The rapper Belly was born in the Palestinian West Bank and moved to Ottawa as a kid. While he’s a big-ticket rapper by today’s standards — Belly’s list of collaborations includes stars like The Weeknd and Nas — music was the last thing on his mind as a teenager. A familiar rap origin story, he and his friends in Ottawa used to hustle to make ends meet. It might explain the rapper’s natural affinity for street-level entrepreneurs like Jay-Z, whom he now counts as one of his personal friends and mentors.
Belly first came onto the scene in 2003 with an album called Getaway, a six-track collaboration with the Lebanese-Canadian R&B artist Massari. He started recording at the urging of Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, a music industry insider living in Ottawa who would go on to become a co-founder and CEO of XO Records, which belly is now signed to. As one of the most famous rappers to come out of Ottawa, it’s no surprise that there’s studio footage from 2010 where a then slightly less famous Drake appears at Belly’s studio, praising the MC’s command over his city. “You always got to respect when you come to a city and somebody is just the highlight of their city,” Drake says in the clip. “Like when their city is just nothing without them, you got to step back and say, okay, that’s that dude.”
Belly’s time in the industry has been split between behind-the-scenes work, writing for a host of high-profile acts like The Weeknd, and his more recent turn as an artist in his own right. He’s steered his music in a defiantly lyrical direction. His wordplay is replete with impressive turns of phrases that harken to hip-hop’s early days. With his third studio album, See You Next Wednesday, the 37-year-old artist finds a balance between pure lyricism and the types of big-ticket anthems he’s long been recruited to write for others.
The strategy for this album found the rapper simultaneously releasing boom-bap-infused singles like “IYKYK,” alongside raw rap tracks like “Money On The Table,” featuring Griselda general Benny the Butcher. On the album, Belly recruits a wide constellation of artists, old and new, to create a refreshingly far-reaching experience. “Two-Tone” features Lil Uzi Vert delivering potent vocals over classic Roc Nation production. And Big Sean recorded his impressively ominous verse for “Scary Sight” in person with Belly at Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood. Fresh off the release of King’s Disease II, Nas blesses the album with a verse on “Die For It.”
The album is one for open-minded hip-hop purists, who can both appreciate the crossover potential of a song like “Razor” and the autobiographical story-telling on “Can You Feel It.” Belly spoke with Rolling Stone about the making of See You Next Wednesday, his biggest album yet.
What was the first song you recorded for this album?
I think I started with some of the more feel-good turn-up type records. Like, I didn’t want to get too deep at that point yet. I was still figuring things out in my own head, so I didn’t want to start trying to write songs about certain stuff. So I was like let me just start with the party records. That’s what was coming out. So I think “Zero Love” and “Two-Tone” were probably the first two. At that point, I was just making songs. Those were the earliest that I ended up putting on the album.
Will we see a deluxe?
No. My process right now with making music is such a happy experience again for me that I can’t wait to jump into the next album. It’s like really a balance of giving this album all the time and attention it deserves which I’m going to do and the minute I feel like I’ve done my due diligence, you know, I’m definitely going to jump into the next album because I’m really having fun doing this again. It’s translating into the records and the music and it’s like I’m creating music that I’m happy to make and that I’m happy with the results. I’m excited to be back in the studio again.
Having worked on so much music with DannyBoyStyles, what was it like working with him this time around?
He knows. People don’t look at Belly and see me. They got to understand Belly is The ANMLS and DannyBoyStyles and DaHeala and Ben Billions and Infamous and… you know… guys that all had a part. A lot of it too was guiding in terms of taking their advice on where they thought the music should go and what type of sound I would thrive on and things we should try. I never want to take the full credit. Obviously, I’m someone who knows my direction and knows where I want to go but those guys have all been there to definitely guide the trip the whole way. It always feels good. It’s second nature to us to get in the studio and create.
What was your vision for the songs without features?
When I sequence an album, I want it to have a real type of flow to it. It has to do a lot with that. Another thing for me is like when I’m in the studio and I get through an entire record, I’ll know for a fact that I don’t want nobody to be on it. Right away, I’ll know… like is this the type of event I want people to be at or a Belly + 1 event, or is this just like a Belly + 0 event? I got to figure out what type of scenario it is for me first. Some things just feel like they’re mine. My sound. I kinda killed this already. I don’t want nobody to be forced to be on it or a forced situation for no reason. Those records I leave alone. If I in my head hear someone on a record it becomes hard for me to just finish it just me. I can’t even finish writing this because I keep hearing him on this record. I think those are the things that come into play. I kind of know whether I want someone to join me on it or not.
