Damn, Makonnen

A very honest conversation with ILoveMakonnen about weight loss, OVO, Black Lives Matter, and getting things done.

photographer Graham Walzer
Damn, Makonnen
A very honest conversation with ILoveMakonnen about weight loss, OVO, Black Lives Matter, and getting things done.
Story by Jeff Weiss
Photography by Graham Walzer
Styling by Ashley Guerzon
Damn, Makonnen

It’s Tuesday but it feels like Thursday because it’s right before Thanksgiving. Makonnen, 26, no longer has the luxury of forgetting what day it is. At least not on a Tuesday, the 24-hour cycle that he revolutionized last summer with his platinum-selling devotional to melancholy club nights.

If you’ve been outside on at least one of the last 62 Tuesdays, you’ve heard it. It went to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received a Grammy nomination. Maybe you mistook it for a Drake original, considering the song’s stratospheric rise only occurred after the Canadian chanson added a verse to it. In mainstream pop culture, it’s what the Atlanta native is principally known for. He is acutely aware of this fact.

“I can't believe it’s Tuesday again,” the OVO-signed, ex-street pharmacist says, with the resignation of someone who has been trapped in a Groundhog’s Day-like relationship with his biggest hit. It’s the sort of purgatory that would be tough to fully understand unless you were Robert “Friday I’m in Love” Smith. “I joke with my friends on Monday nights, like oh, we gotta get me home before I turn into dust—Tuesday’s coming,” he says.

We’re at my apartment after relocating from a coffee shop because Makonnen wanted to go somewhere where he could smoke freely. He fires up the first of two torpedo-sized joints that he brands “Red Dragon Prairie Grass.” If there was any doubt that he has the loudest of the loud, it’s quickly cleared.

Damn, Makonnen

After signing a record deal with Warner last year, Makonnen promptly moved from Atlanta to New York. He says he’ll spend the holidays out in L.A. because he says he wants to be alone, and maybe do some mushrooms at the beach. As he takes slow pulls off the spliff, he stares out the window wistfully. There’s a sad almost fatalistic quality to him, more romantic poet than trap rapper.

But he’s a little bit of both, a crooner in the rap medium, descended from Morrissey via Brandon Flowers of The Killers (one of his favorite bands). He has a fresh line-up haircut and wears a clump of thin gold chains over an Empire Strikes Back T-shirt. He’s wearing black pants, a black jacket, and a pair of $5 dollar sunglasses that he politely removes when he’s inside. His eyes look weary.

It’s been a long year between his first commercial release, December 2014’s ILoveMakonnen EP and its sequel, last month’s excellent ILoveMakonnen 2. Whereas Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin handled the brunt of the beats on the initial effort, Makonnen opted for smaller names and self-production this time—save for one song with DJ Mustard. The project’s only major guest spot is Santigold.

It’s not quite a full-scale re-invention for the water advocate who first started making experimental DIY synth-pop ballads while on house arrest for the accidental shooting of a high school friend. However, it does mark a significant evolution. Now 26, these days is Makonnen is significantly thinner and more muscular than his former cherubic self, and his songs seem more toned and nimble. He’s lived as an alternate world pop star, possessed by oddly addictive melodies, lovelorn emotion, and a sly sense of humor. He writes drug songs about love and love songs about drugs. He repeatedly describes himself as “magical,” and as far as I can tell, there’s no reason not to trust him.

Damn, Makonnen
"There's not even any money here anymore. It's all lies. The money's gone and everybody is now keeping up this front as if there's money there."

What’s surprised you the most since you first entered the music business?

I was kind of let down on the artistry. I don't know. People aren't as good as you thought they are.

Talent wise or ethically?

In all ways. Image-wise. I don't know if you're fooled by it or just buy into it, but you just think, "Oh I thought this was gonna be this way and that person would act this way because the media portrays them as an asshole." But the people you think are going to bombard you and hurt your feelings can be some of the most supportive people in the world.

Who are you talking about specifically?

