Makonnen Still Loves You

A little over 33 years ago, this tranquil corner was a murder scene. “That’s Marvin Gaye’s estate right there,” Makonnen says, from the passenger seat of a four-door sedan. He’s been giving the driver precise directions while barely looking away from the iMessages lighting up his lap.

According to police reports, on April 1, 1984, when Gaye tried to intervene in a fight between his parents, his father shot him twice, one bullet piercing his heart, killing him. It was the day before the singer’s 45th birthday. “I planted a tree in front of my house,” Makonnen says. “I called it the Gaye tree.”

Born Makonnen Sheran, the artist known as iLoveMakonnen is taking us on a brief tour of the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up. The car drifts down 21st Street toward his childhood home, a modest bungalow that was once the guest house for the mansion beside it. The sun in Los Angeles—and the Santa Ana winds, and the incessant, inescapable dust—radically diminishes the lifespan of most materials, so it’s clear that the home and its muted yellow siding has been well-maintained. An expansive tree takes up half the front yard.

Makonnen resides in Portland these days, but he’s back in town to record and do some press. It’s an oppressively sunny weekday afternoon, made all the more disorienting because the 28-year-old artist has spent the last several hours underground, with a cadre of producers, engineers, friends, and a manager, in a tightly secured studio beneath a hotel in West Hollywood. In that room—all rich mahogany paneling and soft, recessed lighting—Makonnen demoed out a handful of songs, sporting a blue rugby shirt and a moustache that makes him look like a lounge singer from a better, more advanced society.

He works quickly. For example: He’ll float over to the keyboard, try an idea, abandon it, then collapse back onto a wool sectional and survey a coffee table littered with 120-calorie packages of chips and cookies. Then, he’ll head into the booth, tell his engineer exactly which AutoTune settings to call up, summon a beat from a stray email attachment, and pounce. The process of sketching out one song—which is usually left in skeletal form—lasts about seven minutes. Many rappers or singers will go through a beat and do a reference track where they plot out different cadences; with Makonnen, most of the hooks are fully formed from the first take. At the time of this writing, the best couple still haven’t stopped rattling around in my skull.

If you were merely watching the chart data roll in, it would seem that Makonnen’s career has been on the decline. Really, it’s been more like a retreat. The guy who began by making music alone, in his bedroom, became a near-constant presence in the music press for his high-profile singles and famous collaborators virtually overnight. Within a year, his sound had morphed rap radio, making it a little freer, a little stranger. And now, the 28-year-old has receded from the spotlight and is working on taking it in entirely new directions. It seems like a volatile career path, but also, a natural cycle: from total isolation, to pop stardom, and back to the shadows.

But less than a half-hour after we’ve reemerged into the sunlight, Makonnen is ambivalent about the results. “Did I do anything in that session?” he asks me. Before I can answer, the driver of the car swerves into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant, which I’ll leave nameless so it doesn’t become a Trader Joe’s.

Makonnen was born here in Los Angeles at the very end of the 80s. He doesn’t really remember the Riots. His paternal grandparents, originally from Belize, settled in that former guest house, on the Eastern edge of what would be called Mid-City: West of Downtown, and just South of Koreatown. The house was likely never intended to support a single family, much less a latticework of cousins and uncles, but in the early 90s, it became a packed refuge from the gang wars that were quickly reaching peak intensity.

“As a child, this used to be so dangerous,” Makonnen says as we pass by a crowd of kids on Fairfax, lining up for a chance to step into the Supreme store. “I don’t even know people my age who are…living. I’m 28 now? I didn’t know 28-year-old males in Los Angeles, because all of them were dying from gang violence.”

Gentrification is a strange, imprecise series of lurches––frenzied periods of development followed by periods of lag, where different blocks and neighborhoods catch up to and surpass one another—and when we arrive near his childhood home, Makonnen will mention that he shouldn’t walk outside in the blue rugby shirt. But for the moment, as we turn past gleaming Benzes and teenagers in expensive streetwear, he points out which streets he trick-or-treated down and which he remembers blanketed by flowers and candlelight, to commemorate people from the neighborhood who’d passed. There’s some overlap.

