It's a warm night in mid-April when I meet up with Ex and his manager Ugi Ugwuomo outside a big movie theater on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Ex is over six feet tall, maybe 220 pounds, and is wearing a floral print bandanna around his head. As we introduce ourselves and start walking toward a 24-hour combination hookah bar and Middle Eastern restaurant that he likes on nearby Atlantic Avenue, he gives me the first of what will be many glimpses at his open-hearted and friendly smile.
When we sit down and order our grilled chicken salads — "the chicken here is slammin', it's seasoned so well," he says — Ex tells me this was the place where he went with his girlfriend the day he found out Universal had decided to cut bait on his deal. The two of them had met up after her waitressing shift and were walking down the street when she asked him what was wrong. When he said he had bad news, she said "What, they dropped you?" like she'd known it was coming, and when he confirmed her hunch, she didn't miss a beat: "So what? Start over. You're better off without them." After that, they went to Brooklyn Bridge Park, had sex and then came to the hookah bar for dinner.
"Getting dropped felt better than getting signed," eXquire says, while Ugi, a restrained and lanky 31-year-old who was a fan of eXquire before he became his manager, looks on from the other end of the booth and shakes his head. When I ask how long ago it happened, eXquire scrunches up his features like he can't remember and explodes in laughter. "When the fuck did we get dropped, Ugi?"
"October 7th," Ugi says good-naturedly. "You know how I know that? It was my birthday. That was the first call I got on my birthday, man."
The proximate cause of Universal's decision to part ways with Ex was a song he recorded with up-and-coming Chicago MC Chance the Rapper and which he leaked online against the label's wishes. But that was only the last straw. By that point Ex had spent two years making music that he says either he hated or the label hated, or both. "I kept trying to go into the studio and make shit I thought they would like, and they kept not liking it," he says. "Once I got my deal, I just didn't like rapping anymore. It's like the worst fucking thing I've ever done in my life."
He had suspected for a while that the ax was coming, and the impression was confirmed when he finished Kismet, a mixtape released around this time last year that left the label cold, and which Ex says he had to pay for out of his own pocket. Things grew unmistakably dark after that; looking back, Ugi compares it to the final weeks of a relationship that's not working, when "you sit on opposite ends of the couch and then go to bed without having sex."
An A&R rep who was Ex's main point of contact at Universal did not respond to several requests for comment, so it's hard to know exactly what the label's reasoning was — it's quite possible, as is often the case, that they just decided he wasn't good enough, and that they'd been too eager to sign an exciting but largely untested artist. It wouldn't be the first time a major label made an investment that didn't pan out, and it won't be the last.
To hear eXquire talk about it now, part of the problem was that Kismet was an attempt to convince people that he wasn't just some buffoon who could make outrageous sex jokes and rap about his out-of-control lifestyle. It was supposed to be an intelligent-sounding record, meant to alert people to a reflective and vulnerable part of his personality that had been largely obscured on Lost in Translation. He changed his image to go along with this campaign to be taken more seriously: he got rid of his gold teeth, wore glasses on the album cover and declared that he had stopped drinking.
Sitting across from Ex and listening to him explain this, it's not lost on me that Kismet was his reaction to the interest he had received from people exactly like me — namely, white music fans who love rap and who watched the "Huzzah" remix video after reading about it online and were excited by his off-kilter, hard-partying vibe. This reception didn't sit well with Ex — something that, in retrospect, made itself evident early on, when Complex, in a Q&A, asked him to recount the craziest thing he had ever done on a subway car and Ex disappointed them with his answer. "Ah, man, nothing crazy. I ain't one of those delinquent, dirty niggas," he said. "I don't be doing no wild shit like that. I'm just trying to get where I'm going."
"I had to rebel against that corny shit," Ex says to me. "As big as 'Huzzah' was, people from where I'm from didn't like it. They always hated me for that song. They felt like I sold out. They felt like, 'Oh, you did a song for hipsters and shit, but you ain't do a song that represented where you was from.' That was hard for me. It split who I was."
He worried about ending up like Akinyele, a flash-in-the-pan rapper who scored a novelty hit in the early days of Napster with a song called "Put It in Your Mouth." It was the kind of thing you played for your friends in seventh grade after school. When Ex says the name of the song, I tell him I remember hearing it for the first time and laughing at the lyrics, not quite believing it was real.
