Styles P really does own a juice bar in the Bronx. Located on Castle Hill Ave between a pizza shop and storefront church with a black and orange façade, Juices for Life boasts a sprawling menu of healthy blender concoctions, though not as much Styles P music playing as you'd think. When Negashi Armada, the rapper better known as Blunt Fang, finally walks through the door, he orders the Morning Rush—"almond, protein, banana, and some pineapple?" he guesses. With a pair of crusty, worn work boots tied to his backpack and a tall black tee down to his knees, he's scruffy and short, even mousy in appearance, but speaks in strong, declarative sentences. Neither of us is fluent in juice, but the trip was hastily agreed upon via text three days earlier at Armada's suggestion: "My nig," he'd typed, "thatd b like a pilgrimage for me."
Armada is from Atlanta, where, at 27, he's planted decade-deep roots with the city's most provocative young artists, first as a member of the pioneering group Supreeme and now through the absurdist shoegaze rap he crafts as Blunt Fang. But he spent a few summers here in New York in the early 2000s, where he came to love borough heroes like The Lox and The Diplomats, not just for their inescapable city anthems but for the subtly bold way they always gave their audience credit. "I remember on some shit, Jadakiss said, Kiss is the cornerstone of the corner store," he recalls. "Cam'ron had lines I didn't get until years later," and he rattles a few while a twitchy friend in a second-hand Versace jacket tries a dozen free samples.
Much like our conversation, Armada's latest full-length, Coarse Light II, is littered with non-sequiturs and allusions, references that at times translate into something discomforting, hilarious, or both, depending on who's listening. Take "No Reason": Who's that in dirty white pants drinking beer in Club Opera/ Kicking theory to a bopper like Amiri Baraka. Or "Graceface": I'll show you what it is and what it aren't/ David Icke is disinfo and "Picasso Baby" isn't art. Or "Warm": I restructured the film to make the setting the central star of the plot (x8). Or "Boy Stop (uacop)": Ain't none of y'all one thou-wow/ All y'all niggas Lil Bow Wow.
That last line, the rapper tells me, comes with backstory. "Me and Supreeme, we'd all been making fun of Lil Bow Wow for years," he explains. "One time when I was, like, maybe 12 years old—and this is when I really solidified my hate for Lil Bow Wow—I was on the phone with my homie, talkin' about how nice I was. 'Yeah, man, fuck that nigga, man! That little nigga got people writin' his raps, man. Fuck, I'm really doing this shit!' I open my door, tell me why the nigga's walking past my house, with braids, because they're filming the 'Ghetto Girls' video on my street. I was fucking pissed." Bow Wow's likeness peaks from a corner of the Coarse Light II cassette, and throughout Blunt Fang's self-sketched iconography. "I feel like he's my guardian demon or something, the opposite of a guardian angel," he says. "I think we were born in the same year."
Armada was raised in "a pretty staunch black nationalist household" by a Rastafarian-turned-Muslim mother and a Nigerian step-father who majored in science. "All that shit's in my mind," he says of his parents' backgrounds. The family bounced around while Armada was in grade school, to Jamaica and New York, before settling back in the Old Fourth Ward, an infamous stretch of East Atlanta that housed southern rap's mid-2000s explosion. (In addition to the aforementioned Bow Wow clip, the beloved No Limit/Snoop Dogg collab "Down 4 My Niggas" was shot doors from his home.)
"I learned from my mother to never be afraid of your own people," he says as we climb subway stairs toward the 6 train back downtown. "Everybody in the neighborhood knows what's going on, intuitively, even if they're not able to verbalize it in college terms, because it's happening to them." The Fourth Ward was rife with the crime that characterized most Atlanta traps and the art they produced, but as demographics changed, tastes have, too. "It was one of the worst hoods, and now it's under extreme, aggressive re-gentrification, which I think is interesting," he tells me. "I think the story of more weird rap in Atlanta getting more of a spotlight has to do a lot with it. White people have more votes in the area as to what's important. It's not a bad thing at all. Without re-gentrification, there'd be no Awful, there'd be no OG Maco, there'd be no—shit, there won't be a Blunt Fang."
"I'd never ever been arrested when I was younger, but since I've been a dad, I've been to Atlanta City Jail like four times."