The homes here were built in the 1920s, and ended up housing, among others, those who got rich during the first Hollywood boom. It’s a strange neighborhood: a couple of streets’ worth of sprawling estates quickly dissolve into low-rise apartment buildings that have been neglected for decades. For Makonnen, whose father worked as electrician when he was growing up, it made for a fraught upbringing and constant warning to stay inside. At one point during our drive, he points to a house. When he was 12, he says, a boy who lived there robbed him for the pegs on his bike; by 14, that boy had been killed.

The neighborhood was occasionally a movie set. It’s where John Singleton shot parts of the college drama Higher Learning—and Makonnen would lie to production assistants about being the director’s son to sneak in and wander around. Still, he says, that sort of entertainment was superfluous. “You didn’t even need TV,” he says of life in the neighborhood. “You got action happening. Real action, real emotion—you see characters really die off. And you gotta go to their funeral yourself. And sit up there and fucking cry. Ain’t no commercial breaks. So I’ve been living the Hollywood life already, you know what I’m saying?”

Makonnen became a musical omnivore early on. Shuttled from house to house, babysat by an array of friends and family members, he was exposed to the city’s grimmest hip-hop, to Aaliyah and Mya, to funk and soul, to Cher and Shania Twain. He loved all of it. From an early age, he says he was “good vibes” and knew he wanted to entertain: “I always wanted to be a songwriter, singer, composer—all that shit. A creative. To be out here doing it all.”

Just after 9/11, his parents having split, Makonnen moved to Atlanta to live with his mother. It came with a bit of culture shock. “All these kids out here were fast,” he says: “Already having sex, already catching babies and shit. I was barely even doing the boyfriend-girlfriend shit. The most I’m doing is being at the movies with girls, holding hands. Y’all out here having sex in eighth grade? God damn, y’all off the charts!”

The last sentence he says in a lilting, comic voice, which cracks up everyone in the car. This is a constant: it’s difficult to imagine a room in which he wouldn’t be the funniest person.

In Atlanta, the influence of snap music, and then of Trap or Die-era Jeezy and early Gucci Mane, was overwhelming. (Gucci, Makonnen says, earned a lot of goodwill with his peers from Atlanta’s South side for signing Waka Flocka Flame; he says the departed “Travis” Flocka mentions in “O Let’s Do It” was a friend of his named Travis Scott, not to be confused with the rapper-producer from Houston by the same name.) Thunderous but playful, these sounds would prove formative for present-day super-producers like Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, with whom Makonnen started palling around a couple of years before 2014, when “Tuesday” hit and launched his career.

“A lot of kids in Atlanta, they live in great neighborhoods but try to be street or gangsta,” he says. “What you talking about gangbanging for when you’ve got a big-ass, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath?” he asks. “But it was cool to be hard.”

Makonnen experienced his own share of tragedies. In February of his senior year, one of his friends was shot and killed. Years later, following an incident involving a parked car that ended in the death of another friend, Makonnen would be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years’ probation . (Via email, a representative from Warner Bros. Records declined to comment “any further than what’s previously been reported” on both incidents).

Confined to his mother’s house by an ankle monitor for two years as his case traveled through the Georgia court system, Makonnen had taken to the internet, starting a blog and interviewing artists like Lil B and Miguel.

Years earlier, he had co-written some songs with his mother, learning how to record vocals and structure records. Now, with nothing but endless blocks of time, he took to refining that skill, making music that was playful and unmoored in the vein of MySpace-era Based God, but with a stronger melodic streak and jokes that played out over the course of a verse or a video instead of half a bar. Some of these songs, which were largely self-produced, were completely devoid of drums; others mutated peak-Gucci trap into something slower and spacier. (After his house-arrest stint was completed, he followed in his mother’s footsteps and attended beauty school, which he says inspired the mannequin’s-head cover art for his eponymous 2014 debut, iLoveMakonnen.)

