[Interview] ANTHM talks “The Fire Next Time,” putting regrets in the past, and growing as an artist

Interview by: Martin Bauman

The name of the game is “progress” for Manhattan’s ANTHM. Since the beginning of last year, he’s released four projects – each sound distinctly different from the previous – and improved with each one. When We Were Kings, the 90s-themed ode to classic hip-hop, immediately showcased his lyrical skill; the conceptual Joy & Pain EP proved he could not only spit, but also write songs; the frustration-filled, Blu GODleeBarnes-produced Handful of Dust EP showed continued songwriting development; and with The Fire Next Time, ANTHM fuses all of his previous elements (the lyricism, the songwriting, the eclectic production) together into eight tracks, foreshadowing that the best is yet to come for the former Wall Street trader. The Come Up Show caught up with ANTHM to discuss his latest EP, putting regrets in the past, growing as an artist, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: The last time we spoke, you had just released Joy & Pain. For those who might be out of the loop on what’s going on, what have you been up to since then?

ANTHM: We put out Handful of Dust in March, and we just put out The Fire Next Time. As far as the music front, that’s about it. I’d say in the past couple months, really since Handful of Dust, I’ve been thinking of where I want to go [musically]. The Fire Next Time was a bit of a transition EP for me; it had a purpose in its own right, as far as what I wanted to talk about on the EP, but I felt like as I was putting it out, I was already kind of looking beyond the EP.

TCUS: What about on the performance front? Have you been on the road at all?

ANTHM: Nothing like a tour yet. This fall, I’m focusing on a series of college shows. I think that the project that I’m working on now is going to be the project that I really want to perform and go around with. The music on Handful of Dust isn’t really something that I wanted to take on the road, per se. The Fire Next Time was cool too, but [with] this next project, I’m looking to have a comprehensive release, even beyond just videos, and I’m looking forward to performing it.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest work, The Fire Next Time. You called it a transitional EP. Can you elaborate on that?

ANTHM: It’s more of a mindset transition, rather than a [sonic] transition. After Handful of Dust, I had new people [following my music] from f—ing with Blu on the EP. It was important to me to make a definitive step forward in what I wanted to do with my sound, because I didn’t really want to stay in that same sound as Handful of Dust. So, for The Fire Next Time, there were a few observations that I [wanted to make] as far as music, the culture, consumption, [and] music critics. Also, asserting myself [was important], as far as what I wanted to do next. There’s a track on there [“Bear With Me”] where it’s a conversation directly with listeners and fans, and the last two tracks [“BST” and “The Fire Next Time”] are definitely more forward-looking, as far as where I want to go next. So when I say [it’s a] transition, I mean this: after Handful of Dust, I kind of knew where I ultimately wanted to go, but before I went there, I felt like I had something to say.

TCUS: In terms of the whole project, what producers were you working with?

ANTHM: I worked with Hovey Benjamin [“Vultures”], SimpliBrown [“We Were Kings”], Spicer [“AMG Forever”], Jonathan Lowell [“Bear With Me”], and BXHXLD [“The Fire Next Time”]. So it was a mix of producers, and I think that will probably be where I’m at until I find a specific producer relationship.

TCUS: Let’s go track by track on the EP. Starting with “Nocosign Intro”, what was the inspiration behind this song?

ANTHM: After Handful of Dust, I recorded various tracks, and then I started to get a feel. You know, whatever’s on your mind starts to come out. [“Nocosign Intro”] was one of the tracks that helped shape where I wanted to go, direction-wise, as far as the content in it. I talk about: “Do I rock a shiny suit to guide me to the loot? Or will a kufi guide me to the truth?” I’m talking about how music has been positioned, and from my perspective, what I want to do next as an artist. I felt like that “Nocosign Intro” was inside my head; it’s what I’m all about. I start off: “I get emotional discussing my devotion to music.” I’m talking about what I mean in hip-hop, and what hip-hop means to me. At the end, I kind of [finish] with an affirmative stance, like yo, this is hip-hop. I call it my manifesto at the end.

“My objective and task/ Making sense of this life/ Then project it through craft/ Presto!/ My manifesto is special/ Live it because I said so/ Now I’m broadcastin’ my passion to let the rest know.” – ANTHM

TCUS: I want to talk about another quote from that song: “How would you explain me crying tears out of shame/ Knowing the type of shine that my prior years should have gained?” Can you talk about that?