"See?" Ex says. "But he's a dope rapper! He just never got his recognition because he made that song about getting his dick sucked, and niggas pigeonholed him, like, 'Oh, he's nasty and freaky, and into fucking and sex!' And I feel like I went through the same thing. People were like, 'Oh, 40s and strippers, motherfucker!' That's why on 'Kismet," I was like, 'I don't drink no more. Fuck that.' I was mad. I was just like, 'Y'all gotta respect my music.' I'm not wearing beads. I'm not wearing gold teeth. No strippers. Nothing."
Exiting from Universal turned out to be a blessing, Ex says — liberation rather than failure. It's hard to tell if he's just rationalizing or not. But he insists that getting dropped led him to regain the will and ability to rap almost as soon as it happened, and pushed him to start working on a new record. For the past several months, he says, he's been putting in three or four nights a week at a studio in Fort Greene, where he has a computer and a microphone set up, and which he rents for $650 dollars a month.
"I buy Hennessy, I call Ugi over… and I just rap, man," Ex says. "I just let it come into my head and have fun. Sometimes I'll just sleep in there for like three days. Sleep on the floor, wake up, record, get drunk, pass out, wake up, record. Eventually I'll have an album."
One Saturday night in mid-May I go to Ex's studio to watch him work. It's around midnight when Ugi lets me in and walks me to the room where Ex is playing music off his computer, laughing and talking with two longtime friends from Crown Heights. There's also a guy in an Adidas hoodie who looks like Jonah Hill and has an outrageous New Jersey accent. I don't catch his name but am told he's a producer whose beats Ex heard online and liked. He's clearly psyched to have been invited out to the studio, telling me that "it's not every day" that you get an e-mail from someone of Ex's stature out of the blue that just says, "Hey, I like your shit."
Ex had told me in a text message that he was going to be here working until 8 a.m., but for now I gather he's warming up, as he seems to just be previewing some of his new songs for his friends. A guy who introduces himself as Gorgeous sits next to Ex at the computer, and Ex looks him directly in the eye as he raps along to his own words, which are booming through a pair of massive speakers.
Ugi stays standing the whole time and dances very earnestly, by himself, to the music. He seems to know most of the words and it's obvious from watching him that he loves being Ex's manager and thinks everything his client does is incredible. At one point Gorgeous calls up a friend in another city on FaceTime and has him listen to the new stuff through the phone. "I felt that! That shit was hard!" Gorgeous says after one particularly intense performance. Ex laughs and says it isn't done yet, that he still has to work on it some more. But Gorgeous says he likes it just the way it is.
(Below: Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire in the studio)
After a while Ex leaves the other guys in the studio by themselves to get a sandwich at a late-night deli. It's raining a little bit and on the walk over Ex spots an umbrella someone has left under a park bench and grabs it. "That's how I do," he deadpans. "I got secret umbrellas and shit planted all over Brooklyn."
He tells me he and his girlfriend, the one who coached him through the label troubles, had recently broken up. They'd met under unique circumstances, he says, after Ex played a show and saw her in the audience. When they made eye contact the whole room went dark and he could focus only on her as he finished his set. Much to his frustration, she left before he had a chance to say hello and so he spent the next two days looking through the avatars of all his Twitter followers looking for her face. Finally he found her, and after about a month of direct messaging and texting, they met up and fell in real love.
Now that they've broken up Ex says he's back to indulging in his weakness, which is "troubled, crazy women" and "gangster girls." "That shit's mad attractive to me," he says, laughing. "I'm like, addicted to that lifestyle. I just love the excitement, the uncertainty of it. I don't know why! I can't explain it, man. But it's inspirational to me creatively."
Hearing this I bring up "Kismet," and ask him how he feels about the approach he took on it now that some time has passed. To my surprise he says he regrets it — that by "spoon-feeding people depth" he forgot his primary purpose, which was to be entertaining and fun to listen to. "I got so boring!" he says. "I was so boring." What ended up happening was that the record caused the fans who loved his wildness to turn away from him, while others, who maybe didn't like him so much at first because they thought he was a thin caricature, interpreted it as an indication that he was, secretly, a "conscious" and righteously lyrical rapper. This was not a lane that Ex wanted to be in anymore than he wanted to be the cartoon of a drunken alpha-male — a feeling he expressed on Twitter recently, after asking his followers to suggest topics for him to rap about: When one of them said he should address the "broken education system," Ex replied with: "Fuck I look like, Talib Kweli?"
