Makonnen Sheran plays navigator, directing his manager of three years past the low-slung cabins and members-only tennis clubs of suburban Marietta, Georgia. Forty-five minutes north of the Atlanta home where the singing rapper, 25, lives with his mother and two pit bulls, they ease into a wooded neighborhood called Heritage Farms and park behind a pickup truck with lacrosse team bumper stickers.
Idling in the long driveway, Makonnen cues up “Down 4 So Long,” one of a hundred-odd songs he’s released over the past few years. I lost my friends in ’07/ Every night I pray to god they made it to heaven/ Cause I’ve been going through the worst/ Having visions I was leaving in a hearse next, goes one downtrodden verse, before a wailing chorus that tunnels through rock bottom until it comes back out on top: But I’ve been down for so long! And I’ve been keeping it too real! So I’mma say what I want! And I don’t care how you feel! Tomorrow, Drake will reference a Makonnen song in an Instagram caption, the first in a series of events that will land him, after years in obscurity, a major-label deal with the Toronto rapper’s October’s Very Own. Today is not yet that day.
With a knock, Makonnen enters an unfinished basement containing a ceiling-high stack of cornhole boards, a race track for miniature cars and seven scraggly teenagers in graphic tees and denim shorts: Sea Ghost. The band, which practices and records here, recently sent him an email asking to collaborate. Impressed by the homemade rock songs they’d attached, Makonnen agreed to stop by. “I could tell they were a new band looking for that confidence,” he explained on the ride over. “I always wished that someone would do that for me.”
It’s unclear whether, minutes earlier, Makonnen knew Sea Ghost was comprised entirely of high schoolers, but his unshakeable grin suggests he’s nothing but pleased by the deferential crowd. “Live music is the best music,” he says to a chorus of eager “yeah”s. Sea Ghost’s lead singer, Carter Sutherland, struggles to cue up a suitable song for a rap verse—or singing, if Makonnen would prefer—on a laptop plugged into a guitar amp. Cycling through demos, he provides running commentary that, without fail, finds him blathering over the very tracks he’s trying to showcase. But the effort is charming, and even more so when, after Makonnen expresses interest in a rock song that blooms from a hip-hop beat, Sea Ghost straps on its instruments and runs through it live. Music careens off the concrete floor; they're ear-splitting but truly adept. Makonnen beams and claps, “Wow, y’all!”
He’s already conceived of a verse. Sutherland drapes a band T-shirt over the microphone for a makeshift pop filter, and, to make the basement studio quieter, asks his dad to come downstairs and turn off the central air. Sea Ghost huddles around the computer as Makonnen knocks out his verse in a single take, his whiny croon infectious and unconcerned with pitch: I wouldn’t leave you again, if we couldn’t be friends, he begins, the sentiment simple-sounding yet complicated. “I love how you put a lot of vibrato,” the band’s bassist comments afterward, toasting him with an extra-large bottle of iced tea. “I like how you did it kind of choppy,” adds another. They take a group photo, and Carter screen-prints Makonnen a Sea Ghost T-shirt using his laptop as a hard surface. Before he leaves, Makonnen invites everyone to his next show. When they remind him it’s 21 and up, he replies, “I’ll tell them you’re part of my entourage. If they don’t let y’all in, I’m not playing!”
“It’s not about being marketable anymore, it’s about being unmarketable.”—iLoveMakonnen
* * *
Makonnen always had an ease with words. “Growing up, I remember having this karaoke machine,” he says, back in the car. “It was this plastic guy, and he has this little mic attached to him, and it records shit. I remember just holding it, you know? I didn’t have any friends really young, and I remember being at my dad’s girlfriend’s house, and the other kids were playing basketball, and I was just outside with my little recorder, talking into it about whatever came to mind. I always made myself have a friend in myself. I’d be laughing at my own jokes, like, ‘This is funny. Who can I share this with? Oh: myself.’”
He was born in Los Angeles, in what was then called South Central. His parents divorced soon after. Makonnen was raised mostly by his father, a first-generation immigrant from Belize, in a family house on West 21st Street with his aunt and a half-dozen older cousins. “That was the street Marvin Gaye was living on when he got killed by his dad,” Makonnen says. “The area was kinda famous for that.” He absorbed his cousins’ music collections—“Top 40 and techno, fucking Cher, blink-182, goddamn Ice Cube”—and the rest of their lives. “The oldest would be in charge,” Makonnen remembers. “But they’d be like, ‘Whatever, I’m going to play my video game in the room.’ Here I am, the youngest one, in a group of four or five of us getting into trouble: the sex channel, everything. The first time I had a cigarette was at 8 years old; I started smoking weed at 10.” He bounced from one grade school to the next, which offered unfamiliar worlds. “My best friend would be a black kid in one school, and then a Vietnamese kid in the next school, then the next one a white kid, then a Mexican kid, etc. I’d go from the hood in LA to school in Orange County, and they’re living a whole different lifestyle. Everybody’s chill, going to the beach, fucking skateboarding. I’m so thankful for that. That’s what the world is when you grow up: everybody isn’t the same as the kids
in your neighborhood.”
