Makonnen Speaks His Truth

An unfiltered conversation about coming out, Drake, Migos, and… Portland?
Story by Amos Barshad
Photography by Delaney Allen
Makonnen Speaks His Truth

How, exactly, did iLoveMakonnen end up living and working in, of all places, Oregon? According to one local rumor, it was a trip: while high on mushrooms he fixated on a dog wearing a collar bearing the name of the city of Portland, and he took it as all the sign he needed.

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Born Makonnen Sheran in 1989, he’d already lived an uncommon life by the time he broke through in 2014 with the strange smash “Tuesday.” Raised first in L.A. with his dad and hipster indie-rock cousins, then by his single mother on the southside of Atlanta, he had been a drug-corner kid, and a beautician, and a self-taught bedroom loner making pill-popping heartbreak jams while on house arrest for the accidental killing of his best friend. Something like an outsider artist of the trap. One of pop’s rare true eccentrics.

So — the mushrooms story. Not hard to believe! But not true. According to Makonnen himself, he came to the famously sleepy Pacific Northwest on a search for solitude. In the last few years he’d bounced between Atlanta, New York, and California. When he finally moved here in the fall of 2016, never having visited, he didn’t know a single person. “Oregon is this and that and outdoorsmen and pioneers and it’s where men go to become men,” he says. “And that’s what I wanted to do. Pioneer and go out here on my own.”

He got settled in, even moved his mom out here, too. Now they both have apartments in a strangely out-of-place high-rise on the lip of the Willamette River. Hardly the style for most outdoorsmen, Makonnen’s penthouse unit is a raw industrial space — all glass, steel, concrete — made over into a kind of fantasy dorm room. A wooden table is covered in mannequins and Sharpie’d thoughts (“Video Ideas: weed/animals is food/crushing technology”). A back wall is plastered in Playboy cartoons and Playgirl centerfolds. On the kitchen counter sits a pack of Lebanese spices, courtesy of his assistant Faisal’s mom.

In his music, Makonnen has never been one for restraint: he gushes, confides, overshares. In our long conversations, he was much the same way. He would ramble, repeat phrases over and over, contradict himself. I’d hear one side of a tale, then, hours or days later, hear the other. He’d sound paranoid at times, too, and full of anger. Repeatedly, he lashed out at unnamed forces wishing to do him harm. Personally? I found him to be candid, and charming.

It was after a few months of living here that Makonnen felt the time had come for a statement about his personal life, which had been speculated on by fans for years. It was January of 2017, just before the inauguration. In a series of tweets, Makonnen let the world know: “I’m gay.”

Makonnen Speaks His Truth
Makonnen Speaks His Truth

Why did this feel like the right time to come out?

I don't even know. It's just me and my life. I'm living. I'm 27. The world is changing, right? Donald Trump [was] about to make his big announcement on the goddamn 20th [of January]. Everybody know I'm gay and shit, so it's like, I might as well go ahead and make my little announcement to the world so I can move on with my life. I said whatever I said in my tweet, and then I moved on with it. Here goes America, let me focus on that!

Was it scary?

I've been a fighting motherfucker, I've been living, I've been to jail, I done did the real shit already. Saying I'm gay, that's like, “Oh shit, I'm man enough!” In this current day and age, where everybody is being so real and so out, and so, you know, straightforward, I was like, I guess I might as well be part of the movement, right?

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Did you ever consider coming out earlier, like when you were first getting attention in music?

I just respect the game I’ve been invited to play. It’s like you’ve been called into the NBA and “Oh shit, you scoring!” And then you decided you want to wear a goddamn bandana, and that’s kinda not part of the NBA rules but, like, “It’s cool bruh, you can play, do your thing!” So the elders, they were kind saying, “Hip-hop, we don’t do all of that gay shit, we all on straight shit.” But now it’s like — I put my bandana on.

I guess everybody felt like I was lying and I was ashamed for it, 'cause I didn't come out as gay earlier. It's like, why do I need to come out as gay to do open heart surgery on your dumb ass? Please explain that.

When did you tell your mom you were gay?

I told her, like, right before I was gonna tweet? It was like, “Hey mom” [mumbles] “I’m gay.” End of the day, sky’s blue.

