At a distance, ANTHM seems to be a man of contradiction. Once a Wall Street shark-to-be, he’s almost three years deep in an already impressive rap career that has seen him work with Blu, Sene, Freddie Gibbs, and DJ Whoo Kid. It’s not just his origins that are rife with contrast, though; ANTHM’s artistic range brings the variety of his aspirations to the forefront. One moment, ANTHM is teaming up with Blu (as GodleeBarnes) for one of the year’s best under-the-radar projects, a thoughtful, melodic dissection of aspects of life big and small. The next moment, he’s spitting perfectly polished venom over Eminem‘s “Role Model,” dropping more names than the white boy himself would. The next moment after that, he’s walking into the dark, wooden Sons of Essex in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to sit down with RESPECT. for an hour and a half.
ANTHM showed up exactly on time, holding a spare shirt in a plastic bag. His speaking voice was surprisingly similar to the resonant, emotive high-ish pitch that he has on wax. With rushed confidence, he bounced through the entrance, greeted the hostess, and sat at a dim booth near the back of the bar. Before it could become entirely clear why the sight of him in this lighting, in this booth, was familiar, ANTHM told us. This was where he shot the Houdini-ish fast-motion video for “Manhattan,” an early track in his catalog, perhaps the first one to establish his artistic presence–driven, thoughtful, and crisp.
The balance of extremes, and how that balance can distinguish a “rapper” from an “artist” was a topic of clear importance to the 28-year-old MC. As he spoke on the strengths of “BST,” a highlight from his July release, The Fire Next Time, he proudly highlighted its use of both a complex song structure–the use of a pre-hook, among other things—and that it was able to feature both “hot 16s” and “have a bounce to it.” “BST” finds a balance between dense, lyrical hip-hop and more easily accessible, head-nodding territory. Noting “BST” as a signal of growth, ANTHM recalled, “When I started I was a really good rapper, but a really bad artist. Every time I jumped on a record I would try to make it, like, 64 bars of fury.” When asked what pushed him over from his initial focus on complex, reference-driven writing to focusing on a song’s ability to move wide audiences, he responded quickly: “It’s definitely not…It’s not an overnight move, you feel me? It’s about breaking down what you understand. Early on I was just getting hype off technicals, or—or—moments that only I’m getting inside, or just a small group of people is getting inside. It’s like in hoops. It’s a dunk contest versus an offense that really works. As an artist, you’ve got to just take a step back and reflect on all the music that made you feel a certain way. Why did it make you feel that way? Every time you’re down and you go to a record to make you feel better you’re not…it’s not because you remember how many consecutive bars someone had a complex rhyme scheme. It’s about the moments in a record.”
As the interview continued, ANTHM’s manager, friend, and former Wall Street mentor, DG, entered the bar. In the brief moments when we spoke with DG about various managerial aspects of ANTHM’s movement, ANT himself took a moment to text. He didn’t once glance at his phone during conversation, but given even a momentary break from one form of his grind, he dives into another. He was and is eager for every opportunity.
Though he’s grown to prioritize and find greater satisfaction in being emotionally accessible, ANTHM’s competitive nature shines through in an almost pre-emptively headstrong manner. Shooting off topic for a moment, he commented, “What I feel right now is that I don’t really care who comes in the room. Name anyone in hip-hop you like. Have them come in and say “Yo, you’re not a strong emcee,” and I’ll be like, ‘OK. Whatever.’ I don’t really care. I m indifferent cause I’ve already done what I needed to do, and I don’t see developing a sound as coming at the expense of writing.” He’s both an artist and man entirely unwilling to give ground. Paradoxically, though, he doesn’t resist change. ANT went on to recount how he wholeheartedly accepted the fact that his earliest works were not well rounded enough, and then adjusted accordingly, all the while refusing to let any one piece of his craft fall beneath his lofty personal standards. Take “We Were Kings” from The Fire Next Time, for example. The track is laced with some incredibly dense rhyme schemes and tight metaphorical imagery about the state of the rap game, but is sewn together by a hook that is always changing and the varying moments throughout ANTHM’s verses that become mini-hooks, of their own. In this way, his lyrics still find the forefront, only dressed up to be a little easier on the ears.
