The Atlanta cherub goes deep on America’s problem with excess, the plague of gun crime, and Donald Trump.
Photos courtesy of Andy Wood
Makonnen is sick of my shit, I think. This is mostly my fault, since I’ve been trying to talk to him using the same formula one would typically use when engaging someone in dialogue. But with Makonnen a conversation is comprised of ideas that turn sharply in mid-sentence, following a straight path one minute before careening into an ideological abyss the next. He’s also not a fan of labels, making it hard to find out what box he sorts himself into when he rejects the very concept of boxes. Perhaps he can feel me trying to sort him, which is why he doesn’t want to be here.
The thing that’s obvious about the Atlanta rapper is that he’s a person whose compassion is born from equal parts frustration and hopefulness. Makonnen doesn’t seem to know if he wants to run away from all the problems or try to fix them. In a world full of people with hammers trying to turn problems into nails, Makonnen is equipped with an inflatable pool toy. And while this is arguably his biggest tool as a creative person, it’s also the thing that keeps him from falling in line and becoming a fully accessible pop star.
His latest album ILOVEMAKONNEN2 sees the rapper using his voice to both drift and drill into the listener’s mind, with songs transitioning from feelings of loss to celebration at break-neck speeds. He stretches syllables and intonations like elastic bands over top of production from FKi, Danny Wolf, and even himself. It doesn’t sound much like “Tuesday,” the hit that helped him go from making music with his dogs to making music with Santigold and DJ Mustard, but if you listen to it long enough you can hear the same roots: A goofy kid having fun.
The first thing you notice about Makonnen are his eyes, which look as similar as a human’s eyes could be to an anime character’s, seemingly always on the verge of tears while also radiating with joy. The second thing you notice is how much smaller this version of Makonnen is from the one you saw in the DIY videos he filmed in Atlanta, his slimmed down shape adorned with a leather jacket and topped by an ushanka with the fur flaps drawn up, making him appear almost a foot taller.
He’s in Toronto for a short Canadian tour, and although he’s been here before he has what feels like a million questions about the Great White North. His connection to Canada is completely tied to one thing, and that is Drake. In a place where there’s less than 2 degrees of separation between anyone walking down Queen Street and the 6 God, Makonnen is patient zero. He’s also arguably the most successful artist signed under Drake, who helped him secure a Platinum plaque. Makonnen’s voice has the ability to slip from high pitched to baritone in an instant, adding to his mystical and unpredictable demeanor. “I’m enjoying Canada’s white snowy day and hopefully it’s greeny marijuana for me,” he says cackling. “You know I can't perform unless I smoke weed?”
Really? When was the last time you performed sober?
“Never. Even in churches when I was doing gospel. I would just smoke up and roll up in that bitch like ‘Hey! Praise! We here!’ The most high,” he says with a laugh. “But I don't need marijuana like that,” says Makonnen reassuringly. “What I’m starting to do with my body now is challenging it and then celebrating it. So yeah, I chill out on trying to smoke. You can’t just be just vacation all the time or hard work all the time. That’s how I feel.” This line of conversation eventually leads to us talking about work ethic. I ask him if he thinks Americans are working too hard and he laughs. “I think people in America don't work hard enough!”
His own work ethic is very admirable, and the details of his five-year plan are so specific it makes me re-evaluate my own direction: “In five years I plan on having a few companies with water cosmetics and supplies for animals and babies.” This stands in sharp contrast to my five year plan, which is a mix of “go with the flow” and “don’t go broke.” I ask him to expand on the idea, and he says he wants to make baby pacifiers, dog chew toys, blankets, and “all cozy things for animals and young humans.”
We park outside the space where we plan on playing billiards and eating poutine, and he casually mentions how he’s not a fan of two specific labels: fat and gay. I think back to his conversation with the New York Times the year before, “The rap world thinks I’m gay. A lot of people out there do. They think I’m a homosexual, which is not a problem. I don’t want to say I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m bisexual or any of that, because that’s just… All that’s doing is dividing us.” Makonnen is clearly a human being living beyond the idea that everything has to be one thing or the other: red or blue, fat or thin, gay or straight.
We hop out of the van and make our way into the that’s been set up for a game of billiards. Despite him telling me he’s not very good, five of my billiards remain on the felt after he sinks the 8 ball. He jokes that if we were in Atlanta, I’d owe him $5,000. I remind him we’re in Canada, so no such rules apply. Speaking of rules and safety, the idea of gun accessibility—or lack thereof in Canada—is a favorite topic of Makonnen’s. To contrast this safety, he cites the fact that over 100 people have been shot in Chicago in the first few weeks of 2016 alone. “I try to tell them to drink more water and put the guns down, but is that what people want to hear when they live a different lifestyle?” he says exasperated. “You can hear all this [music] on your earphones and it sounds great, but then I have to go outside and deal with major gun violence. So what do I do? Tell you guys to come give me money and come to my shows?”