“It was like, ‘Hey mom, I’m gay.’ End of the day, sky’s blue.”


The next morning she like, “Makonnen what the fuck! Everybody calling my goddamn phone!” You’d have thought I won the Grammys. Like, “What did you do?!” “I just came out as gay!” She like, “What? I thought it wasn’t a big deal.” “That’s what I’m saying, it’s not a big deal!” Well, it is a big deal in my field of … but she come from the hood. She know all this shit.

How accepting of a community did you grow up in?

I felt a ways about it. Kind of odd and pushed out. I was weird the whole time. That’s what they start saying, “Oh, you weird, you weird, you weird.” I’ve always been felt like an outcast. Now I’ve come to my realization that what that meant was that I was gay?

What do you think it was about you that marked you as “weird”?

Um. Being into the beauty industry and shit. And girls’ feelings. My other brothers all came from gangbanging and sports and shit like that. And it’s like, “Shit. I’ma stay in the house! And hang out with these girls! Just figure out what they about!” And it’s like [puts on deep voice] “You a pussy, you a punk, you weird.” And it’s like [long sigh] — “I guess, man.” And then I come and try to be like, “Nah I ain’t no punk, I’ll come out there wit’ y’all! What you wanna do?!”

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What about when you were older? Like when you left Atlanta and went back to California?

I was living in San Francisco. Had a lot of friends up there, and I was seeing a girl up there at the time. Complicated shit. Like, Ohhhh, San Francisco is gay as fuck — and here I am with this girl and — and I’m dealing with my gay — and this shit is like the land of gay! And I’m just using you to stay here to become a closeted gay … I can’t do all this shit — I’ve got to do me. San Francisco’s a great place but for me, I just would have been more confused and lost than I ever was.

I needed to go somewhere where I don’t know nobody else. And I feel like I was looking into Oregon like, Damn, what’s that — whole bunch of woods out there — coyotes and bears?! Shit and they had to tear down all these woods. That’s real man shit! And they didn’t have WiFi back then and they were traveling with lanterns and some dogs. Fuck. Those are men, dawg! And I don’t think nobody even cared if they were sleeping with each other or sleeping with whoever! As long is the job is goddamn done right and it’s correct and sustaining.

Do you think people care who you’re sleeping with?

Yeah. Because it’s like, yeah. I like cock! I've had sex with vagina. Maybe one day later on if I want to maybe, you know, whatever — I don't know! I'm living and learning. But right now it's like, yup, I'm 27, I'm gay, this is me, whatever y'all. But you just get told, “Oh you gay, you this, you bi, you a faggot, you this, you straight, why you out here playing with this girl, da da da. I was like, “Lemme start figuring out what I’m doing.”

I didn’t start having sex until after 18 or something like that. I didn’t start developing into those sexual parts of my life until later on. I couldn’t say when I was 13 or 14, “Oh, I’m gay. I’m straight.” I wasn’t having sex then! Like, “When did you first start knowing you were gay?” “When did all y’all start fuckin’ getting ya dicks wet and start having nuts and catching hard-ons and shit??!” That’s all I’m doing is catching a hard on. Plain human.

And it’s not like all of a sudden I’m gonna start wearing dresses and high heels and shit. I’ve always worn stuff and people been like, “That’s gay, that’s gay.” Hell yeah, that’s what I wanna wear. And I’m still into the goddamn fight shit.

Makonnen Speaks His Truth

In Atlanta’s burbling music scene, Makonnen was both an insider and a heretic. In early 2014 he self-produced the typically atypical original beat for “Tuesday”; later, it was reworked with big drums from Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital. Over the years, he’s traded verses with Gucci Mane, Key!, Father, Rich the Kid, and Migos, who jumped on the remix to his underrated banger, “Whip It,” in 2015.

Socially, though, he kept his distance. Maybe it was because his stuff was a little more left-field; maybe it was because he just never quite found where he fit.