When you ask him who his influences are, Makonnen will say: “The streets, Rick James, my family.” That’s purposefully cryptic, but it’s not untrue. He explains that he processed music mostly through the lens of the people who were playing it for him; his brother showing him a JAY-Z record, for example, became a memory of his brother, not of JAY-Z.

And so, while Makonnen is a distinctly 21st-century artist, saturated with information at all hours of the day, he quickly synthesized all of it (street rap, 80s pop, slinking R&B) into a sound that has few clear antecedents. His vocals can be delicate—they lilt and crack, and are often left nearly naked in the mix—or operatic, but the melodies always hit you right in the sternum. His music is pop, ultimately, but sounds like something from a dream he half-remembers. You can hear how difficult it is to capture that sepia mood on the version of “Tuesday” with Drake, which came out in August of 2014: one of the biggest pop stars in the world, who has tried his hardest to be chameleonic across genres and regions, reaches for the trancelike tranquility that Mak hits so easily.

Of course, “Tuesday,” with its playful taunts and mid-week debauchery, seemed as if it might make Makonnen a superstar. It vaulted him onto the pop charts; old relationships with producers like Sonny Digital, Metro Boomin, and Mike WiLL Made-It suddenly seemed like industry mitzvahs. He was OVO. This was after The Weeknd had become The Weeknd, a time when Drake’s blessing seemed like a surefire road to a sustainable career.

But just as rapidly as Makonnen has jumped from his bedroom to TV screens, things stalled. “There was never real communication,” he says today of his arrangement with the label. “Our handshake, our agreement, was just off of [Tuesday], rather than off of iLoveMakonnen as an artist. I was told certain things would happen, and they weren’t happening. And I don’t like to wait around. So I started making my own moves and seeing that those moves weren’t being supported, and started to think, ‘This relationship might not be the best for both of us.’”

Makonnen left OVO for good early in 2016, at the same time signing with Warner Bros. Records, which does distribution for OVO and announced an expanded partnership with the label this past May. It was not exactly a clean break, at least publicly. In an interview this year with the The FADER, Makonnen alleges that he was “threatened by others” at a VMAs after-party in New York, including someone he describes as “the biggest motherfucker in the game.” “I’m here in the middle of the floor, no security,” he claimed, “and they coming and I just step to the side and they see me and stop and the biggest motherfucker in the game goes, woo woo woo, “Next time I’ma fuck you up!” Via email, a representative from Warner Bros. told Noisey they had “Nothing further to add/clarify” regarding the incident. OVO did not respond to a request for comment.

Today, though, Mak is remarkably measured when talking about his past label situation. Via email, after our interview, he’ll tell me that he is “very thankful for the platform that OVO gave me at the beginning of my career. I have nothing but respect for all of those guys.” If anything, it seems the experience merely strengthened his faith in his own creative abilities.

“I’ve always believed in myself, because I’m the original of the song,” he says during our time together, speaking specifically here of “Tuesday.” “They came and remixed my song. Before y’all came, I was already rocking with it. So it didn’t matter if y’all came or left. I always loved it. That didn’t change for me. I always thought it was a great song anyway.”

In September of 2016, Makonnen and his mother relocated to Portland. He loves the city for the clean air, and says that since moving there, he’s been honing his skills in the kitchen and even trying his hand at farmwork. Having experienced the extremes of house-arrest isolation and Drake-induced gawking, he clings fiercely to whatever sense of balance he can muster.

“I only had one friend I brought with me from my old life to this new life,” he says, “and he just passed away in May. I don’t talk with anybody about it. I keep to myself and do my music. I like to stay working, doing my job. It’s a weird situation to be in. Take the highs with the lows.”

