6lack, pronounced “black”, is perhaps having a Wireless festival comedown. When we meet in July, the 26-year-old is amicable but tired, introspective and stone-faced, the ecstasy of crooning his heart-bleeding blend of trap and soul to thousands in Finsbury Park having petered out. “I’m missing out on family time, I’m putting my body through extremes,” he says. “When the things that you fantasise about become a reality, you realise this is still a job.”
For the rapper-cum-singer otherwise known as Ricardo Valdez Valentine, that job is to make confessionals: deep dives into embittered relationships and his quest to find a better life through music. It’s the American Dream made a mid-20s reality, wrapped in sombre production then sent into the world with low-toned vocals.
He was raised in Zone 6, the eastern district of Atlanta, a breeding ground for flamboyant rappers such as Gucci Mane. But Ricardo was a quiet child, scared straight by witnessing a few things he says he shouldn’t have: friends sitting in prison or lying in cemeteries. Instead he dove into Sade, The-Dream, Erykah Badu and Michael Jackson. Then, in his late teens, with little money and no place to stay, he moved to Miami with some friends to hunt down a record deal.
“We got signed with no management, no lawyers,” he says. “There’s Ferraris outside, there’s Bugattis, the studio is beautiful – we were just like: ‘Why not?’ You learn later.” The label demanded hit records with pop formats but 6lack craved artistic freedom. So they sat in stalemate. “It went from a situation that seemed like the global opportunity to, ‘You might have just fucked yourself over’. My rock bottom was somewhere in South Florida. I hadn’t eaten for a while, I was super hungry. I remember being by a trash can and seeing someone throw food away. I thought about going over there, opening it up and eating it. When I had that thought, I was like: ‘This better be worth it bro.’” It was – scene legends J Cole and Future appear on second album East Atlanta Love Letter, which has just been released, while he earned two Grammy nominations for his 2016 debut album Free 6lack and single Prblms.
Before the recording sessions for Free 6lack began, he wrote “relatable” on a whiteboard, the theme that would drive the 11 tracks. What emerged was deeply candid songwriting, swept to the mainstream by standout single Prblms, a reflection on the final moments of a doomed relationship. His honesty, though perhaps uncomfortable for those involved, connected him to a generation of teens and twentysomethings piecing their own lives together. “I got a message the other day on Instagram where somebody said: ‘I don’t want to be here, [but] your music puts me in a space to stand up and shake it off’,” he says. “We all go through the same shit – tiring, uncomfortable thoughts, stress and depression – and we all deal with it in our own ways.”
Until last year, his defining moment had been a car crash in Florida, a near-death experience that stressed the thin thread on which his life hung. But then while on tour in 2017, 6lack became a father, announcing the arrival of Syx Rose Valentine to the world via Instagram. For the first time in his life, music played second fiddle. To begin with, he struggled, missing her birth and her first solid piece of food, feeling like a stranger whenever he’d stop by. So he moved out to LA and made Syx a permanent fixture in his schedule. They drove around, grabbed smoothies, hung out in the studio and built the small memories that form of the backbone of any relationship. “My daughter has taught me about unconditional love,” he says. “Kids don’t care what you did wrong – they’re just up every day living, forgiving, loving, having fun. I love music to the death of me, but music can never smile at me the way she smiles at me. I feel like there are only three ultimate things you can do while you’re here: do what you love, love somebody and create a life.”
His new outlook changed the music: East Atlanta Love Letter’s cover image is of him recording vocals in a kitchen with Syx in a papoose. “The extremes of my life have forced me to have conversations,” he says. “Having a kid forces me to talk; having a baby mother forces me to talk; having a fan base that is affected by my music forces me to have a message. I just want to know how everybody feels, so I can make sure I’m on the right path.” Where Free 6lack was an intense shedding of skin, a one-way look at his relationship breakdowns, on new songs such as Switch he now considers those most affected by his actions. It was recorded with a new word written on the whiteboard: “Perspective.”