As we eat our sandwiches on a bench outside the deli, Ex says he wishes people would let him be everything he is — a smart guy who grew up in a tough neighborhood, and whose love for partying and sex doesn't conflict with being thoughtful and serious. As far as he's concerned, he says, it shouldn't matter so much what you rap about, only whether you're good at rapping about it.
"Some people sell drugs and go to strip clubs and that's what's important to them, and when they go to the studio, that's what they express," he says. "And that doesn't make them wack, it just makes them different from another motherfucker who is like, 'I wanna talk about suicide and public education.'" His favorite artists at the moment, he says, are the Atlanta trio Migos, who are hated by boom-bap traditionalists who accuse them of being all style and no substance. At the same time, he says, he grew up listening to underground rappers who self-identified as being smarter-than-pop, at a time when Top 40 music was still presumed by many to be inauthentic, dumb, and irredeemably commercial.
"My fight has always been that I just encompass a little bit of everything — I can't help it," he says. "But people always say I confuse them. That's the main criticism I get with my music is, 'It's confusing, he doesn't know his direction.' And I'm like, 'No, you don't know my direction.' Because, I mean, I can do everything! I can give you a party song. And I can do a song like 'The Explanation' [from the Alchemist album Russian Roulette] where I tell a story about being kidnapped by strippers and taken to an alien planet… And then I can turn around and give you a song that's like, 'I'm drunk in the club, I don't give a fuck.' And it's all dope!"
Obviously it makes no sense to take an artist's word when it comes to evaluating his own work. And listening to Ex talk about how he knows without a doubt that he's the best rapper in New York ("Nobody's fuckin' with me here," he says. "Not one of them, and they know it.") It seems that perhaps he could use some harsher critics than the enthusiastic friends he seems to have surrounded himself with since going independent. At the same time, his easy laugh and his infectious cheer convinces me that he is genuinely content with his life and his work now that he is no longer affiliated with a major label. At one point he says that hip-hop is only 40 percent of his life — that he's more invested now in being a good son to his mom, who works as a bus driver in Brooklyn, a good sibling to his little brother Cokie, who lives with him, and a good lover to whoever he falls for next.
As we ride up in the elevator back to his studio, Ex wonders aloud what the other guys have been up to while we were gone. His real work for the night, he says, won't start until they all go home and he is left alone. It sounds like a good plan, but when I leave around 3:30 in the morning they're all still there, doing goofy freestyles over beats brought in by the kid from New Jersey. The following evening sees the release of "I Ain't Even Fuck Rihanna" — one of the first songs to come out as part of what he's calling his Bootleg Liquor on a Sunday Night series — and for the first time in many moons, he gets written about by pretty much every major rap blog.
A few weeks later, the day after his 29th birthday in mid-June, Ex performs live at Le Poisson Rouge, a club in Manhattan's West Village. Moving with fluency and grace, Ex is on stage wearing a flowing Hawaiian-style shirt with shorts, and the same bandana around his head that he had on the day we first met. His brother is serving as hype man for the night, and doing a great job at it; at one point, when he gets a little too excited, Ex turns to him and says, lovingly, "Alright, chill, DJ Khaled."
The lights are a bit too bright and the people in the crowd, most of whom are there to see the long-running underground rap duo People Under the Stairs, seem only semi-interested, but Ex looks like he's having fun. At the end of the set he reminds the audience what his name is and instructs them to look him up online. "Google me on xvideo!" he says, referring to aporn site. "I might be on there with your bitch!" The line draws laughs, as it was surely intended to, and in a moment that seems to encapsulate the balancing act Ex is trying to pull off as he dives into the next phase of his career, he follows it up with, "Thank you, I love y'all" and puts the mic down.
Afterwards, Ugi — who watched his client's performance from the front row, hands in the air and a huge smile on his face — tells me Ex's album is getting close to done, and that he has even started talking to a few labels about possibly putting it out.
When I find Ex outside after his set, he refuses to divulge any details on these discussions. But when a kid from inside the club — a totally wasted, self-described amateur chemist from Westchester who claims to have invented a pill that can make any drug experience more intense — comes out to smoke and asks Ex awkwardly if music is his main hustle at the moment, he says yes. I remind him about the 40 percent thing. "Nah," he says, shaking his head. "Not anymore. It's 100 percent now."
The unspoken question, of course, is whether that'll be enough. But the next night Ex is back on stage, playing another show, this time in Brooklyn. "Gotta keep the chickens fed," he says.
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