Oh I'm just saying. Just different people in the scenes. A lot of people aren't supportive. I don't know what people are here for. I guess everybody's here for the money, but there's not even any money here anymore. It's all lies. The money's gone and everybody is now keeping up this front as if there's money there. And people are just going deep in debt to keep acting like, "I have money. There's no problems. Order more bottles fuck it!' Get 'em drunker so they don't ask any questions."

Do you think that's a function of America and where we’re at as a culture?

As a culture, America needs to stop celebrating. We don't even know what the fuck we're celebrating anymore. People are out here lost and intoxicated.

You go out in other countries on Friday and Saturday nights, and everyone is loving and happy and enjoying themselves. They can hold their intoxication. Here in America, it's always overboard. It's always too much, and overindulgent. Who can go the hardest? Who can get the drunkest? Who can be the fullest? Who can be the skinniest? It's never enough of "You're okay as you are."

Damn, Makonnen
Damn, Makonnen

What made you want to get in shape?

I was like this before I became famous. I was all about health and wellness but you go through phases. I was going through some deep shit so I just let myself go and wanted to indulge and be a part of the community and America. So I started hanging out and doing what Americans do. I became a product of my environment. You guys wanna indulge? Let's fucking indulge. What else were we gonna do?

After a while it becomes—Okay, I see everyone in this space took that way out. Now let’s see if we can get it moving. Let’s see if we can do something besides just turning up and getting drunk and eating all this shit. If I showed up at first, and was like, "Hell yeah lets go workout! Let’s go do this!" It would be like "What the fuck? We can't relate to you."

No one wants to be the weird fitness rapper.

Yeah! There's nothing relatable to you. I'm just relatable to everybody. This is a part of my job now. I have to be on stage to entertain my fans for 45 minutes and it's like ya'll want me to be out of breath in 15 minutes?

What is your workout routine?

It's really just jumping up and down on stage. And eating foods that I know are not gonna make me tired while I'm on stage and after.

But when I'm not about to go on, I'll have whatever I want to eat. Hot wings, whatever. I'm always moving. I barely even rest anymore. My whole lifestyle is different. While everybody is still sleeping, I'm up. I can’t even tell anybody what it is, it’s something that you have to get accustomed to your body and figure out. Just put that time into yourself. That's all it takes.

But nobody wants to put in the time. They want Makonnen to give them a thing and it's like ‘oof yeah I got it.’ It's been eight months. Oh you see an Instagram picture now and think I did it overnight but no, it's been eight months of going through a different lifestyle.

Are Tuesdays permanently ruined for you?

It's both super random and powerful as fuck. You start seeing it all around the world and it's like what the fuck is going on? But then I come back to America and see it and it's like, "Whoa, this isn't what I meant." You guys have taken it and overdid it to where the person it was for, can't even go and enjoy a Tuesday. Everybody is so dressed up. It's such a big money night now. It's just like, "Fuck! I can't even pay to get in my own shit!" You know what I'm saying? [Laughs]

I felt it was one of those songs like “Hey Ya!” where everyone parties to it, but if you listen closely it’s really sad. You’re exhausted and overworked and don’t even have the energy to dance so you just order more drinks at the bar. Do you ever think back to that time when you wrote that song?

I was in the studio and Rae Sremmurd were there and we were just kicking it in a regular little house before people cared about any of us. We'd just be boom boom boom, creative and going.

I foresaw our power way early and [initially] wanted to keep it in-house with Mike Will and everybody. Everybody wants to stay together and be like the X-Men, this big superpower team. But you live in America and money is involved and everyone wants different things. We all have families to take care of, so we have to make the best choices for us. Then we end up around the world, backstage again, looking at each other and being like, "Damn what the fuck. Y'all killing it out there.” “Nah man, you killing it.”

Damn, Makonnen
Damn, Makonnen
"As a culture, America needs to stop celebrating. We don't even know what the fuck we're celebrating anymore. People are out here lost and intoxicated."

How do you like living in New York?

