“Punch you in the face, muthafucka I knock ya teeth out,” screams a row of four girls in their early teens. Casanova is performing “Set Trippin” on the Barclays Center stage for a Tidal-sponsored festival, and they know every word. Casanova isn’t the most popular rapper on the lineup (that’s Lil Uzi Vert) or its biggest celebrity (Alicia Keys), but he is the torchbearer for a classic vision of New York City rap — gruff and menacing. Fellow New York rapper A$AP Ferg, performed before Casanova, but his laid back Harlem energy didn’t register with the crowd as effectively; Casanova energizes the arena in a way only a hometown Brooklyn hero can.
Backstage, Casanova is genial. The Flatbush MC transitions from playfully teasing his daughter to sitting thoughtfully in a chair like I’m his new therapist, setting aside larger-than-life persona that seems modeled after New York titans of yore (think 50 Cent, or DMX). His narrative is typically centered on the neatly eight years he spent in prison after an arrest for armed robbery, but his latest album, Behind These Scars is designed as a stylistic departure for the 33-year-old rapper. He began incorporating AutoTune into his arsenal, spending nights in the studio learning how to sing from Gunna, a new(er) star out of Atlanta, and trying to convey the mental and emotional growth he’s experienced after going to therapy. After years spent building something large enough to terrify New York, he’s ready to show something more intimate.
“Most of the people knew what I went through, but I think me showing off so quick and just being so happy for me that I lost people,” Casanova says. “They couldn’t relate to me no more. I think I just wanted to bring them to my world. Look, I know I’m saying what I’m saying, but I went through this. I been to jail for seven and a half years. I been in solitary confinement for two and half years, almost three years. I lost everything. I’m still fighting for my life. I’m still doing these things, and I prevailed.”
When did you first have the vision for Behind These Scars?
Probably like a year and a half ago, I was in a dark place. I felt like people was treating me like I was rich. Family members was getting mad at me and close friends was disappearing. I felt like people didn’t know where my scars came from, because I covered them up with designer drip. I felt like if they knew me and they knew what I went through, they would understand me. So I said, “You know what? Let me allow them into my world and name my project Behind These Scars.”
A lot of people when they see me wear a short sleeve they like, “Where that happen? What’s that from?” And I usually be like, “Ah, you know.” As I got older and as I got wiser I’m like, “Maybe I should let them know I’m one of them, instead of just showing money and cars and houses.”
The first song, “Jail Call,” is super vulnerable. You rap, “Have you ever thought of suicide on a jail call or your mother crying?”
Life. Me. I been there. I been in the belly of the beast, thinking of suicide. I been hearing my mother cry on the phone. Just “Why? Why again” and you can’t explain it. She don’t understand. I had to rob. That’s me. That’s my life story. That’s a scar.
Why were you gone so long?
Armed robbery, robbery.
You were recently at Harvard talking about prison reform. When did it click for you, that this is the next step for me, this is what I need to start talking about?
When Roc Nation made me speak to a psych.
Was that the first time you ever—
First time. I felt like somebody wanted to help me. I never really had somebody wanting to help me. I just had people wanting to use me. So when I felt like somebody wanted to help me, I felt like I had to return the favor. So now I like to talk about it more. Maybe it’s people that really need to hear me and hear my story and what I went through to understand there’s hope. You can get through it.
It’s really depressing when you feel like you don’t have nobody and you just all alone and that’s what I went through. Sometimes we get scared. We might think people will judge us. We might not tell our girls, but we be going crazy inside, but we won’t tell our girls what’s going on, what’s the matter. We bottling it up, and then it just be one of those episodes, suicides. That’s how it happens, overdoses, and stuff like that. It’s just bottled-up pain.
On the new album you’re singing a lot more. It’s a lot more vulnerable. Did you go that way, because you were seeing a psych, because people were willing to help you?
I’m not afraid to try stuff. I couldn’t get certain features, so I did it myself. I was like, “I want to sound like this person right now.” “In My Hood” I say “you know what, I want to sound like 50 [Cent].” You know how 50 used to be singing? [starts singing the chorus of “In My Hood”] I was just imitating everybody. I was imitating Gunna on the “So Drippy.” When he sent me a verse, just a verse, I was like “I gotta get a hook now.” [Starts singing the hook of “So Drippy”] Gunna was even shocked. That just comes from learning, and when you can’t get what you’re supposed to get you’re supposed to make it work.
Why was Gunna somebody you were like, “I need to collaborate with him?” People have this perception of you that you’re a New York artist.
I just cling onto Gunna, because they embraced me. I fuck with people that fuck with me and they embraced me as such. They didn’t look at me like a hooligan or, “Nah, we don’t want to be around Cas he too big, he too grimey. We heard about him.”
