Charles Hamilton Talks ‘The Black Box’ EP, Meeting Beyonce & Succeeding With Bipolar Disorder [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
It's a warm May day in New York City and the heat is felt considerably as I rush to meet Charles Hamilton, one of the most talked-about artists of rap's "blog era," at famed rap venue SOB's, where the rapper is set to perform later that night.
As the cab pulls up to the destination, intrigue sets in even more and I find myself asking, "What will this dude be like in person?" After his manager gives an introduction, it's apparent Hamilton is a different guy than the one who made headlines years ago for assaulting a police officer, getting on J Dilla's mom's bad side, being dropped by Interscope and checking into a mental hospital. He's a bit shorter than expected, subdued and in stark contrast to the impulsively volatile guy that many have written off as a wasted talent.
But this meeting isn't about the past. The musical whiz kid out of Harlem, N.Y. is cooking up big things in the near future and he's ready to share the final product. After a few years off the grid and false restarts, Hamilton has emerged from the drama with a new mindset and a driving hunger. Most importantly, his piano-driven, Rita Ora-assisted new song "New York Raining" showcases a renewed sense of self.
Earlier this year, he piqued the interest of many with his unexpected cameo on an episode of Fox's hit drama, Empire. Now the producer, whose signed a new label deal with Republic Records, is looking to captivate the critics, tastemakers and fans again with his forthcoming EP, The Black Box. This is Hamilton's chance to achieve redemption for his past missteps and set the stage for what could be one of the greatest comeback stories in recent memory. Read below and find out why you should be paying attention.
The Boombox: You've said that your beats in this stage of your career aren't as dark as the music you were making years ago. Why is that? Is that a reflection of the space you're in now?
Charles Hamilton: Well, for the mainstream, both EP and the album, I'm falling back for the obvious legal reasons, but as far as the production I do on my own, there's really no change. I've gone harder with it, but it's my lyrical content that I had to kinda tone it down with how dark I'm going with it. I'm performing a song tonight called "Oh Well." Everything else in the world has gone from good and positive to the dark except me. So it's me telling the powers that be, "Oh well, everything is crossing over so I'm just the next in line to do it." So as advanced as I can be in the dark realm, it doesn't make much sense to do it in the mainstream so it's for balance.
Are you working with Beyonce for your new album? You recently shared a photo of the two of you together.
How did the picture even come about?
I just bumped into her. She was rehearsing with Jay Z in another studio and I bumped into her leaving my studio [session]. I was waiting on Jay, I just wanted to thank him for being a motivation to keep going forward. But I ended up running into Beyonce and I was like "Can I have a picture?" and she was like, "I gotta go, but I'll take one." So she took one.
What song outside of "New York Raining" are you excited for fans to hear?
Man, there's a whole host of songs like that; I guess it depends on my mood. Some days I want the whole world to hear "Be With You," other days I want the whole world to hear "Let's Roll." Then I've got my own underground catalog that I want people to hear so it just depends on how I feel. I think the most fun I had was "Be With You" because they always compare it to Biggie's "Juicy" as far as it's still lyrical, but it has a fun kind of vibe to it. So that's one of my favorite records. Plus, I got a solo on the piano at the end of it, so I love that song.
Do you have an album title yet?
No title for the album, but we're trying to keep a consistent theme. The name of the EP is The Black Box, so we're trying to correlate between The Black Box and what could possibly be the album title.
In your interview with Billboard, it was reported that your album will be produced by the Invisible Men? Are they producing the entirety of the album or did you have any outside producers on it?
Nah, I had outside producers on it. Ray Angry, who's my musical director, the Invisible Men, a couple of other producers. Working with Ray is always a pleasure 'cause he's a fellow keyboardist so we always kinda have the same idea all the time when we're sitting down and jamming at the piano. With the Invisible Men, they studied my music for a while before they even put they hat in the ring to work with me, so they kinda have a feel for how I do things musically and they have more of a rock background. So like when you hear them make pop records, they have a rock understanding for these pop records so it's a different approach, both lyrically and melodically speaking. So it's a whole different approach.
So this first project is an EP?
Yeah, it's an EP. Trust me, you're gonna be hearing a lot of my sound in the near future. We just gotta nail down a certain audience before I can get my music to them. Make sure y'all are even listening before I put out my heart and soul. What's the point of doing it if ain't nobody listening?
Are there any artists you're looking to get in the studio and work with?
I wanna get in the studio with Kid Cudi [and] see what could happen there. I just spoke with Big K.R.I.T.'s manager, so we got a few collabos that we've been working on. But other than Rita [Ora], it's just been all me in the studio.
You once created an entire mixtape dedicated to Rihanna called Isn't This Awkward. Do you know if she ever heard it? And when you look back on music like that, are you proud of that work?
I don't know if she's heard it. I met her before I made the tape and that's kinda where I got the shape of the tape from to kinda address that I developed a crush on her and I was listening to her album, Good Girl Gone Bad. And I wasn't listening to it to enjoy it, but I was also listening to it with my sampling ear and I went so in when it went to sampling those records that it felt like we bonded.
So I wasn't running around saying I was in a relationship with her. I was that deep into her music. So when I actually did step forward and say I was in a relationship with her. I was already gone from listening to her music. So I wasn't, like, stanning her page on Facebook or whatever, it just became a part of me. Plus she's virtually a socialite and that's kinda taboo to do, so I kinda wanna leave Rihanna out of it, but I do accept and respect the love that I've been getting from that project.
It's no secret that you have an extensive catalog of mixtapes and other projects, but what would you say is your favorite work out of it all?
Anything I did in 2014 is my favorite work. I want to get back in that zone, but I don't want the drama that came with that zone. I was in the zone last year. This year, I'm a lot more comfortable and I just don't want the comfort that I have, socially speaking, to interfere with my artistic need for a edge.
There are many young adults that also struggle with bipolar disorder. How do you deal with your disorder on a daily basis and still succeed in your career?
Well, it's certain triggers, certain things trigger it. I think the main trigger for me is criticism because I put so much effort into the music. People say I rap with like, I have no emotion and I don't rap with enough vigor and that takes skill. The s--- I'm saying is worth raising my voice a couple of times, but to keep cool and still maintain a strong point of view and bottom line when you're rapping is a skill.
On top of the fact that I more than likely made the beat, on top of the fact that I more than likely mixed it and the records that people complain about the mixing on wasn't mixed by me. So I know what I'm doing musically, but it's just about maintaining a certain bottom line. You have to be strong at all points in time in order not to let one's bipolar get the best of you.
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