Last week, Atlanta singer 6LACK had his first performance in New York, headlining the website Pigeons and Planes' No Ceilings showcase at Rough Trade. A video uploaded by Pigeons and Planes shows him stepping out onto the stage to perform the album's single "PRBLMS," a breakout viral hit that currently has around 8 million plays on Soundcloud and 3 million more on YouTube. In the video, his live voice sounds almost identical to the calm of his recordings, and what looks like the entire crowd recites his lyrics with him word-for-word, holding up phone flashlights. Where much of music by black artists throughout 2016 was rightfully praised for its incorporation of social commentary—especially on the heightened level of overt racism and police killings of black people— Free 6LACK was a look inside, for personal liberation. For five years before the album was released, 6LACK was in a dead-end independent label deal, making no money and not much progress. Much of the album, with its mellow, almost gloomy feel, touches on the 24-year-old's negative experiences with that label, as well as the failure of personal and intimate relationships he felt detained by.
He's now with LVRN, a.k.a. LoveRenaissance, a collective and label that also includes Raury and is grooming eccentric standouts from the Atlanta area. 6LACK's music falls squarely into the middle of the sometimes rap, sometimes singing repertoire that many new artists are equipped with today. While there's a soothing quality to his voice and production, his rhythmic storytelling feels like the rap he started his career with. On "Rules" he celebrates now being able to answer only to himself. On "Luving U," he's frustrated by the constraints he feels from an intimate relationship, where his dedication to his work and availability to his lover are conflicting with one another. There's no shortage of vulnerability in his music; his singing voice rarely raises an octave, making you feel like he's having a one-on-one conversation with you about his life. That combination is one that isn't present in the East Atlanta scene, giving 6LACK the space he needs to thrive.
The day after the show, 6LACK (whose name is pronounced "black") stopped by VICE Headquarters dressed in—what else—all black, with a bandana wrapped around his free-form dreads. Small in frame and quiet, he reflected the introspection in his music, seemingly analyzing everything around him with an acute eye. As yoga classes started to take place in the office's lobby, we joked about jumping in to participate and spoke about the success of his debut album, what achieving personal freedom feels like, and his anticipation of fatherhood.
Noisey: A lot of your music covers relationships, both personal and business, that have gone sour. Throughout those situations, what did you come away learning about yourself
6LACK:Mainly that I was invested in everyone else more than I was invested in myself. I had to go through being there for people and overextended myself to finally get to a place where it was finally time to figure my stuff out. Whether that was working on my music or working on me as a person. I think I learned a lot in a sense that I can be generous to a fault and that it was time to focus and apply time to myself.
Throughout this rebirth stage, did you surprise yourself at all? Were there any left turns as you were gaining footing?
Just that I'm very picky when it comes to my own shit. I'll listen to my stuff and think it sounds dope, but ask what else can I do to it. What else can you say? What's the next line that's gonna make somebody turn around like,"Oh shit, that was a good one"? It should never be that easy to impress yourself.
Has that pickiness ever held you back?
I don't think it's held me back as of now, but I could have been picky to a fault. I could have recorded music and hoarded it all because it's not good enough for me. Also with dropping music, fans get what they want and you get to learn from them and whatever you put out. With Free 6lack, I got to a point where I was comfortable with it and a couple years from now I'm not gonna look back and regret any of this music. I had to get to that point first. Now I'm like, "If it ain't broke don't fix it."
What is your concept of freedom? Do you believe that you can be simultaneously free and constrained?
I think it's situational. I might have felt like I was getting better mentally and getting certain things together in one area but then I would still have stuff I wouldn't even bring up to my old label or have conversations I wouldn't approach. I just feel like being free is not going against anything you want to do. When I was in my old situation, I had to walk around with the weight of, "Oh, let me try and make this song or let me do this." Now it's at a point where I can make what I want to make.
Is there anywhere in your life where you don't feel free right now?
With everything that comes with music, obviously you lose privacy, personal relationships. I know that area of my life is gonna be the most difficult one for now and for years to come because it's only gonna get more busy. I know that's something I have to sacrifice, but it's also something I'm prepared for because it's part of the game.
At No Ceilings, people were reciting every word of your music. Was there anything unique about that experience that you don't usually feel?
I feel like I'll never be fully used to that. Sometimes it is a shock; I come to a city I've never performed in and I see people mouthing the words like, where did y'all come from? Where were y'all a couple months ago or a couple years ago? It's always cool to see. I think for the shows I just did, I always come out and look around and smile for a second because it's still the same feeling. Like, yo, y'all are here because you want to be here. Not because somebody told you to be here. Not because you got free tickets off the radio. You're here because you waited for tickets to be available.
I saw in an older interview where you talked about the power you feel in your music is that you get to talk about the everyday things people go through whereas some of your peers are kind of removed from that. Do you fear having a similar disconnect as things continue to progress?
Being vulnerable is what's needed right now. Everything is kind of surface level for the most part when you listen to music. If it's not super artsy, it's radio level. It's cool and it's fun because I love it all but at the end of the day, it's nothing difficult about talking about real life shit and to actually get into detail about it. Let me walk you through this story so you can be like, "He's talking about this? I've been through this." People want to be able to relate, so why not continue to make music where people feel like they know you instead of just listening to a song?
What's a successful recording session feel like to you?
I kick everybody out. I have my engineer set me up where my mic is in there and I record myself. I think the great thing about that process is, when I'm in a room by myself, I don't feel the pressure of someone waiting for me.
Go forward and looking at the rest of the year, should we look forward to anything unexpected?
I have something for my core fans. I know the stuff that they like and I have something on tuck specifically for them. And I have a baby on the way. That was a real line from the project. She'll be here next month and that's been the extra push behind everything. I'm naming her Six. The greatest thing is that I literally knew it was a girl before my girl knew it was a girl. All these songs I wrote, all these stories I told, all these situations I've been in, it had to be. Just bring it on. I'm ready.
Photography by Jason Favreau. Follow him on Instagram.
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