Recently, a Rolling Stone interviewer broke the news to Migos that Makonnen had come out. Their initial response sounded both unconsidered and critical. While Quavo stated that there’s “nothing wrong with the gays,” Offset seemed to suggest that the online support for Makonnen’s statement meant “the world is fucked up.” Quavo then added that Makonnen’s legitimacy in “talking about trapping and selling Molly, doing all that” was undermined by him coming out. It was a confusing passage, and the actual intent of the original quotes have not been commented on or clarified.

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Online, fan backlash quickly popped up. A few hours after the RS interview was published Migos released a statement, saying in part, “We have no problem with anyone’s sexual preference. We love all people.”

What’d you think of Migos’s comments about you in Rolling Stone?

[They said] some comments like, "World's fucked up." My world, that I was living in, was fucked up for me. That's all I can say to clear those comments up like that. My world. The world itself is a beautiful place. It's a natural habitat where people can live at.

Have you talked to them since?

Nah! We don't really talk no more. We ain't never really talk, you know what I'm saying? I've always had business with everybody. But it wasn't a whole bunch of like, "Yeah we used to [hang out]. Damn Makonnen! You coulda just told us, bruh, you can kick wit us all day." And I was like, I really don't kick wit you all. I really don't know y'all. Like, it was all music shit.

You know it’s like, "Oh shit, all y'all from Atlanta.” But like, Atlanta's big as fuck. So you see Metro getting groceries in the morning and 21's just catching a goddamn cappuccino? Like, nah. Everybody's living they own damn lives in this big ass place.

They seemed to be suggesting that you lacked credibility in rapping about selling drugs because you were gay.

Did someone mention credible and not mention incredible? That's really my only comment. Was there not an "in" front of that credible? I can vouch for myself. If we look back at the track record, I thought it was “my friend Makonnen teaching me how to whip it.” I thought he was “my friend.” But you see how friends do in interviews. So it's like, Oh well. With friends like these, who needs enemies. And now you gotta come back with some sorry ass excuse. Nah. That’s only cause you got the #1 record and you didn’t wanna fuck it up.

I've seen a few [people online] trying to defend me against the Migos and all that shit. Guys, if you all know me, I’m always about “let's keep some peace.” It don't even matter. Migos say whatever they said. It's a misunderstanding. But there's no war over here. It can get messy in Atlanta, though, 'cause it's probably more gays than it is goddamn straights! They will rise!

What’d you think of the statement they released afterwards?

Y’all gotta do y'all for face game to save your face. Y'all gots to do y'all. I'm gon' always do me. I got no animosity towards y'all. [Pause] Why is it about me? Why you talkin' about Makonnen? y'all "Bad and Boujee" right now. Why we talkin' bout Makonnen? It's whatever. Ain't nobody hit me up personally. Y'all want to reach out to me? I'm not hard to find! I'm not hiding from nobody. Don't talk on me saying I feel like I have to hide, don't mention anything about me.

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Do you think they have a problem with gay people?

Hell nah, they ain't got no problem with gay people! They fuckin' song is “Versace”! Like, the fuck! Nigga, [Gianni] Versace is the gayest nigga. They ain't got issues with him, why they got issues with me?

Makonnen Speaks His Truth
Makonnen Speaks His Truth
“Hell nah [Migos] ain’t got no problem with gay people! They fuckin’ song is ‘Versace!’”

On my second day in town, we visit a farm that’s plopped into a bit of nowhere roughly 30 minutes south of Portland. It’s got chickens, Icelandic sheep, rare Mangalica pigs bought off a Hungarian family in Colorado, and two goats, Dave and Frank, that’ll follow you around just like puppies. It’s run by farmers that Makonnen met through his manager when he moved out here. Now, along with his assistant, he’s here roughly once a week; the two of them have sort of been adopted by the farmers and their families.

“I would definitely like to make roots here,” Makonnen says, “and have a home, and help this farm sustain and grow and then try and get other farms and help empower others. It helps me: I get to see life, I get to see families, I get to see living other than just my own little brand of iLoveMakonnen.” Stepping out of the chicken coop, he posits a question to one of the farmhands: “Do the chickens have one hole? That they shit and lay eggs out of?”