In seventh grade, Makonnen skipped school for a month and a half straight. After an afternoon spent horsing around, he’d put on his uniform and walk home. One day, his aunt tried to pick him up early and learned of his string of absences. “I was like, ‘Shit, don’t tell my dad, don’t tell my dad,’” he says. “I knew he was going to beat my ass. She’s like, ‘It’s too late, I already called him.’ That was horrible. I remember getting that whipping— it was one of the worst in my life. It was beyond whipping.” His mom had moved to Atlanta, and he flew there to visit and get his bearings. “She was the first person to show interest in my music,” he says, and that grounded him. She bought Makonnen a keyboard, and he started to produce five-track beats for her to sing over. “We made three albums together,” he says. “We co-wrote the songs and recorded them in our house. That’s where I got my first experience putting vocals on a track. My mom was the first artist that I ever produced.” When it was finally time to return to LA, Makonnen begged her not to send him. A custody battle ensued, and he remembers his father telling him, “I’m never going to hang out with you like this again.” Makonnen moved to Atlanta.
* * *
Coming to America plays on mute in a professional studio in trendy Castleberry Hill. It’s around 10PM. Trinidad Jame$ borrows a dollar to buy Skittles from a vending machine. In the year since his single “All Gold Everything,” a viral success the rapper’s seeking to repeat, Trinidad’s loud afro has been traded for more demure cornrows, though he still wears gold-dipped Chelsea boots. Candy in his pocket, he lumbers back into the booth to finish an EDM-ish song about partying from Australia to the A. Delivering the verse piecemeal, he repeats every phrase with variations on enunciation: The A! The A. The Aaaa.
On a couch in the main room, Makonnen plays with a Ziploc bag. “I’m not gonna ask because I already know,” he says. “Y’all don’t want mushrooms.” When Trinidad comes back in, though, they each eat one. Makonnen flicks through emails on his phone and downloads a beat from Sonny Digital, an Atlanta producer he’s been working with since the spring. Each new collaboration seems to yield another, and Makonnen’s network of marquee rap producers is ever-growing. “When Metro Boomin gets tired, I get Sonny; when Sonny gets tired, I get FKi,” he says. “It might look like I came up in March or April, but I just saw the void and went for it. Gucci Mane was in jail, Young Thug was taken to Birdman, but there was still producers in Atlanta that love to work. Like, ‘Shit, I’ve got songs. Y’all want to record?’ We started recording, they started liking it and it started spreading through this little industry. Everybody fucks with Makonnen now. But I’ve had the same style all along—all it needed was drums and some producer drops.”
Trinidad likes Sonny’s beat, and he reenters the booth to try his hand at a hook. Hunh... hunh... ya do that... he repeats, fishing for inspiration. Makonnen, for his part, makes a FaceTime call. “Boy, stop,” he keeps saying as he tries to recruit Key!, another rapper with whom he’s collaborated, to come to a party later that night. “Fuck y’all, y’all ain’t making no songs. At least make a diss song so my buzz can go higher.” The conversation drags on until the mushroom appears to be taking hold. Makonnen cups his phone, gleefully twisting his wrist to examine the screen from another side.
By now, Trinidad has long abandoned recording because the only hooks he could come up with were negative, and he doesn’t want to do a negative song. “If y’all really want to trip,” the engineer suggests, “we can turn the laser light on.” He dims the overheads, and green and red dots start to flicker on the ceiling, constellations expanding and crashing together. “I think that does do something for me,” Makonnen says, finally hanging up his call. “I’m freaking ouuuut. Where the beat at?” He heads into the booth, keeping silent as the instrumental plays once through. When it begins a second time, he launches into a freestyle that lasts the entire song. How you do it, oh tell me how you do it, goes a self-congratulatory hook, rolling seamlessly into odd rhymes like That chicken food spot, I’m driving to it and Them girls you with, are they high school chicks? When the song ends, Makonnen asks the engineer to restart the beat. It’s uncanny: without a moment to collect his thoughts, he delivers an entirely new track.
“A lot of people are just too self-conscious. But you have to understand: I was facing my life being taken away.”—iLoveMakonnen
* * *
Back when Makonnen was using his living-room keyboard to record vocals, he wasn’t able to splice together multiple takes. With practice, he developed the ability to rattle off song-length freestyles in one fell swoop. “A lot of people are just too self-conscious,” Makonnen says, reclining the next day in yet another studio, loaned for his exclusive use by the Atlanta hit-maker Polow Da Don. “You just have to let it flow. But you have to understand: I was facing my life being taken away. I liked doing music, but the confidence came from knowing that this was my last chance. It’s sad that a tragedy had to happen for me to put as much force into it as I am.”