ANTHM: In order to explain that, [I need to provide some context]. That track is a little transition from my mindset on where I was on Handful of Dust. [That EP] was introspective, melancholic… some regrets, but in the end, finding hope through it all. It was mostly about losing time; you know, I felt like I lost time [in the past from] dealing with personal s—, and while that was going on, [I was] watching other people move along. So [on “Nocosign Intro”] I’m dealing with it, and directly after that couplet, I say: “F— it, it’s spilled milk, gotta deal/ Still feel that I’m ill/ N—as are fillin’ in my field, I kill them at will.”

So it’s a decidedly different tone from Handful of Dust. At parts, Handful of Dust is downtrodden; at parts, it’s hopeful, but at the point that you highlighted, it’s me reflecting on where my mind was before and brushing that off. It’s me being a little bit more confident in my direction than before. So if you contrast that couplet to where I am by the seventh track, it’s like a rise in confidence.

That couplet [says] a lot, man. I feel like I could be further along. I have a few regrets; I really feel like I should have promoted my first mixtape more aggressively; I feel like I didn’t because I didn’t have the videos I wanted, and… you know, you just overthink s—; you become a victim of your idea of what perfection is. But you realize, ultimately, if you just execute like 80% of all your good ideas, you’ll be fine. But you chase a phantom notion of what perfection is. It’s like two feelings at once, you know? It’s not like oh, I’m not going to make it now. It’s just damn, I could be further along.

TCUS: Moving from “Nocosign Intro” to “Vultures”, you start off the song by asking, “Is it still about the music?” I’ll let you elaborate from there.

ANTHM: That line is written with an understanding: the music game has changed. There’s a s—load of content out. I mean, this past month alone, how many major label artists and independent artists dropped albums? There’s tons of music. Taking that into consideration, and social media, being an artist is more than just putting out music. A lot of it is [about] selling a lifestyle. So I definitely understand how rap has changed in the last ten years – really the last five years or three years. [I understand] the sideshow and the spectacle brings attention to the music, but has that s— taken a life of its own? Does anyone actually care about the music [anymore]?

Think about it like this: once upon a time in hip-hop, you’d just judge a dude off his emcee skills, or how good the songs were, or how good the album was. Now, you can earn respect off just grind and hustle. It’s like his s— is aight, but yo, he be grindin’. He dropped like ‘X’ amount of mixtapes this year. When you say things like that, you’re basically saying that hustle is equal to quality, which is the same thing as saying quantity equals quality.

There’s just way too much music out there, so [fans] wait for whoever has a buzz, or whoever has critical acclaim, before listening. But now, the way buzz works, or the way people get attention, it’s not always about the music. It’s about the spectacle as well. So my first line, “Is it still about the music?” is kind of setting the tone. It’s personal too, because I’m not pitching a lifestyle, you know? I’ve gotta make it by the music, because I’m not gonna sell you any lifestyle I’m not a part of. That’s just not me. [For me], it’s been about the music from jump. The reason why I’m not working on Wall Street, or doing some professional gig, is because I thought I had potential in the music, not because I had potential to sell a lifestyle. I would’ve kept my ass on Wall Street if I was gonna be there to sell a lifestyle, you know what I mean? That would’ve been ass-backwards.

And with all that being said, although I ask that [question], I do still see good music winning. I mean, the last person to go Platinum was who?

TCUS: Kendrick Lamar.

ANTHM: Yeah. So quality does win, but it’s just a lot of clutter going on, you know what I mean? It helped [Kendrick] having institutional buy-in, and having a prominent cosign, but all that stuff does is clear the air so that people can give the music a chance. It’s like oh, artist ‘X’ has a cosign from artist ‘Y’, so now it’s worth listening to, and now you have a more favourable disposition when you hear the music. So that first line is just setting the tone of where I think s— is right now.

TCUS: I think that connects to another line in your next song, “We Were Kings”. Here’s the line: “Nothing wrong with selling art, just don’t erase the picture.” Can you touch on this?

ANTHM: This is the reason why I wanted to put it all out there [on The Fire Next Time], and I’ll probably never revisit [these themes again]… I’m not gonna become some ‘outsider’ rapper and just [talk] about this every project; this is it. So that line… I’m not against the music business. I’m not against selling music – or else I’m in the wrong place. I understand the way the music business works. So that line is saying: don’t get it twisted, it’s not that I think that people who don’t believe in the mainstream are the real purists; I don’t think that at all. I think that it is possible to sell art. It is possible to get a fan base and make money. It is possible to get a Gold plaque or a Platinum plaque, or have songs on the radio, and [still make art].