It’s a day of heavy rain, and I promptly manage to get my rental Hyundai stuck in the squelchy mud. A few quick shoves and I’m out, and we retire to a spartan green ranch house tucked off the main farm. Makonnen imagines the folks who live out here being told there was a celebrity in their midst. “Oh, that guy’s on TV? Well, we don’t care about that because we’re around chickens all day.”

Then he talks sheep with the farmhand. “The ram was trying to fuck ‘em all,” the man explains. “They kept breaking out and we had to chain ‘em down. Hank was coming on too strong.” Makonnen becomes fixated on the image of one plucky sheep escaping Hank the ram’s desires, dashing off, breaking free. “Ah. The one that got away. That’s so good. I’ll make a whole song about it.”

Later, we start talking about last summer. How he was really feeling like he was coming into himself. How he was really “fit conscious,” as he puts it, and rocking “super blonde hair” on “rock star shit” like “ahhhhh!!!” And then in September, “Something traumatic happened in my life. And I was like ‘Ohhh. Let me go away.’”

Soon after remixing “Tuesday,” Makonnen announced he was signed with OVO Sound. Founded by Drake in 2012, the label is home to artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, and Roy Woods, and is distributed through Warner Bros. It seemed like more bonkers radio toppers would soon come. But the relationship, for a variety of reasons, was a non-starter: while Makonnen is still signed to Warner Bros., he and OVO went their separate ways in the spring of 2016. (Today, Makonnen remains signed to Warner Bros. Warners declined to clarify the terms of his initial deal with OVO, or the terms of his existing deal.)

Officially, leaving OVO was amicable, but small things suggested otherwise. Just a few months after the split, while freestyling on Tim Westwood’s radio show over Drake instrumentals, Makonnen seemed to repeatedly reference his awkward situation with OVO: “Mothafuckas say I got dropped / You know that’s a mothafuckin’ lie / Only place I dropped is in my goddamn pants size.”

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Then in September, at a VMAs afterparty, Makonnen says he had an altercation with the man who arguably made his career. Later that same night, Makonnen insisted he had no bad blood, tweeting: “All I have is love and respect for everyone, I was there tonight to meet and greet everyone with love, this is so weird.” (When reached this week, a rep for OVO declined to comment).

Makonnen Speaks His Truth

What exactly happened at the party?

I was threatened by others. Someone I so-called look up to. Saying, “We gon fuck you up the next time we see you.” And I was like, “Let me stop being me.” I started to go back to, “I’m just gonna go eat anything, and just be hiding myself and shit.” And then I was like, “No! I’m not doing that no more! I don’t give a fuck! I’m — me.” And that’s what led me to coming out and shit.

This was in New York, right?

It was in the middle of the goddamn afterparty at the Up&Down club. Everybody that was in there was in there. I’m in here around these Vanguard Awards and I’m accepted and I took pictures with Chainsmokers and G-Eazy and everybody and we all friends. And I’m here in the middle of the floor, no security, and they coming and I just step to the side and they see me and stop and the biggest motherfucker in the game goes, woo woo woo, “Next time I’ma fuck you up!”

And all security and everybody stop like, “What the fuck.” And the guys with me was like, “What you do?!”

I don't have nothing to say. All I did was smile. And I guess they took that as a threat. I was confused, like, “It can’t be little old me. I’m just a goddamned old record from way back when. What the fuck am I doing causing stresses and pains?”

It was a big group of people approaching you?
Around all that security, the dude that’s doing it — we have a platinum-selling record together! The guy! The leader of the crew! This a nice VMA party, bruh. This ain’t no little back alley on the southside of Atlanta. Do you think I’m on some let’s buck shit?

I guess it came back from my freestyle, from that Tim Westwood. When I’m rapping, people think I’m throwing shots. I ain’t rapped no names! All I did was rap!

What’d you do next, after the incident?

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I was like, Let me go ahead and withdraw and put something out [on Twitter] in case some shit ever happen to me. ‘Cause everybody did see that, but I know everybody so scared of those motherfuckers that if anything did happen to me they’d just be like, “Yhh.” Then I went back to L.A., and then I moved here to Portland. [Pause] And if I look at your track record — when I was really in the streets selling dope you was on the goddamn TV screen-acting. I just met you on a song together and then y’all acted funny style on me. Or maybe I acted funny style on y’all. But somehow our relationship didn’t work out, and then the next time I saw you again you tried to threaten me.

