6LACK makes albums to stand the test of time. One of the year’s best, his second LP, ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’, offers a fresh perspective on a city that we’ve visited through our headphones countless times before.
Imagine, a scene so thick; December in Atlanta, Georgia. Dollar bills hang in the air as champagne flows, and more notes explode towards the sky, precipitating over a pair of young women – one’s elegant pose from a glistening silver pole countering the other’s bounce to the 808 drums that drive the whole ritual. Sensational!
Outside, between candy-coloured Cadillacs and bowling ball Impalas, a young hustler braves the cold, hunting for stray souls in need of something to take the edge off; the rubber band that hangs loosely around his wrist longing to be stuffed with cash. We’re fucking up some commas tonight!
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While one could easily make the case for Atlanta as the city most influential to the sound of contemporary popular music, its increasingly familiar lyrical narratives have conjured up a caricature of a culture that thrives strictly between the strip club and the trap house. While there is no denying the importance of these institutions, the landscape that spawned Outkast, Goodie Mobb, Gucci Mane, Usher, T.I., Young Jeezy, Ludacris, TLC, Xscape and countless others is beginning to broaden once more. Artists like Donald Glover, with his award-winning TV series Atlanta, and battle rapper-turned-R&B singer 6LACK are sharing their own experiences coming up in the Southern hub once celebrated for its eclecticism.
Right now 6LACK – pronounced, as his merchandise reminds us, BLACK, the 6 referring to Zone 6, aka East Atlanta – is 4,204 miles away from home. He’s gazing off into the distance through a dressing room mirror, its bright white bulbs providing the room’s sole source of light. “East Atlanta is usually known for trap music,” he says, sweat glistening across his brow as he takes a sip of water. “I’m from the same side of town as all these other guys, I just have something different to talk about. This is my story.”
Though you wouldn’t guess it, it’s Friday night and just minutes ago the 26-year-old was sharing his story with a sold-out crowd at central London’s Heaven. While his crew celebrate downstairs, and a few local affiliates hang out waiting to say hello, 6LACK has morphed back into the introverted Ricardo Valdez Valentine, politely engaging in conversation but clearly less comfortable than he’d been on stage. “Performing is one of the very few times in my life where I can flip the switch, let go and express,” he admits. “That’s the highest energy you’ll ever get from me, because usually I’m just relaxed and to myself.”
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On his latest album, ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’, 6LACK’s vivid take on his local environment expertly balances enough detail to feel specific, while allowing listeners just enough space to fill in blanks and make the surroundings relatable to their own realities. Through 14 songs we follow him twisting and turning through his stream of thought: he wrestles with the disparity between his romantic relationship and passion for music, questioning his own hypocrisy as he pens introspective slow jams despite finding his own refuge in Future’s ‘Monster’ mixtape and Young Thug’s ‘Barter 6’.
“East Atlanta is a place that has layers,” he explains. “The layers aren’t always broadcast because when there’s one thing that’s popular, one thing that’s consistent, that becomes the face. But East Atlanta, it has different sides of town. A lot of the stuff that these people rap about – whether it be street life, drug life – all of it comes with pain, all of it comes with emotion, all of it comes with turmoil in relationships. I focus on these things and that’s my job, to be that therapist.”
6LACK’s Atlanta has its own identity, but never rejects the parallel narrative of the streets: on his first project, ‘Free 6LACK’, Future’s mixtape favourite ‘Perkys Calling’ becomes ‘Ex Calling’, and ‘Thugger’s Interlude’ from ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ pays homage to Young Thug with a late night R&B rendition of ‘Check’. Coming up in a city that’s constantly churning out new stars filled 6LACK with the confidence to pursue his own dream. “Growing up around it, seeing people do the same thing you want to do, it’s always in reach,” he recalls. “You see people in the club, you see people in the neighbourhood, you always run into people. Seeing it so close up just inspires you to want to be a part of it.”