Eventually our poutines arrive, the island of curds sitting in the pool of gravy that covers the bedrock of fries. Makonnen has what feels like a million questions about Canada, one of which is whether or not we have a Chik-Fil-A, which in a roundabout way leads to us talking about gay rights. In 2015, the same year America passed a law making gay marriage legal, Canada was celebrating its tenth year of equal rights, a fact that shocked Makonnen. He plays with a string of melted cheese while looking pensively at his fork before asking: “You think Americans are bullshit?” I think he’s asking more about Canada’s views than my own personal ones, but I answer in the affirmative nonetheless. “I wouldn't mind living anywhere but the United States for the rest of my life,” he says, making me feel slightly better about my answer. “I’ve already lived in America, I understand it.”
As we finish the last of our fries, he says that he used to be in better shape before fame, noting how he was a personal trainer at one point. The key to health, he says, is not over consuming. “I would have like this,” he says gesturing to the poutine “and a burger, and some chicken wings, and maybe some mozzarella sticks, just because of American overindulgence. Doing drugs, getting the munchies and not having control of anything. In America, it’s not frowned upon. ‘Take some more. Take some more. Let me give you too much,’” he says mimicking a doting mother. “Don't you leave no food on your plate baby.’” But does the Super Chef cook for himself? “Sometimes. It’s more expensive to buy vegetables than it is to buy anything else. In America, that’s the highest price shit. You gotta be like rich to eat good.” I nod in agreement, thinking about how most of my vitamins come from extra mac sauce. “Americans just don’t deal in moderation,” he says excitedly. “It’s just go bigger, go overboard. XXL. Five times the slice, four times the cheese, ten times the diabetes.”
I feel like if I can spend a few more hours with him, I can convince Makonnen to shred his passport and pledge allegiance to Justin Trudeau. Instead, Donald Trump’s name is brought up.
“Is there a Trump tower in Toronto?
I nod, noting that it’s just down the road from where we are now.
“I’m excited about Trump, he's a true American. He represents America very well.”
“That’s what America is about, that big business arrogance. And he swears that he's right in his mind. When he says those things, he's really not trying to offend people, it’s just how he thinks. It's so offensive. But that's how Americans are. Who doesn't want to be Donald Trump in America? He’s rich and powerful! He has lots of properties and does that dumb ass pageant and all that bullshit.”
Who are you voting for?
“I’m not voting, my vote doesn't count.”
So what's the solution then? Leave?
“I don't know if you can leave. You just gotta deal with what you're dealt. You really don't tell anyone your plan. I’m ready for Kanye to run for 2020. The first family would be Kanye and Kim and Saint and North and then the Kardashians come by. Do you think they’d film the Kardashians in the White House? Holy shit!” He’s now visibly excited by the idea of a television show set within the highest political office in the world. “That is the best shit in American television history. Keeping up with the Kardashians from wherever the fuck all the way to the White House. I’m sold on American, It’s good entertainment.”
The way he says this seems to be slightly sarcastic, so I can’t help but asking: “Do you hate America?”
“No, I love America!” he says, seemingly offended that I would even ask. “I just hate America’s mind state right now. America's a great place, there’s a lot of opportunity there and it goes back to you, as a human. A lot of people from different countries come to America and they take that advantage because they see that it’s a great place for opportunity and it’s a great place to study and focus on me. But America is the land of distractions, so if you're not here for yourself, you're going to get distracted. And next thing you know you're in jail or married in Vegas.”
If this seems nihilistic, it’s not. His statements don’t seem to be coming from an outlook of pessimism, but from the reality of someone who has had to overcome a lot. After a violent accident involving the death of his best friend which led to an entire city hating him, Makonnen overcame that hate by making himself ILOVEMAKONNEN. He then achieved widespread success due mostly to a Drake co-sign, which lead him back to that same local hate again, this time spurned by envy. He mentions how people in Atlanta don’t fuck with him anymore because they simply see him as a path to get to Drake, which is enough to make anyone paranoid about any relationships they come across. But if there’s any word you can use to define Makonnen throughout his journey it’s “focused,” whether it’s a focus on burying himself in a city that looked down on him, or making it out of that same city with the help of his music. Through that lens, his disdain towards “the land of distraction” is completely justified.
“It doesn't matter if Barack Obama is president, Kanye West, Donald Trump. The people will have to want to change themselves before anything is going to change, it doesn't matter which president is in there. It’s just who they listen to the most. They just care about entertainers, these are my comforts. When my mom slapped me and told me to run to my room, I ran to my Beyoncé CD. She made me feel better. [Beyoncé] says get up and clean my room? I’ll get up and clean my room. That’s just how kids are thinking, it’s sad but it is what it is. The parenting is gone from America.”
At this point someone notes that our time is up and that Makonnen needs to get ready for his soundcheck. We exchange handshakes, and he and his group leave briskly. The only souvenir I have from the entire exchange is a bowl stained with gravy and a few remaining fries at the bottom, as well as a half-drank bottle of water. Maybe he liked our time together, maybe he couldn’t wait to leave. There’s just no way of knowing with Makonnen.
Slava Pastuk is the Editor of Noisey Canada. Follow him on Twitter.