Draping his head in his new Sea Ghost shirt, then folding and refolding it in his lap, Makonnen recounts the night after his high school graduation. “We were hanging out: me, my friend and my other friend, Anthony. In two weeks, me and my friend were meant to go to the Air Force together; it was like everyone’s last night. Our other friend had just died—he was shot in February—so we were like, ‘What are we really doing here? Are we going to sell weed in this neighborhood all our lives?’
“We’re in the car, and they’re rolling up, smoking, and I’m sitting in the back seat. Anthony is on the phone with his girlfriend, and they’re arguing about some petty shit: ‘No, I’m not getting you these Jordans,’ or something like that. High school shit. So I’m like, ‘Dude, get off the phone. Let’s chill. It’s our last day hanging out.’ He hangs up and pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at me, like, ‘You’re getting on my fucking nerves. How do you want it?’
“I’m like, ‘Dude, chill, it’s not even that serious.’ The other guy’s like, ‘Yeah, bro, we don’t play with guns.’ Anthony puts the gun in his lap and unclips it. I run out of the car. I leave to go pee. I’m scared, like, this motherfucker be tripping. I don’t know anything about guns, because I never had a gun, but I see the clip in his hand, so I think the gun is empty. My plan is to get the gun and put it in this trash can, so we can finish smoking and shit. I go back to the car, and the door is open, and the gun’s on his leg, and I go to reach for it, and he feels it move and...
“He didn’t know I was coming. He just felt it moving, and the shit just popped. I remember the smoke, but I don’t even remember having my hand on the gun. It was just, like, falling and boof! I saw the flash, and I saw him bleeding out of his head. The blood is starting to leak, and the other guy gets out of the car—he’s trying not to get his shoes covered with blood. We’re just freaking out, so we run in the house to get Anthony’s older brother, and I’m like, ‘Dude, your brother just got shot.’ I see Anthony over in the car, just shaking and dying and shit. I felt like I had exploded and died myself.”
Makonnen ran home, crying, and explained what happened to his parents. His dad had flown in from LA for his graduation. Makonnen turned himself in to the police. He was released that night but was soon served a warrant. The parents of his two deceased friends—Anthony and the boy who’d died in February—had convinced themselves and others in the neighborhood that Makonnen had conspired to murder their sons, he says; to the local press, they called him an executioner. After weeks in jail, he was issued an ankle monitor and sent to his mother’s, where he remained on house arrest for two years while his case was in limbo.
He started a blog called The Newness, where he posted images of clothes he wanted to buy and email interviews with artists like Lil B and Miguel. With permission from the court, he followed in his mother’s footsteps and enrolled in cosmetology school, where he dolled up mannequin heads in heavy makeup and jarring pink hair. When classmates mocked his creations, he told them, “I’m going to make these dolls famous. I’m going to take them all over the world.” In 2009, he posted a blog entry with an itinerary for an imaginary “world tour” of concerts that he wished he could attend. Later that year, when his case finally went to trial, Makonnen was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years of probation.
Around 2011, he started posting songs online, with free EPs and music videos starring his mannequins. Recording was a pastime he’d let fall by the wayside in high school, but it felt newly empowering in a time when he desperately needed to believe he was doing something positive. He called the project iLoveMakonnen. “Everybody was out to hate me and hang me,” he says of the years following Anthony’s death. “It was just Hate Makonnen Fest. A big Makonnen Ain’t Shit Fest. All the negative shit that you could think about the name Makonnen, they threw it at me. If I let the outside hate get inside of me, I would have probably killed myself. That’s what they were trying to push me toward. But I knew the truth about me. I love Makonnen. Just say it in your mind and you’ll start believing it. I used to chant it in my house. I had to love myself and stay strong.”
Makonnen’s early songs were almost all self-produced, his sound and subject matter shaped by his isolation. When asked which style he most identifies with, he replies, defiantly, “The DIY genre.” He was never deft with drums, so he’d coat samples with heavy reverb or, just as often, have no drums at all, creating the semblance of a beat with unusual synth loops or simply noisy piano playing. Hammering the keys with wild abandon, he’d sound like Slick Rick covering “Great Balls of Fire.” Like his accompaniment, Makonnen’s lyrics are often moving in their directness. Relatable lines like ain’t got no fucking time to party on the weekend helped launch his first hit, “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday,” which Drake remixed and made Makonnen’s first track with a hundred-thousand, then a few million, plays. In song, Makonnen presents himself as overworked and embattled, but he’s also a hopeless romantic. I’ll be wishing you well even though we’re not together/ I’ll be wishing you well cause I love you forever, he tells an ex on the elegantly Mike WiLL Made-It-produced “Wishin You Well." Given his luck, not getting the girl feels like exactly what would happen, but it hurts him just the same. On 2012’s nihilist anthem “I Don’t Care About Anything Anymore,” he repeats the song title 35 times, his defeat gaining more weight with every new utterance.