The examples are the people who inspired me to make music to begin with, like Kanye. Kanye sells art, but he’s never erased the picture. Look what Outkast did, as far as being people who’ve embodied artistic integrity and expression but were very commercially viable. There are people who do it well. There are people now who do it [too], but it’s less so.

TCUS: What else inspired “We Were Kings”?

ANTHM: Obviously, the title plays off a mixtape that I had, When We Were Kings, which was an ode to an era of what I look as classic emceeing. The things that are important have changed, as far as how [people] assess music. [Before], emceeing and an emcee’s skills were the end-all, be-all. Now, emceeing is just a device in making music. It’s more so about the musicality of hip-hop now.

Some of the things that I say in “We Were Kings” allude to there not being much of a leadership presence [in hip-hop]. It’s tough because hip-hop, by nature, is a young man’s game. If I ask any casual hip-hop observer: “what do you think a rapper does when they start to get older?” Most people would say that they find ways to remain relevant. A lot of times, it happens on a regional basis and an age basis. There was a time in New York when New York hip-hop wasn’t exactly at the forefront; the power had shifted down to Atlanta. What did some artists do? They tried to co-opt a sound from a different region, and it didn’t sound organic; it didn’t sound authentic. It didn’t look good; it didn’t sound good; it didn’t feel right. I feel like that happens as well when artists lose relevance and they chase relevance.

It’s like in sports, man. The thing is, it’s so straightforward in sports, because you can’t really hustle your physical ability, you know what I mean? In hoops, when you’ve been in the league 12-14 years, people start calling you different s—; they call you a ‘locker-room presence’. As long as you have core skills, you’re valued, but you’re a ‘leadership’ guy. You’re a guy who kicks knowledge to the young cats, you know?

I feel like as of late, there’s definitely been more of an intergenerational embrace [in hip-hop], but it’s been a very slow process. The immediate reaction from the old vanguard when new rap came out in ’06-’07 was “hip-hop is dead. It’s all ringtone rap, it’s all this, it’s all that.” And then when what people call the ‘hipster rap’ wave came, it was like “yo, these dudes ain’t doin’ it right.” I’ve never really seen an embrace, you know? Or just giving guidance [to the new generation]. Now, we’re in this interesting place where we’re so far removed from the 90s that there’s a renaissance appeal of reviving the 90s and doing the whole 90s aesthetic, because kids doing that weren’t around. There’s a novelty to it. But I don’t think they’re really actively guiding the direction of the culture.

I see certain things that are cool, like Nas [taking] an ownership stake in Mass Appeal. S— like that is cool to me, because one of the things that concerns me is how hip-hop is covered. A lot of traditional mags have such tight relationships with labels and whatnot that they’re [turning into] a p.r. service for labels. So some of the lines in “We Were Kings” are me saying that I’d like to see more of that s—, where these O.G.’s are taking more of an active role, or more of a vested interest in the direction of the culture, rather than watering s— down just to remain relevant.

TCUS: You ask a question at the end of “We Were Kings”, and I’m going to throw it right back at you. How do you define timeless?

ANTHM: Man. You can create a checklist and try to say something’s immediately timeless, but the true test is when I come back a decade later [and listen to it]. Next year, we’re gonna celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Illmatic, and we’ll also celebrate the 10-year anniversary of College Dropout. What I consider timeless is something that doesn’t make you think of a specific year – besides knowing where you were when you heard it. It’s about truth, man. Truth is always relevant. In light of all the stuff that’s been going on with the Trayvon Martin case, [and after] going to see Fruitvale Station, I [realized] the only mainstream rapper I could ever listen to that has records that are pertinent to this [situation] is Tupac. I’m saying mainstream, not like Dead Prez or whatnot. It’s Pac. I [thought] damn, Pac is so timeless. The themes that he touched on are timeless, you know what I mean?

I wish I had a short definition of timeless, but I think it all comes back to truth and what resonates. It’s like, what makes a book timeless? There are certain books that people read that were written a hundred years ago, and they’re still relevant. Like, who do people still assign To Kill A Mockingbird in elementary school? Is that social setting really specific to what people go through today? There are lessons and things that we see that are relevant today, and I think the same thing [is true for] music. It’s like the opposite of Pop in the moment, like “Call Me Maybe”. [That song is] super-2012. Pop is very fleeting, by definition: it’s popular. That’s why Michael Jackson is so crazy, because he was able to make a timeless version of it.