Though 6LACK may be reticent in person, his songs can be honest almost to a fault. ‘Let Her Go’ catches him considering how he’d feel if he were to break up with his girlfriend in order to clear the path for music, asking himself: “Will I regret it? / Will I forget it? / That’s something I don’t know.” Most wouldn’t have the courage – or perhaps recklessness – to commit this uncertainty to record. So many albums concern themselves with the joy of romance, or the grief of break-up, but 6LACK approaches ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ perched on a knife’s edge between the two.
“I wanted to come from that perspective because we actually live in the in-between,” he offers. “I think the biggest thing that a lot of people don’t really admit – or notice – is that a lot of the shit that’s going on, we don’t know. We walk around like we know this, we’re sure of that, we have experience with this or we’re skilled in that, but at the end of the day a lot of this shit I don’t know!”
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He hopes to impart this acceptance of ambivalence to his listeners, finding comfort in speaking the unsaid. “One minute I want to be with somebody, next minute I want to be completely alone for three weeks in the studio,” he expands. “But I’m owning that and knowing that it’s something that everybody else goes through. It’s not the prettiest thing to say, it doesn’t make you feel great, but it’s natural. I wanted to touch on that because a lot of people don’t do it.”
While the honesty can be therapeutic to listeners, being so candid artistically does have its drawbacks when it comes to real life. “I feel like I’m way more honest on songs than I was in my real life, which is why I have work to do,” he admits. “I could write a song and say everything I needed to say, but it was hard for me to talk about it. I don’t know why it’s so easy for me to use [music] as my outlet, but I stuck to it and over time it’s helped me to better my personal life.” Since breaking through with his 2016 album, ‘FREE 6LACK’, the majority of 6LACK’s obstacles have manifested through his life outside of music and he’s been focused on self-improvement.
“Music is not easy to me, but it just comes naturally,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if my body is going through it, if I’ve lost my voice, if I’m fighting to get through a live show. That shit doesn’t matter to me, I can power through that all day. But getting the shit that matters [together] as far as your personal life goes is what I’ve had to deal with the most: having a kid and being the best father I can be, moving into a new relationship and trying to be the best person I could be.”
His daughter, Syx Rose Valentine, was born in February 2017 and appears on the cover of ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’, strapped to her father’s chest as he stares into the camera from a makeshift studio that’s been set up in his kitchen. While the tales on the album seem to be dated prior to her birth – its musical references suggest they take place circa 2015 – 6LACK says that fatherhood has applied clarity to everything he does. “Beating around the bush is no longer an option. You have a kid to be clear for, so that’s what I’m working on,” he says. “I know I did the right thing making this project and including her as far as being a part of it. Telling my story so that one day if she does have a question about this time period of my life, the answer will be right there.”
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When Syx does listen back to experience her father’s document of his mid-20s, she’ll likely find her own influence in the records hopeful conclusion. Khalid joins in for ‘Seasons’, which announces the call of summer, making way for the triumphant finisher, ‘Stan’ – an unapologetic public display of affection on which 6LACK celebrates his lover, declaring himself her biggest fan. For the time being at least, the happy ending is more about manifesting destiny than his present reality, where he remains in a state of flux: a work in progress.
“If you listen to the project, I take it through my emotions, through my ups and downs,” he reveals. “At the very end is the page I’m trying to get to. This is the next chapter. This is where my life is headed. I talk about trying to figure out these relationships, walking out of these relationships, dealing with them. And then the end is like, ‘Okay, but this is what it’s all about.’”
Like any great album should, ‘East Atlanta Love Letter’ will remain an important time capsule, not only for Syx and 6LACK, but for Zone 6 and beyond. “Albums last over time,” says 6LACK, as the hallway packed with admirers beckons. “I can have a song that goes viral tomorrow, but half of the people that stumble onto that song won’t know who the hell I am. I’m willing to work and chip away until I get to where I want to be.”
He may be too well mannered to admit it, but it feels like the bustle of activity downstairs is finally beginning to intrigue him.
“My purpose isn’t to figure out what the most catchy, easiest thing is,” he explains, picking himself up from the bright lights of the dressing room table. “My purpose is to tell stories and make people feel shit,” he shrugs, matter-of-factly. “I can’t really see anything else.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Philip White
Fashion: Brydie Perkins
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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