“Razor” sounds newer, more elevated — what made you go that way musically?
I had the hook for Razor already with me singing it, right. PnB just elevated the shit out of it. He took it to the next level when he sang it, gave it his own little spice, and killed it. With stuff like that, it really comes down to me not wanting to pigeonhole myself, always challenging myself to do more, to try things. I think that’s the beauty of music. I always tell people it’s like food. You give one hundred people the same recipe and they’re all going to come back with a different dish, you know. I think with me, with music, that’s how I like to think about it. I’m going to take these elements and make my own thing out of them. That’s what I try to do. Razor really came through in that sense because I felt it right when I heard it. Shout out to DannyBoyStyles. Right when I heard it, I was like, okay, there’s something here. Just building it up from that point. Having like a reference hook. Just the way Gunna comes on, it’s like the whole vibe changes right there, it’s almost like it was needed. Gunna came and did his thing on it. It’s a beautiful thing. A family affair.
When you played “Two-Tone” back for the first time, what was your original reaction?
Man, “Two Tone.” Shout out to the animals. They produced that. The Weeknd did some additional production on it too. But with “Two-Tone,” it was a freestyle — I freestyled that in the studio. I was really self-conscious about even putting it on the album. I was like, you guys are crazy, I did this for fun. We were messing around. Everyone was like bro you’re crazy this has to go on the album. Once I started thinking of it and putting it in that space that it was that type of record. For some reason, I heard Uzi on this. When we got it and killed it the way he did, we made a good play call and got the touchdown.
You’re three albums in with XO, and you’ve been in the game for a while. You were even well known around Canada when Drake was just starting out — would you consider yourself humble?
I’m going to always be humble. You got to know you’re the shit to a certain level, but you also have to know there’s humility in life. You have to know when to put your chest out. I feel blessed to be able to be in the game for twenty years plus, to still have relevance doing something that I love. Imposter syndrome comes in. It’s really not imposter syndrome. It’s really something I love to do so, of course, it’s going to look easy. People might even look at it like, damn, he didn’t have to work hard to do this. They didn’t see all the hours I put in to make it look easy. They didn’t see all the times I had to sleep on floors and stay up three or four nights to just get the perfect song before my body or my mind would even let me go to sleep. I don’t think people were there for those moments. My greatest motivation is to be grateful. I’m just grateful I’ve been here all this time that imposter syndrome seems like a joke to me but I’m still humble about everything.
When you were making your album, did you keep live performances in mind?
I’m more mindful. I’m definitely more mindful of having songs that translate well to shows because before I was touring on a major level or you know doing national tours or anything I didn’t really realize the importance of taking your experiences from the road and translating it into music in the studio and taking it from the studio and translating it into moments on the road. That was something I learned along the way.
How tapped in are you with your Middle Eastern fans?
I love my Middle Eastern fans. My first, like, hardcore fan base was my Middle Eastern fans. Until now, I feel the love and the support from my region and my people. I’ll always speak out when I have to. It’s going to be that way.
When Sal encouraged you to go into the studio and start working, what made you go for it?
I think it comes down to what’s real to you at that time. I needed money. I wasn’t living with my parents. I was living by myself. It’s not a rare story. It’s a story so many of us go through. I think the need is what kept me wanting to stay in the streets. Thinking about it from that level. I had to realize I had to let go. I could work at music. I banked on it. I bet on myself. I had to stop thinking about the immediate money in front of me because of my need and start thinking about what I want the rest of my life. In life, this is what I wanted: doing what I love which is music. That’s the ultimate dream. I think I accomplished that and I’m happy about that.
When was the last time you spoke with Jay-Z?
I spoke to him today.
Just messages back and forth on e-mail. Hov is one of the smartest people. But then at the same time so humble and so willing to help. Always available type of person. I’m talking within seconds I get a message back. I think that has to do with the fact that he is available to a lot of us in this game. He definitely makes himself available. You can feel it—the gems that he’s dropped on so many of us, I’ve applied a ton of it. One of the greatest decisions I ever made was shaking hands with Hov and being like alright, let’s do this.