When I ask that question, it wasn’t even to pose some philosophical question to all artists, but [the message is]: you can kinda tell what people set out to do when they make records. If I were telling you right now, “you’re gonna make your first project and you’ve gotta make this s— last,” I’m sure you would [approach it differently than me telling you] “yo, we’re just trying to get you on the charts right now.” The second project, you would just go look for any current trend you could, and you’d probably come back talking about like droppin’ 30 racks, poppin’ Mollys – whatever is in the moment right now. The first project, you would try to find themes that people connect to, and you’d probably try to touch different age groups. You’d probably make some s— that you’d be able to listen to five years from now, and that tends to be things that were here before the current trend.

TCUS: Transitioning to “AMG Forever”, I think this connects with your concept of timelessness. In the song, you make a comparison between Rakim and Jay Z, and how they’re so close in age but have two completely different narratives. Can you elaborate on that?

ANTHM: [Laughs] What’s funny is, that was just an ad-lib I ended up saying. A lot of music is just made out of conversation. Clearly, they existed in two different times. Rakim is pre-Nas, you know? He’s the one who paved the way, and he was killing the game when he first came in. Paid in Full was a game-changer, and as far as how to rhyme, he was a game-changer with his multi-syllabic style. Jay Z’s been able to do a lot of things because of the trailblazing that Rakim has done. I don’t know Rakim personally, and I’ve never read any biography on him or anything as far as how he felt, or what decisions he was making towards the end of his prime, but it’s very obvious what decisions Jay has made in the interest of remaining relevant. He changes sound with the time.

Different people set out to do different things with their music. I don’t really know what Rakim wanted to do, but what I do know is whatever his decisions were, he’s still the God MC, he’s still iconic, and he paved the way. Look at Andre 3000; he hasn’t done any solo work outside of Outkast. Those were the decisions he wanted to make, and he’s indifferent to what we think. [Otherwise], the dude owes us a couple LPs, you know? People don’t even realize, dude came out the same year as Illmatic, yet people look at him as if he came out when Ye came out. But anyway, that’s a tangent. My point is, I picked [Jay Z and Rakim] because they were so close in age, and between the two of them, they’ve really spanned the entire life of modern hip-hop – from the late 80s until where we are now – and their careers are direct functions of the decisions they made.

TCUS: Moving to another subject on “AMG Forever”, you talk about resisting the temptation to put music into boxes. It reminded me of a tweet of yours: “In the end, art is to be felt. Less boxes, more connection.” Can you elaborate on this?

ANTHM: That’s definitely me thinking out loud. I say the line: “I don’t respond to any boxes you put me in.” I should say first that I understand why boxes are there: they make things easier to categorize. Plus, if I make four consecutive projects that sound one way, I can’t really say “hey man, don’t put me in a box.” If I dropped four albums in a row that were boom-bap, then people would say “yo dawg, you’re a boom-bap rapper.” How could I possibly take issue with that? But for me, I don’t want to put a box on what I do artistically, because I want to branch out and do different s—. I want to reflect that range of hip-hop.

That tweet is a general comment about being less worried about how to categorize stuff and more concerned about how you feel about it. And that’s [directed] more [towards] the people who are responsible for presenting the music on the Internet [bloggers]. What you’re hearing are my thoughts after Handful of Dust, and going into this EP: I’m gonna say what I need to say, and I’m just really focused on making music. I’m not really looking to adhere to what anyone thinks I am. I’m not very concerned with [my music] fitting what sound you think I should be, or what content you think I should be covering. If you relate to it, that’s great. That’s what it’s for.

TCUS: Transitioning to your next song, “I Remember”, what’s the inspiration here?

“You used to hold me, told me that I was the best/ Anything in this world I want, I could possess/ All that made me want, all that I could get/ In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets.” – ANTHM

ANTHM: The hook is a Jay line from “Regrets”, off Reasonable Doubt. After Handful of Dust, I was kind of getting myself back mentally to a place where [there was] less looking back, and more looking forward. What the hook is saying is over the course of most people’s lives, the most ambitious that they are is when they’re young. You may not have a very concrete understanding of what careers are at a young age, but when you’re told you can be anything, you just say all sorts of s—. Like, I’ll be an astronaut, or I’ll go save lives. Whatever it may be, your potential is limitless at that point.

