All photos by Debi Del Grande
It must be 90 degree inside this warehouse, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Kehlani. The Oakland singer sprawls casually across an overstuffed velvet chaise, taking hits from a j in a satin gown like a tatted up Olympia; you half expect someone to come over and start feeding her grapes.
Her heavily-made up eyes scan the room's decor: poured velvet curtains, flickering chandeliers, luxurious, worn-out upholstery, dusty tomes, melting candles. The scene could be midnight in some haunted French chateau, but the we're on set in Downtown LA for her and Belly's eerie new music video for “You.”
In an adjacent room outfitted with low-slung chandeliers, Belly emerges from behind a cloud of fog to lay down a verse in a bandana and leather jacket, entirely unruffled while the rest of us look on and blot sweat from our faces with our T-shirts.
“Rather than just trying to embody the words and re-enact everything we’re saying in the video, we want to just capture the meaning and the mood,” Belly tells me earlier in his trailer, between drags of Titan OG. “The song is about how everyone can play as hard as they want to be, they can act, but there’s always that one person when you get home, that one person you think about.”
The stark, moody single is the latest from the Weeknd collaborator’s new mixtape Another Day in Paradise, and his first time teaming up with Kehalni, though the two are close friends.
We sat down with the Canadian rapper to talk about the Psycho Films-helmed video (due out this week), his work as a songwriter, and the darkness underscoring his latest project.
NOISEY: What’s the concept behind the video?
Belly: It’s different vibes, really cool visual effects happening live on the spot, in terms of certain lighting aspects. We’ve got a tunnel light that’s a part of the set, almost like endless chandeliers, so it’s really trippy. The director [Jack Begert] did a great job with it. This is probably the most loose I’ve been when it comes to my videos. I’m usually more hands on with the ideas and the creative stuff like that, but I got Lamar C. Taylor, he’ll bring the visual to life. He’ll find the most talented young guys that are really hungry for it. and that’s how we get the visuals that we get.
Tell me about the song and how you and Kehlani teamed up for it.
Me and her are great friends. I know a lot of people say that but I don’t have a lot of friends that I can actually call “friends” in the industry, and she is actually someone that I can call a friend to me. This is the first time that we actually worked on anything in the studio together, so that’s what we came out with, and it just really shows the importance of having real chemistry with somebody and being able to translate that into the music, and I think this song is the best example of that.
Did you have her in mind for it from the beginning?
I did. We always spoke about working on something when the time was right but I feel like because it’s somebody that is a friend of mine, we kind of knew it was going to happen, so we didn’t force it, and something dope came out. It was just the right time, the right vibe, the stars aligned, and we did something really dope that we’re both proud of.
Talk about the song itself and the lyrics. There’s a dark vibe that suits both of you as artists in a specific way.
The song is about how everyone can play as hard as they want to be, they can act, but there’s always that one person when you get home, that one person you think about, and this is that epitome of that feeling, that person. It’s just so real that no one can ever deny.
Are you the kind of person that needs that pain, that kind of power and weight over you, or are you able to thrive when you manage to escape from it?
It’s weird for me. Happiness escapes me a lot of times. I don’t think the things that make people happy in a conventional way are the things I find happiness in. So that’s been a learning curve for me right now. Learning that I am the darkness, kind of. No matter what’s going on, I have that energy that I tap into because of certain scenarios that I came up on in my life, certain things I experienced, things that you can’t erase. So I embrace it and use it, and I think it’ll be enough inspiration for the rest of my life just based on what I’ve already seen.
Has reclaiming the darkness in that way become its own source of happiness for you?
Yeah, but it’s a temporary high. It’s for the moment. Once it wears off, and the come down kicks in, it’s a whole other conversation.
So then what do you do?
I write again [Laughs].
What makes you happy?
I don’t know. I think that’s what life is, though. It’s the quest to try and find out what it is in heaven. There’s a lot of things that make me happy, but the embodiment of happiness every day is what I haven’t been able to find.
What would you do if you felt fulfilled? Would you be able to make music? Some people are afraid that if they find what they’re chasing, then they’ve lost the muse.
Yeah, I feel you. And sometimes I step away, but you always come back stronger no matter what. I feel like with music, it’s just going to embody the moment, so if I ever do feel fulfilled, then my music will represent that. But for now, even when I talk about songs like this, or talking about something like that one person, it still has a dark undertone to it. It’s still from a place of want, and not have.
How’s the new project doing? Are you happy with the response to it?
I’m always happy to give my music to fans, I don’t care about the stats and I feel l like that’s what’s going to make my stats really mean something one day because I don’t even look at that, once I put the music out and know my fans have it and i know it has a chance to grow in this world like people hit me up from all over the world that’s special to me, no number, no percentage, no weekly stat I mean the plaques feel nice, it’s cool but nothing feels better than knowing that someone is listening. Like you’re not making something that falls on deaf ears.
So what’s next?
I’m still working. I’m excited to get back in the studio. July has been a month for me to go travel and go see everybody that’s been supporting me. Really just showing my gratitude to everybody. I’m in disbelief to how crazy everything went. I just wanted to get out there and say thank you in person to a lot of different people. In the month of August I get to make music again, so we’ll see where that goes.
How has it felt to have a new audience after all the work you did with Abel? Is it an added pressure? Do you feel like you need to separate yourself from it?
To me that was a blessing on its own. There’s a lot of guys that did the songwriting then and tried to venture into artistry, and it didn’t work out for them. I feel like I started as an artist and then did songwriting, and the only reason I did songwriting in the beginning, even before I started working with Abel, it was like my songs that people were falling in love with and taking for themselves. So it was always like, man I know I can do it, but for the time being this is what I need to do for so many reasons. Working with Abel has been such an amazing experience, because really everything that we’ve done together has been his vision. I’m just blessed enough to be able to compliment whatever he needs when he needs me, but he’s hands on with everything. The kid’s a real genius.
How did your recent work as a songwriter influence your return to the studio for your own work?
Honestly, just being able to work with guys like Abel inspired me, especially when I play them shit that’s my shit and they say it’s really dope. It’s like cool, ok, we might be onto something. For me, there were a lot of things I enjoyed about stepping back and being able to work things from a different angle, coming back and understanding shit a different way. And I think now I’m enjoying this a lot more because of that.
What’s your favorite strain right now?
I don’t think I could ever get over the OG. The different strains of the OG are my favorite.
The power strains like Jet Fuel, the taste, it’s probably my favorite strain of OG. I think what Berner and the Cookies SF guys do with the Cookies is incredible. I think Gorilla Glue is one of my favorite strains of those.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to say to my fans and believers, it feels better knowing I have people in my corner. In my whole life I never felt that, other than my direct and immediate people that I have around me. So it feels nice to have that in my corner.
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.