What was your upbringing like? My mom is from Milwaukee and my dad is from New York. I was in this split custody situation. Milwaukee was a little bit more slow, but there was a lot of pimps, a lot of hustlers. The other side of my family being from Harlem. I saw a lot of fly shit, a lot of classy shit. It was a cultural clusterfuck.
How’d you make your way to Atlanta, where you got your start in the industry? I was rapping and going to college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. My manager at the time was from Atlanta. I would go there every weekend from Tallahassee. I stayed there for good after I got kicked out of school. I got signed to Usher’s label [in Atlanta], like three months later. If I wouldn’t of been kicked out of school I wouldn’t have been in that position. That’s when I wrote my first song, “Throwback.”
Did you always want to write songs, or were you trying to perform? I was a rapper. I really thought I was gonna be the next Jay Z. I thought it was a blessing to be able to have written this song and have revenue come in and I just thought, well that’s another thing for me to talk about in my rhymes. But when the label thing fell through, the songwriting worked itself out. It was never was my plan to be a songwriter. I just taught myself how to sing in ’07, ’08.
How do you teach yourself to sing? It’s just like a guy who’s 6’10″. He can teach himself how to dunk if he does it every day. I take everything serious that I do. I go 100%. I study. It wasn’t like I was just this rapper who didn’t listen to Queen, who didn’t understand Rufus Wainwright, that didn’t listen to the Beatles. I don’t want to sound like a pompous jerk, but I have amazing taste in music. When you start loving great songs, when it’s time to write one your own ear can understand what’s a great song and what’s not. It’s no different than Lebron James—he practices shooting everyday. He understands how to play the post, how to shoot the outside shot, how to play defense, and he has to do it consistently every night. That’s exactly what I do. He uses his body, I’m using my mind.
Is it frustrating to find big success with artists, but always be behind the scenes? Songwriting isn’t frustrating, but it’s a lot of work. It’s 50 million people trying to write a song for the same five artists in the music industry. You gotta find a way to consistently be the one that gets the single. This is very very tough work. It’s glamorous on the other side, after we celebrate the success, but getting there is not pretty at all. I’m fine with the average person thinking Usher wrote “There Goes My Baby.” That’s the magic, that’s what makes them love Usher. If that’s what keeps us employed, then believe whatever you want to believe.
Kelly Rowland has said that you helped her sing about sex with confidence. How do you motivate artists? I think I’m like the musical Tony Robbins. I give those speeches in the recording sessions. When Usher was coming off the Here I Stand album and people were kind of counting him out, I was in the studio telling him he was the greatest singer of all time: “Are you kidding me? Do you understand? Do you know who you are? You’re Usher.” Same thing with Kelly: “You were part of Destiny’s Child, that means a lot. That’s not regular.” I give people the boost of the confidence in themselves as opposed to being like, “You in the studio with Rico Love right now, I’m the greatest songwriter, I can make anything happen.” No, it’s more like, “You’re the best, do you understand?” When people hear that, they feel like they can do anything. I shouldn’t be afraid to explore my sexual side if I’m Kelly Rowland, I shouldn’t be afraid to say what I want to say and push those boundaries if I’m Usher. I shouldn’t be afraid to make a pop song if I’m Nelly.
Is it harder to be that motivator when you’re the artist, making your own records? Not at all. I have really really high self-esteem. The jitters at first are always there. But after you consider some of the things like, Yo I do this. I rehearsed it. I practiced. I prepared for this my whole life, every day. I work on Christmas day. I worked on New Year’s Eve. I worked on New Year’s Day. People know a star. I know a lot of great songwriters who may not be stars—when they get out here we don’t really believe them cause they don’t believe themselves. If I don’t believe me one million percent, when I speak to you, my conviction in my voice, when you see me, when you feel my presence, that conviction is not there, how am I expected to sell you an album?
You started a solo project in 2007 but ultimately didn’t release it. This time around, how did you know you were ready to release an EP? It started with writing “Heart Attack” for Trey Songz, “Mr. Wrong” for Mary J. Blige and “4 AM” for Melanie Fiona. I started realizing that all of those songs were really about me. I was Mr. Wrong, I was the guy in “4 AM.” I started feeling like nobody else can say this, nobody else can spit this, nobody else can sing this. No matter how much work you put in, how much success you’ve had as a writer, if people can’t put a face to the music, their respect is not really there. But instead of crying about it and saying, Oh man, I don’t get as much credit as I deserve, I do something about it. Tell people why you should be important, tell people why you should be respected, make that record and step out there. Kanye said some real shit, that a lot of the underground artists are the most talented people in the world but they’re cowards. They’re afraid or people telling them that their shit is not good. They’re so used to this little small community of people who love them. Being brave, being courageous enough to step out there and say, This is me, I’m not hiding behind anything—that takes a lot. I feel like this is my time to do that and step out. I’ve given it from all the different points of views, now it’s time to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
What experiences of your own did you bring onto the EP? I’m explaining different relationships that I’ve been in with different women. With my girlfriend, with my ex, with groupies, with the mistress. These subjects I’m speaking about from the setting of discrete luxury, that’s the tone. By “discrete” I mean away and apart from, in a place of its own. It’s basically saying, We fly, we got money, we live a beautiful life but we don’t talk about that, it’s so natural to us, this discrete luxury is just what it is. Discrete luxury is when you realize: I’m in the thick of it, this is the game, this is the beast, I’m in the big league now. Everything ain’t what you thought it was gonna be, and it makes you stronger. I hate to sound like an after school special but it really makes you a champion. For this record, we’re not on every song talking about how much money we make, we’re not on every song talking about, you know, the opulence that we’ve gained. What we’re talking about is how relationships work in this setting. What do people relate to more than the male and the female interaction? This is what I’ve observed, the women I see in the clubs of Miami, LA, New York, London, Dubai, Africa.
A big part of your job is comping other people’s vocals—making them sound perfect. Do you comp your own work as meticulously? When I cut records with someone else, I have to get them to sing it the way I intended the song to be sung. So I have them sing it 25 times on the first verse, I have them sing the hook 30 times, and I gotta go through each take. I might hear the first word on take 30, on take 7 I’ll take the third word, I hear an ad-lib on take 8. Then I put it together, and to you it will sound like a straight verse. But for my own record, I don’t have to comp cause I’m in the booth singing it. Do I do it several times until it’s to my liking? Absolutely, but as far as coming out of the booth and putting shit together? Nah. I just sing them. I know how they’re supposed to sound.