Those words are almost me getting my swagger back. It’s a decidedly strong step forward. Even in the first verse, I say: “In contrast to the past, ain’t quite as sad.” And when I allude to the birth of my friend’s son, my favourite line is: “It’s damn near impossible not to believe in this world/ That you can make it, and still bring a seed in this world/ So we gon’ make it.” What [I’m talking about is] having a kid and wanting to be an effective parent and telling that kid what you were told, like “yo, you can be anything.” But to really believe it, you’ve still gotta believe that there’s hope for you. I think that anyone completely divorced from hope would have a hard time painting a picture that this is a world that a kid can achieve anything in.

To me, that song is about restoration through reflection: restoring hope. And then when I interpolate “Spaceship” off College Dropout… with that line that you referred to earlier in the “Nocosign Intro” and the feel of this record, it’s almost like I’m in a spaceship, and in the rearview mirror I can see where my mind was when I was making Handful of Dust. I’m leaving that behind and moving forward.

TCUS: Moving on to another song, in “Bear With Me” you talk about being “at the crossroads between everywhere and nowhere.” What do you mean by this?

ANTHM: That’s how I feel. When you believe in potential, you believe that you’re within reach of things going in your favour. But if I’m inactive and just don’t do s—, then I’ll be nowhere; I’ll be in this abyss – and I referred to that in the beginning of “I Remember”. So that crossroads refers to where I think I can go, and where I would end up if I don’t take ownership and do something about it. After that, I refer to “looking for guidance, but I was the one with it.” All the things that I’m looking for, it’s not like I’m hunting for clues, these mysterious things that are out there and I have to go find them. It’s all internal. I really feel like I have so much in me. So that’s really what that means. On one side, you have unlimited potential – the whole world is out there – and on the other side, you just fall into a rut of nothingness.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your final song, “The Fire Next Time”. Here’s a line of yours: “Lost time ain’t nothing to cry over/ When you build a life you’re willing to die over.” Can you speak to this?

ANTHM: You know what’s crazy? All your questions are really making me realize how interconnected stuff is. It’s not like when I write a line, I’m like oh yeah, I remember referencing it in that track, so now it sounds more cohesive. You just write, man. Every project I’ve ever done, I go back and listen to it and I’m like damn, that really is how I felt. It all comes together in the end.

But that line is a continuation of the theme in “I Remember”, with regrets being in hindsight, and moving forward with more conviction. That line is [saying] s—, I don’t have time to lament the past when I’ve got something right in front of me. It’s back to that crossroads, you know? What I have in front of me is some s— I’m willing to die for. This is what I’m passionate about; this is what my blood, sweat and tears is about; this is what I’m living for. I don’t have the time to worry about what I didn’t do, or what happened to time. F— it. At this point, I’m all in. There won’t be any more time lost, because I’ve identified what I’m willing to die over.

TCUS: Moving ahead from this project, what sort of sound are you progressing towards?

ANTHM: Just bigger and better, really. I think I’m still following the same core [principles]. My checklist in making music is real simple, man: is there a purpose to it, and does it sound good? Those two can exist in many different sounds. I went from the mind state of where I was on Handful of Dust to where I was on The Fire Next Time, and now I’m really, really hungry, man. Like, hungry on some 50 [Cent] in ’02 when he came in. 50’s rise is crazy. People try to compare other people’s rises to the way 50 came up, and to me, there’s nothing like the way 50 came up. The crazy s— about how 50 came up is that Jay and Nas were huge; they were the Kings of New York. They were runnin’ s—, and he just came up, regardless of that. The dude really did not give a f— about anything else, only on what his eyes were set on. For me, that’s where my mindset is; that’s the kind of hunger I have right now.

I definitely want to make bigger music. The production on The Fire Next Time can’t really contain where I’m at. A lot of the stuff was mellow and introspective, and that was great for where my mind was, but now [I want a bigger sound]. I like the last two records the most, as far as something that I would keep moving forward. The “BST” record is more anthemic; it’s bigger; it’s got a stronger feel to it. “The Fire Next Time” is definitely, out of all the productions, probably the most left of conventional hip-hop; it’s a little bit different, a little more of an eclectic feel.

I think that, to date, one of the things that’s been the most important to me out of my love for hip-hop is solidifying myself as an emcee first. That’s something I wanted to do and build as a foundation, and grow as an emcee in my writing skills. Now, I really want to grow musically. Going back, if you ask me who my influences are, it’s guys like Kanye and Andre. If you look at Kanye’s body of work, album to album to album, you can’t pinpoint two sounds that are the same. It’s all growth and progression, and that’s the artistic challenge that I’m looking for. I want to bring the artistry to a wider audience.

Follow ANTHM on Twitter (@NoCosign) and on Facebook (I Am Anthem).