Before these artists, though, was Supreeme. In 2003, while still in high school, Armada, Tom Cruz, and King Self started recording loopy raps together and playing parties around the city, and soon captured the gaze of ground-level bloggers and major labels alike. Landing after Little Brother and before Odd Future, Supreeme was heralded as a savior by in-the-know Atlanta fans, and gained comparisons to Outkast for warm flips of The Wailers and straightjacket hooks, like repeating I'm crazy ad nauseam. They dropped the cult hit Supremacy and were upstreamed into a deal with Warner Bros through an imprint with Murs, ultimately sticking with it for six years before in-fighting and an unsupportive major bested the band in 2009. "That was like my college," Armada says, deflating a bit while discussing old work and dashed plans. "But now I'm like a grad student rap samurai or something."
After Supreeme split up, the rapper moved to Oakland with his girlfriend and they soon had a son. Armada started dicking around with a keyboard during empty hours, and recorded an EP called Crossburner under a new name. "I heard this NPR story about tigers. When they die, unless they get killed, all tigers just starve to death because their fangs become blunt," he explains of his moniker. "I always had good grades, was always celebrated in the neighborhood amongst my friends, and people always had a lot of expectations for me, so I always connected with fallen messianic characters, like Longshot from X-Men, shit like that. I also smoke a lot, too, so that matches up."
His own fall from grace came late. "I'd never ever been arrested when I was younger, but since I've been a dad, I've been to Atlanta City Jail like four times for a couple of days," he explains, before recounting one charge to the horror of nearby strangers. He was at DragonCon, a cosplay convention. "Everybody from Atlanta just sneaks in," he says. "You're supposed to pay, like $200 to get a pass. I snuck in once last year, and it was so fun because me and my boy Mickey, like—I felt like a little kid. I was getting chased by security; I was juking them left and right; it felt like tag. They weren't cops, so the authority isn't like a real danger. A nigga in a kilt tackles me to the floor, and I just start punching him. And then the rest of security jumps on me. At one point, that guy choked me with his arm. That Eric Garner shit had just happened, and in my brain I was like, 'Yo, I don't ever want to be on camera just, like, this black guy who doesn't do anything, and he just died.' Like, no, it's gonna be, 'He stabbed me in the eye, he bit my nose, and then I killed him.' So I bite this nigga's arm, and it got pretty crazy. And I got a real bad temper, so at one point I was screaming at the whole hotel. I told them Osama Bin Laden was my uncle, and I'm a crazy nigga, and I'm gonna blow the whole thing up," he says with a laugh. "I'm banned from the Marriott."
Any 30-second chunk of Armada's music suggests the same fondness for chaos: samples of the Cocteau Twins and Stone Love are covered in no-fi hiss and twisted into dreamy, unnerving loops, paired with cacophonic 909-drums, and mixed harshly. It's disarmingly DIY, and can register as non-music to unprepared ears. But despite their random-seeming, nihilistic presentation, the song concepts are well thought-out. In fact, Armada's intentional sloppiness often makes the messages feel more urgent. Consider "400," an opus on American slavery that samples the Disney Home Video theme and, for its music video, lifts visuals from the banned Italian film Goodbye Uncle Tom. Somehow, the disorienting tension between the grave subject matter and trap-skewering production feels more effective than the frictionless sermons of contemporaries like J. Cole, and maybe Kendrick. "How can I make a song that niggas would want to get buck to about slavery? That was the challenge to myself," he laughs. "I can't talk about it in lame terms. It's too easy for me as an intelligent guy to try to do some super straight-forward rap. That would bore the hell out of me, and as far as people in Atlanta, it bores the hell out of people there, too."
Between his budding Shawty Arabia "mini-corporation" that hosts shows, sells clothes and will be doing art for Bloody Jay's next mixtape, and pending work with frequent collaborators like B L A C K I E, Fat Tony, and Awful Records, Armada seems to have once again found other likeminds, one's that don't bore him. But a mission statement like his, placing provocation over accessibility, can scan as kind of bratty. Why do it at all, if barely anyone will get it? "The world is so partitioned. People make assumptions. It's very important to me that I lead my life in the future," he says. "It's 2015, I have to push things and push new forms. An art show isn't just walking around and looking at walls. We have to come up with new ways of expressing things, or there won't be any new ways." Maybe it's genuine curiosity, then, a desire to bend and stretch tropes to their limits to reveal a true mean? Maybe he's still figuring it out. "I want more girls to make beats for me," he offers at one point. "Any time I work on my music, I'm thinking about all the hoes that's gonna love me, all the niggas I'm gonna shit on. But I want to see what it's like to have beats come from a different place with a different attitude. I want to take the dick and the male ego out of the beat." It makes more sense than it should, as Blunt Fang often does.