Makonnen’s time in label purgatory yielded some exceptional music. From 2014 through this year, he released the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth editions of his Drink More Water series, a sequel to his self-titled iLoveMakonnen record, and collaboration mixtapes with Danny Wolf and Rich the Kid––not to mention his work with the hazy New York collective Phantom Posse. Since he blew up, his music has gotten even weirder and more unhinged, with singles that nod to frantic dance music or to the spacier strains of trap that he helped popularize. He’s got a song that makes cooking crack sound operatic, and another that makes shaking hands at a party sound like a carnival trick. His latest commercial play, the Rae Sremmurd-assisted “Love,” recalls turn-of-the-century pop-punk. This eclecticism should leave his catalog seeming scattered, even incoherent, but everything is unified by his distinctive, lilting vocals.

For the moment, at least, Makonnen seems comfortable with the space he’s carved out in the industry—that of the innovator and occasional hitmaker. Still, his impact has been much broader than that, with his various styles spreading like tentacles into the rest of popular music. Most of the lighter permutations of modern trap music—as opposed to the more frenetic, bludgeoning strains—owe Makonnen a debt, from Rae Sremmurd, to new curiosities like Trippie Redd. Through artists like Bryson Tiller, he also can be traced in the spacier lanes of modern R&B, especially for the way his nearly untouched vocals interact with negative space.

In conversation, Makonnen flits from unwavering confidence that he’ll one day get his due, to a strange tranquility about it all. “I came on Earth for a limited time only,” he says. “So I like giving away my creations, you know what I’m saying? Not being like I need credit, I need credit. You know inside your mind where it came from.”

The music he is working on in the studio during this particular Los Angeles trip is some of his strongest to date. One song, the joyously unhinged “Spendin’,” which should be released as a single this fall, is catchy to the point of absurdity, despite being a one-take freestyle. (Later, in the car, Makonnen tells me he recorded it in the afterglow of withdrawing $2,000 from the bank—not a relatable anecdote per se, but certainly more within reach than the sums that get thrown around in most pop songs.)

But his most fascinating––and most irresistible––new material stems from his collaborative album with Lil Peep, who passed away unexpectedly on November 15. Peep was a synthesist, weaving emo’s most diaristic threads into hip-hop textures, and the songs Makonnen played me seemed to be driven by Peep’s sensibilities: broadly emotional, but with a piercing clarity. There’s an extraordinary one called “Falling Down,” which is produced by Mike WiLL and sounds as if the two were on a mission to instill a sense of dread back into rock radio.

The morning after Peep passed away, Makonnen took to Twitter. “I’m never gonna be ok,” he wrote. “I’ll always love u, we became best friends and made some of the best music I have ever been apart of. I’m gonna miss u forever ‘Little.’ Always in my heart and soul. Thank u for being my real friend.” He also shared a short video that included footage of the artists recording and embracing on the sidewalk.

I had spoken with Makonnen several weeks before Peep’s passing. Mak talked glowingly about Peep’s promise and creative intuition. He then told me that their relationship began with the younger artist telling Makonnen that his music had saved his life. “That’s what my mission was about,” he says of connecting to listeners on that level. “It wasn’t about selling a hundred million records and getting all the Grammys. I just really wanted to be able to affect people and have them feel more positive. I wanted to water these plants of humans. That’s why I tell them to drink more water.”

Makonnen is bent over the stove, rocking from foot to foot, maneuvering a pot and a skillet with little flicks of the wrist. A few feet away, at the end of a long, wooden table, his mother sits in front of a vast array of colored pencils, sketching out clothing designs in a booklet full of female-figure templates. Teena Marie is on.

While he’s in town, Makonnen, his mother, and a couple friends are staying in this sun-drenched rental house in Atwater Village, a neighborhood that hugs the banks of the Los Angeles River between the city proper and Glendale. Right now, though there are a handful of friends and publicists in the house, he’s cooking a vegan brunch—rice, asparagus, cabbage, sweet potatoes—specifically for his mother, who’s wearing a shirt with the iLoveMakonnen album art on its front. Others are perched around the table, on the nearby staircase, on a living room couch. It’s relaxed.

