 'I'm out here'? Nah man, that's not the one." Instead, he seemed happy digging his own path, content with a life in the shadows if it assured him peace of mind.
By VII and VII 2, his third and fourth EPs released in November 2013 and December 2014 respectively, he had started to find his groove, entering his early twenties – a period of his life and career that he says he will never forget – with a style that was finally starting to sound like his own. "That period was special," he told me, his voice still soft. "That's when I felt like I was transforming and getting comfortable. Before, I didn't really feel like I could rap; I felt like I was still coming from grime and that changeover was awkward. But when I got to VII, I started to get into that chill vibe. I was still hungry on producing, and would go and link my bredrin, sit down, get lean, make rhythms, make tunes. I'm probably missing out on how important that segment of my life was. I remember it like it was yesterday." He paused. "I remember it so vividly, the word of mouth was buzzing. I just found that 'this Is A2, this is me now.'"
The music that since followed carried a confidence of an artist who had finally found himself and his sound. Song "X2 (DBLE)", released in autumn of 2016, is delivered like a sermon, his gruff tones floating over a frosty instrumental sown together by a dark, rumbling bass and – to my ears at least – the faint clang of church bells. Comfortable with the melodies that were sung, at ease with the verses that were rapped, it was A2 in the most complete that we had heard. According to the description for the official video, the single was taken from his long-awaited and long-promised debut album, BLUE, due out via Disturbing London. But before then, he still wanted to evolve. "I'm trying to get out of sampling," he said, before pausing. "I don't know, man… Long story short, I want to be sampled, and I don't feel like you can sample me if I'm sampling. I want to give you my own shit … that '20 years from now you're sampling me' type of shit; timeless shit. That's what I'm trying to get into."
An hour or so later, A2 carried his long limbs onto the small stage for soundcheck, weaving among workmen and wires. "A little louder," he requested, his voice echoing hard and loud through the empty warehouse. Then a few hours after that, when night had fallen over Atlanta and the venue was rammed with supporters waving foam fingers and team bandanas, A2 stepped out onto the stage again. Watching on from the crowd, I felt that the sound he had created could only remain a secret for so long. He looked unruffled, slightly detached, calmly leaning into the first verse – "London's burning, early morning, can't believe I'm still awake." Though unfamiliar with him, the mainly American crowd reacted well, not knowing that to many, he was already a legend. And it seems that will forever be the case for A2: gaining ground and supporters the traditional way, ploughing along his own path while the rest of the world played catch up.
You can find Aniefiok on Twitter.
See more on Red Bull Music Academy here – the next Culture Clash takes place in South Africa on Saturday 23 September.