I love New York. New York inspires all my music. As for America, it’s eh. It's weird. It's a pretty face, it's like a girl that has that pretty face and she spends all the money just on her face though but then everything else is just like eh, it's a mess. I can't start dealing with that, but damn your face drew me in, but now I have to deal with all that. I feel sad here in America. Especially in California and shit because there are just so many dreams out here and it's like fuck.

Does being back in LA where you grew up bring back memories?
It makes me want to leave back to New York. They always told me I could never live in New York and New York is too expensive and I wouldn't last in New York. That's what my family always told me.

Did fame bring people out the woodwork trying to hit you up for money?

I haven't even blown up though. People rate success and it's so wrong in America. I still feel like I'm in that house with Mike Will and Rae Sremmurd. That's who I've been linking back up with. Me and Mike Will have been talking because we really have some good music together. But it was too advanced, too fast. The people wouldn't [have gotten] it. All this shit had to happen so we can finally bring out the sound that we've been working on.

What do you think is most misunderstood about you?

I really don't know because I know myself and so many people don't know themselves. They’re the ones that are confused. They're all looking to be someone else, but it’s like, just be yourself.

How would you define yourself?

A reflection of all that's happening and living. I'm just out here living. Doing what humans can do. Doing what god made the human body and brain for. I've showed that I can go through all ways. And that's helping more people than just the music. Everybody thinks, “Oh, you gotta have money now to get a personal trainer.” I used to be a personal trainer, before I came into the music scene. All you have to do is put your mind to it. It's just common sense. Find out what makes you get a snotty nose and stop eating those foods. Find out what makes you feel better every day and keep going. That's all.

Damn, Makonnen

You've also taken your share of acid. Do you think that helped changed your perception?

I tried LSD and it was legit stuff from legit doctors, but I don't promote just taking acid or LSD. There was a time where I was doing psychedelics just to see what the fuck it was about and I saw what it was about. It showed me myself. I was like, "Damn, let me stop fooling around, masking myself, and find the truth." You wanna stop bullshitting and dealing with dumbass problems and start making solutions? Take yourself some time out from humanity and go fucking have a dosage of LSD or a deep shroom trip or whatever and face yourself. Don't do it with everybody. It's not for partying and being with everybody and “Let's all trip.” That’s when you're doing it wrong. Go get in touch with yourself and if you don't wanna get in touch with yourself then get out my face asking me about shit.

That's the whole point right? The inner journey?

Some people don't wanna face that. Some people just want an outer journey.

They want someone to give them the answers. But everyone's answer is different.

Exactly. That's what life is about. You were born by yourself, unless you're a twin, but even then. You guys have different bodies. Do it for yourself. That's what life is about, getting in touch with yourself. So many people are out here running, trying to chase somebody else, and find somebody to love them for whatever the fuck, and they don't even know what they have to offer yet. People are out here looking for the wrong things. That's why those other countries are really good, because those people have time for themselves. They're not caught up in this technology and all this shit that just makes them not interact with their parents and other humans.

Do you feel like technology makes it even more difficult for someone to communicate in person because we’re always just hiding behind a screen?

Human communication right now is so fucked up. I cannot do it. This age group, from 12 to damn 30, they cannot communicate in person without technology.

You’re on Twitter and Snapchat pretty regularly.

I’m on there promoting my brand. I'm trying to be as useful as I can and touch and react with my fans and people that wanna see shit. But after a while it's like, “Ya'll go live ya'll lives.” Show me something. Snap yourself in fucking Peru with crazy colors on listening to my music, enjoying shit. I like shit like that. But stop snapping me you dabbing and doing drugs. It's like, “Ah, okay cool.” Everybody gets high, who can't get high? Stop showing me simple minded shit. Show me you making designs. Let's use this for something else. When I was at home, I was using [social media] to get to where I got to now. Now that I'm up here, I barely have any time anymore.

Damn, Makonnen

What's your relationship with OVO like?

It's cool, they put out my music and stuff and we just keep it moving. Let them tell you their relationship with Makonnen. I'm just an artist, being an artist, and there's only so much that I can do.

Do you feel like you aren’t able to release music as freely as you’d like?