While Makonnen cooks, the conversation turns to the Trump White House, and more broadly to what seems like ever-mounting racial tension in America. Mak’s mother, slight and almost impossibly charming, considers this for a second, then recalls a story from few decades back.

“I used to sell TupperWare,” she says. “You guys have probably never heard of TupperWare.”

Makonnen shouts from the kitchen: “That was before the iPhone!”

She continues: “I was a manager, and our convention was in Provo, Utah. We had thousands of agents from all over the US, and I was one of three—what you would call people of color now. And I wore my hair in—we called them French braids. And I had a line outside of my room, of ladies who wanted to see and touch my hair. A lot of them had never seen anything like it.”

For years, Makonnen’s mother taught aspiring estheticians at a beauty college just south of Atlanta. Sitting in the dining room, she recounts the minor culture wars between her Asian students and black students, who she says would pack lunches or trek across the street to the Chick-fil-A, respectively. Makonnen, who attended the school, looks up from the pot of rice and coyly admits that that particular Chick-fil-A was the main culprit in the excess weight he carried when he became famous.

Makonnen’s clothes today––his weight loss is well-documented––have “Mr. Bitch” written all over them, in what appears to be Sharpie. This is the name of the clothing brand he’s launching with a friend. In conversation, he makes references to a nascent line of beauty products. It’s clear that these are not just vanity labels—for the family, beauty is something of a higher calling.

Outside of the Atwater house, smoking a carefully rolled joint, Makonnen tells me: “In beauty school, nails skin and hair—that’s something that all humans have. It doesn’t matter your race, your size, your financial state. We’re here to help you. We’re here to give those people confidence and help them feel better about themselves. We’re here to try to help build them up. That’s what I got from my mom.”

Starting around the time “Tuesday” blew up, Makonnen had been occasionally subjected to clumsy questioning about his sexual orientation in interviews, sometimes on the basis of his beauty school credentials. This past January, right around the time of the Inauguration, he finally opened up about it on Twitter, with characteristic wit: “As a fashion icon, I can’t tell u about everybody else’s closet,” he wrote, “I can only tell u about mine, and it’s time I’ve come out.”

Makonnen seems to hold few specific grudges over any homophobia he faced in the industry, but is unflinching in his criticisms of its fixation on his sexuality. “I don’t know what’s all this funny styleness about, because I was just here to do music with everybody,” he says of those who fixated on his sexual preferences when he was a new artist. “If anybody is gonna expose anything, I guess first I could expose myself,” he adds, then, beaming: “…as the realest motherfucker alive.”

If Makonnen’s music pulls such specific strings for listeners, it’s because he’s figured out how to articulate the uneasiness of being different: of being confined near the fringe of a party, or a scene, or an industry. When he talks about his coming records—and zooms out from the minutiae of writing and recording—he speaks about them in terms of what they’ll provide to listeners: solace, motivation, the feeling of being seen and heard. Take his 2015 song “Other Guys,” for example, where the line “I’m not like those other guys” stops sounding like a flip pickup line and starts being a statement of purpose, with the words “I think we should slow it down” registering, over Gothic, minor chords, like a gasp for air. Makonnen makes no bones about the fact that he’s deeply conflicted, even pained, but he powers down to the idea’s emotional center, and finds some sort of order, a moment of spiritual calm.

Back inside, as we clean up the brunch dishes, “Between the Sheets” comes on the stereo system, which throws the house into a major tiff about the relative attributes of the Isley Brothers and the Jackson 5. No one mounts a serious argument that the Jacksons were more innovative, but the prevailing sentiment is that their catalog should be held in similar esteem to the Isleys’. Makonnen, though, draws a hard line: “Jackson 5 were influenced by the Isleys,” he says, smiling and shaking his head. “They were the originators.”

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.

Justin Staple is a video producer for Noisey based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Instagram.

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