They embraced me with open arms, let me be in the studio with them. Let me watch. See a lot of people don’t want you to see the magic happen. A lot of people will be like, “Aight I’ll send you the record.” They came. They let me sit down. They let me see what was going on, the ins-and-outs, the melody, the harmonizing and I learned from that. I made my verse and my whole hook like a down South dude.
Were you nervous?
Of course I was nervous, but sometimes you need that push to try things, because you’ll get caught in a lane that you don’t really want to be in for the rest of your life. We got a lot of New York artists here that are just gangster rappers that don’t go nowhere. They could make a rap song. They can’t make music. So I caught on quick. That’s what I want to do. I want to make music. I don’t care if it’s — what’s that shit? EDM, I don’t care if it’s EDM, pop. I want to make music. I don’t care about a title. I don’t want to be titled as a gangster rap artist. I just want to make music and feed my kids.
When did that process for you change, that realization like “I can be bigger than New York?”
Once I made “Set Trippin” and I see that it couldn’t really be played on the radio. I made “Set Trippin” and the was like, “We gotta change some of the words.” I’m like, “What? I said ‘Punch you in the face motherfucker / I’ll knock your teeth out.’ “What I gotta change?” They’re like, “The way you said ‘punch you’ just too violent for the radio.” I’m like, “What? Oh, I’m done with this.” You know what I’m saying? This gangster shit ain’t working for me.
But you had success with “So Brooklyn?”
But the crazy thing is, do you hear “So Brooklyn” on the radio?
I feel like New York supports that.
New York supports it on social media, on the internet, even streaming-wise it’s good, but do you hear “Did you ever shoot an op with a mac?” You don’t hear on the radio. You might hear it at nighttime when nobody listening, but I just learned, I had to make music and tell my story. Even Behind These Scars I had so much pain on there, real pain, make you want to cry pain. They was like, “No, no, no save some of this.” So I just gave them the “Knock, Knock” the “So Drippy” the “In My Hood” the “Whoa” the “Could’ve Been” ‘cause I just try to feed everybody.
‘Cause I notice one thing about me, everybody will be like “I want the gangsta shit,” but then that ain’t getting me no girls at my shows. It just getting me hooligans. It’s like, “fuck where the girls at?” Then with this album, I see girls like, “My song is ‘Whoa.’ Oh my gosh you did your thing or ‘Coulda Been [Something].’ I get DMs now with girls twerking at 2am. So now it makes me understand I gotta feed the masses, instead of just sticking to the hood. The hood ain’t buying no records. Fuck y’all.
In New York, there seems to be a ceiling on New York rap in a way that Atlanta, Chicago, and L.A. don’t necessarily have. Have you experienced that? It’s very hard for a New York rapper to get out. Once you do, you get an A Boogie or a Cardi where they’re good, but that doesn’t happen all the time.
Even with A Boogie or Cardi, they went right. When I say right, you don’t hear the old A Boogie. The hood missing that old A Boogie, “I can’t waste not time bitch I’m really timeless.” Niggas are missing that, but you not gonna get that no more. He knows I’m gonna be stagnated. He know. I’m trying to get on these billboards. I’m trying to do what the people are doing and that’s getting money. It’s cool to have people jumping up and down in New York, but you want them jumping up and down in the world. I follow they footsteps. If they win, I win. I’m gonna see what they doing and I’m gonna copycat.
How do you keep marching despite the controversy, despite the clickbait, despite the negativity?
You gotta understand that you can’t take nothing personal. In this industry you can’t take nothing personal, because if you take something personal you’ll lose it immediately. You said the clickbait, you’ll want to know “Who’s that?” You’ll want to fight ‘em. You’ll want to do something. When everybody’s really just trying to eat. So you gotta let people eat. The trolls will eat, people that’s not trolling, the haters. Everybody wants clout or they’re trying to feed their family. On the internet, everybody’s trying to feed their family, whatever they doing.
You just gotta watch it, observe it, and just don’t take it personal. That’s what I learned. Even with Akademiks, I wanted to tear his head off, but when I saw him and he told me, “I’m a blogger, bro,” I just had to understand that. You just trying to feed your family blogging.
Was that the minute when you met him—
When I met 6ix9ine, I was just like, that’s what really made me understand that I fucked up. That’s what made me say, “Yo, listen. I fucked up.” I feel like I fucked up again, because he’s just trying to feed his family. Everybody does everything just to feed their family and we don’t get it. We don’t look at it like that. People want to do whatever they have to do, to be lit to get the money to feed their family. Whatever I have to do I’m going to do it to feed my family. Including sell my soul, that’s how people think like, “Fuck it, I’m going to sell my soul.” I’m going to do some shit that I know I’m not supposed to be doing to win and that’s what this industry is. The industry is full of 75% people trying to sell their soul to whoever is trying to buy it.