Still, there’s something childlike about Makonnen’s presence: the way he kicks his legs under the chair when talking, the glow of his cheeks when he smiles and the softness that remains when the cheer suddenly disappears. “Not a day goes by that I don’t replay all that shit in my mind,” he says. “Especially going home— it’s so tough. It’s the exact same neighborhood and the exact same house. We couldn’t move because the court just took all our money. I’m always looking out, trying not to run into the guy’s brother. I can’t wait for the day I leave this neighborhood forever.” His probation ended this May; that same month, he released Drink More Water 4, the first EP to feature outside producers. Now he’s weighing a move to New York. “The State of Georgia vs. Makonnen was a real fucking battle,” he says. “I don’t want to fight with Georgia no more. Like, I’m cool on Georgia. That’s why I don’t really like to be a representation of the new Atlanta. Because I’m ready to go soon as possible.”
* * *
Raindrops dot the windshield as Makonnen polishes off one of the afternoon’s many blunts, puffs of smoke hugging his curls like a rascally halo. “That’s the gas station where Gucci Mane made a million dollars,” he says, as he drives by the incarcerated rapper’s supposed former dope spot. Makonnen pulls into “the barrio,” the nearby apartment complex that houses the upstart rap label Awful Records, now a dozen homegrown artists deep. In the few months since Awful first reached out, hoping for a guest feature on a song about outdated phones, some of Makonnen’s snappiest lines have appeared on tracks by their leader, a spectacled prankster with high-top braids who goes by the name of Father.
A nasal voice that evokes refined academic conversation, even as his lyrics descend to utter filth, bodes well for Father’s chances in a city where, for an artist, being different is key. As Makonnen puts it—and he’s no stranger to a catchily uncommon delivery—“It’s not about being marketable anymore. It’s about being unmarketable.” Father raps, produces, directs videos and designs album art. With a pack of likeminded creatives squatting at his residence, his world seems a bit like what would happen if the Makonnen of a few years ago had been relegated, not to his mother’s home, but to a flophouse run by a grown-up Bart Simpson. Much like Makonnen before Drake, Father and Awful’s tireless output has gone almost completely unacknowledged, most videos racking up a few hundred plays before being buried in the label’s feeds by their next hit-in-waiting.
Father’s apartment contains two vacuum cleaners, but there’s still trash all over the floor— beer bottles and chip bags and overturned ashtrays. Mattresses are propped up against walls or covered in dirty clothes. In one room, there’s a printed-out mood board of nuns behaving unprintably badly. A group of 10 amasses, and after a half-hour of requisite smoking and drinking, they begin to discuss the video at hand. The song’s a four-man posse cut called “Vodka on the Weekend,” and the concept is a barbecue. They’ll shoot a scene in a grocery store with everyone buying supplies, then return to the barrio’s front lawn. Makonnen will grill; Awful will eat. When Pyramid Quince, the rapper with the song’s first verse, turns out to be running late, they improvise a simple fix: they’ll film his scene later, with him waking up and walking out to the cookout. The label’s oldest member, 26-year-old rapper Richposlim, in flip-flops with socks and an Atliens sweatshirt, helps corral everyone while Father gathers a few cameras and makes on-the-fly job assignments: “You follow him. You shoot B-roll.” “It’s the same situation every day,” Makonnen says as the crowd moves out the door. “More people, less people, same people, different people.”
They wander a Super IGA store, picking out chicken cutlets. Father films Makonnen as he shuffles backward down an aisle of condiments, delivering the song’s hook. When Father tries to pan over to Richposlim in a seamless singletake, Slim flubs his verse and buckles over in laughter. A security guard haunting nearby tattles on them, and the manager starts to kick everybody out. “It’s all good, man, we’re leaving,” Father tells him, discreetly nudging away the guys with the shopping cart so they can still buy supplies. Outside, a storm cloud blackens the parking lot, threatening to derail the rest of the video, too.
Rain begins to fall when we pull up to the barrio. Patches of dead grass turn to small lakes; rappers run up the sidewalk, pulling their shirts over their heads. Inside, someone sets up DJ tables and a Ustream. Makonnen tears off a paper towel, dries his brow and sets out looking for a bowl to prepare marinade. As humidity fills the apartment, a producer named Dexter leaves for the covered hall outside. “Look at the way the rain bounces off the roofs,” he says. There’s a fuzzy-looking atmosphere about a foot above a nearby building, where droplets smash and ricochet, tickling the air like champagne bubbles. “Fucked up the video,” Father says. “It’s beautiful, though.”