Nah. I’ve had “Second Chance” finished since January. That was supposed to be that summer banger this summer. That was supposed to be out, touching people and hitting them this summer. By the time next year they'll be ready for something else. It's all late. People are doubting me, doubting what the fuck I said when I made the fucking song. You wait a year later and it's whatever. Hopefully, it's worked right. The song is structured properly. Everything is all there for proper radio play to just spin it over and over to people. Who knows? I don't know what the fuck they want.

“Teach Me How to Whip It” and “No M’aam” from this year's Drink More Water V mixtape didn’t get radio play. Was that frustrating?

It sucks because they're all great anthems and we can really take them to that home run, but all the extra bullshit in the industry ends up stopping it.

Do you still talk to Drake?

Here and there. By the time this comes out, I'll probably see him six more times or no more times. I don’t know. I just wish everybody well in all that they do and I just go on and live my life and try to uplift motherfuckers. At the end of the day I'm tired of uplifting people. I just gotta uplift myself now because everything else is a waste of time.

There’s a house influence on the new EP. Were you into dance music growing up?

Yeah definitely and still into it now. I like good vibes and good times, people out there smiling and dancing. Hip-hop is too angry, it's too mad, it's too much egos, it's too much everyone trying to stunt on everybody. I just hate being around that shit. I don't really like hanging out with rappers, I don't care to smoke weed with nobody. I don't care to go on LSD trips with anybody. I don't care to do shit! Leave me the fuck alone, you know what I'm saying?

Have you been following Black Lives Matter or the recent shooting in Minneapolis?

Yeah, but not really though. All lives matter and that's how I've always been. Just to be like, “Oh I'm pro black and for black lives.” Fuck that because when my friends were dying in Atlanta and there were black lives and white lives taking black lives and all that bullshit. That was when we needed the Black Lives [Matter] campaign to come campaign for us. I aint got time for all ya'll and all that bullshit now. You only do the shit when it's convenient. All lives always have mattered. Fuck out my face telling me black lives matter, or saying white lives matter, or any fucking life matters. If don't all lives matter than no lives fucking matter. That's how I feel and until we down for that shit, don't ask me to come comment on shit. I ain’t got nothing to say because I know what's been going on.

Buy my damn EP and see me at the show, that's what I do. That's why I’m on earth and that's what motherfuckers are paying me to do and that's what people are all making a living off of so let me stay in my line in that rotation. I'm not running for no fucking politics to try to change y’all. It's too late for ya'll. I'm trying to help teach the kids if anything. I need to be a schoolteacher when I finish rapping.

Damn, Makonnen
"By the time this comes out, I'll probably see [Drake] six more times or no more times. I don’t know."

What do you listen to mostly?

A lot of Sébastien Tellier and some Harry Potter soundtracks, some Italian music, and just different shit.

Do you relate to any artists who are currently working or dead?

I relate to James Brown and Little Richard and Amy Winehouse, at least right now. There’s too many to name.

Do you feel that this is the latest reinvention of yourself?

No, I feel like this is old ILoveMakonnen 2. It feels like timeless songs that people will get. The new shit that I'm on right now? By the time they get it, I’ll probably be off of it again.

Do you feel like you’d want to be like Future or Young Thug, in their ability to put out a bunch of mixtapes at will?

I wish I could be like them and put out a bunch of mixtapes. I wish I could.

So why don't you just do it?

Because I have relationships to keep and I can't make people mad and that's not how certain people operate. I'm just being a respectable employee right now.

Are you happy right now?

A little bit, with myself I am. I wish I could make more money. I wish I could help more people out. I wish I could spend more time with people but shit, I can't. I know what I have to do to get to the next place I want to be and I have to shut a lot of people off and get really busy with work.

It's nothing personal to anybody but I stayed out I partied with you guys all night. I was the last person to go home plenty of times and I saw that you guys weren't as serious as I was and these drunken conversations that you guys want to talk about, ideas and shit. Well make it happen! I'm gonna leave and go make it happen.

Damn, Makonnen
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Damn, Makonnen