Examining a short list of ANTHM’s influences and role models, it’s not hard to tell where the polar pulls of his musical style come from. The precise, battle-ready rhymes that ANTHM often utilizes clearly hail from Eminem, a man that ANTHM recalls obsessing over in his gradeschool days. “I remember when ‘Dead Wrong‘ came out…when a record dropped, you just spun it until you memorized it, and then you went to school to talk shit with friends—‘Oh you fucked up that bar, it went like this.’ Some people would cheat and print the lyrics out and sneak them in their notebooks.” To see that ANTHM’s love of 90’s rhymes and no-frills mentalities runs deep, look no further than his excited, beaming choice for an ideal collaboration: “Rae[kwon] Ghost[face Killah], Method Man, Redman. And not just on a song where cats are mailing in verses, I want to see them light one up and talk shit. I wanna be in on the way cats used to make records back in the day. Not because I think it’d be some kind of groundbreaking single, it would just be fucking phenomenal, it’d be an experience. That’s some shit I would just go home and write about.” Speaking quickly, ANTHM continued, “And I always said I’d make a record with Eminem…and AZ. Man, I would probably get so sidetracked, I wouldn’t make my own shit.” Among the few other artists that ANTHM speaks with such excitement about are Jay Z, Rakim, and Kanye. Especially Kanye; the expansive, experimental, and emotive reach of ‘Ye’s work has had a sizeable impact on the Manhattan rhymer. As ANT put it with refreshing candor, “He doesn’t do it for the ‘cause.’ He does shit for the art. It’s fucking inspiring.”
A bit of Mr. West’s brash manner of being lives inside Anteneh Addisu (ANTHM’s birthname) as well. Asked about his Twitter handle, @NoCosign, ANT replied, in a vaguely, distantly offended way, “I believe in myself, otherwise I’m making an ass of myself for being here. ‘@NoCosign’ is about believing in myself.” The same way ANTHM is hard on the industry, openly criticizing and assailing it through much of The Fire Next Time, he’s hard on himself. He’s placed an aweful lot of pressure on those skinny, bouncing shoulders.
It’s important to note the colossal nature of each of ANTHM’s cited influences. The man is on a mission—in spite of their similar voices and knack for dense poetics, ANTHM didn’t cite Blu. He didn’t talk about Talib Kweli, with whom he shares both a socio-political conscience and an instrumental (The Fire Next Time’s opener finds ANTHM rhyming over Kweli and Hi-Tek’s “Love Speakeasy.”) While ANTHM clearly respects both of those artists, he only has eyes for the greater conquests of the mainstream, for crossover appeal, for more. Asked if “Polaris” would still be his choice for a fan’s introduction to his music, ANTHM took only a second before excitedly reaffirming the selection, noting that the track has the ability to appeal to non-hip-hop crowds. Though it may seem that ANTHM spends too much time meditating on hip-hop as a whole and his place in it, that’s only once piece of his puzzle. As he said himself, with one of his big, thin hands striking downward over and over to drive his words like nails through the air, as a response to the industry-damning “Vultures,” he gives the audience “AMG Forever.” Quoting the track, ANTHM rapped, “I don’t respond to no boxes anyone tries to put me in. It’s just me, DG and the music. I know exactly what we’re doing.” It sure seems he does know; he’s got his heart and mind in alignment, and now it’s time for us to sit back and enjoy. When it was all said and done, ANTHM thanked us profusely for the interview, and we thank him back. As of our last, brief word with him about a week ago, he was plotting on his next tape. Watch out for ANTHM—it may not be a choice for too much longer.
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