What was the last time you saw Drake before that?
I’ve only seen him probably like three times. I’ve never been able to bring him out on stage and do my song featuring him. I’ve only been able to go feature on his stage with my song. Other than that, and at the [“Tuesday”] video, it ain’t no convo. Because the tweets and all this land of miscommunication …

You’re talking about the old tweets that surfaced after you broke through, where you had some fun at Drake’s expense. You think that’s made him cut off communication?

I mean, that can’t just be it, right? It was before I even knew you. We can get past that. Excuse me for being fucked up in the hood and wanting to be a comedian. While I’m on a goddamn social network. People talk about burning bridges. What did that bridge lead to for me?

How was shooting the video for “Tuesday”?

Business. Boom boom boom, do this and be out. And I’m like, Oh shit, I’m really having real emotion. I’m from the southside and the biggest motherfuckers in the game is fucking with me and my music!

My brother’s kids, I tried to pull ‘em out of Nickerson Gardens, which is like the bad projects in L.A. Had them stay with me while I was trying to do my music. I’m like, “Listen to grandma! Take care of my dogs! Y’all need to drink more water!” They like, “Fuck you! You fat!” [Laughing] They used to eat me up. That helped with my confidence cause you know you can’t do nothing to a little kid. And of course their favorite artist was Drake. And then the song came out and they like, “Whaaaaaat! Makonnen!!!” Then they started listening to me. I told Drake that story when I first met him. And he was like, “Ha.”

Where was that first meeting? At his Calabasas place?

Yeah. It was a dream come true. And then, Wow, its actually kind of sad up here. I’m in this pool and I’m the only person swimming and shit. And he had to go back on tour. I was like, Oh, he probably tired as fuck. He don’t have time to enjoy any of this shit. That’s probably why he giving me time. He working! I get it man. He definitely hard-working. I give him the utmost respect.

“Why y’all wanna play these games? Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t wanna fuck with me anymore and just let me go about my way?”

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So why do you think OVO started a relationship with you?

They needed a hot song. That’s it.

It sounds like maybe you feel it’d have been better if he’d never gotten on the song. Maybe it could have just grown into a hit organically ...

I mean hey! I’m doing me. All of a sudden I got my song remixed by so-and-so and I had to go off to try and chase them around. And y’all telling me to come to Canada to deal with y’all, and you know I’ve got a record and can’t even get out the country right now.

Why you wanna play these games? When you got the goddam mansion out in Calabasas that I came out to and played y’all songs and ended up making you scared because you saw I could make songs on the spot? Why y’all wanna play these games? Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t wanna fuck with me anymore and just let me go about my way? Why’d you make me chase you all the way the fuck around? And make me look like a fucking fool? Why [voice escalating] would you do this?

This is right after the “Tuesday” remix was released?

This when I got signed. He’s all in my face telling me, “You one of the greatest songwriters ever,” da da da. Just blowing me up, bruh. And I’m the little kid from tragedy right now. You could see it. It was written all over my face! I’m depressed as fuck!

And then when I’m like, ”Can y’all tweet out my mixtape? Can I get a feature? Can I get production?” No, no, no. So I’m just over here in prison?! Am I in prison?!!

And it’s like, who y’all talking about? Cause y’all definitely haven’t been talking about Makonnen lately. And they know my name very well — they used to say, “I love your name.” Remember? When it made change over there? Made more change than any other motherfucker on the label, huh?

Back then, did you assume you'd have another hit by now?

Shit slowing down for me. I don't know why shit slowing down. You know I’m the motherfucker "Tuesday" hitmaker, and that shit was one take. [Snaps fingers three times.] All I do is make music hits, so why ain't the music hitting?

What is it gon’ take? That motherfucker to jump on it to sing it before I sing it? [Assumes the voice of a fan]: "Yeah that’s how we like it! That’s how our ears trained! You’re too raw! We need to hear it from the goddamn more cleaned up type of guy!" And it’s like, "Oh yeah. Give it to them polished motherfuckers who take raw shit and imitate it. Let them do it."

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What happened in the months after the incident in September?

In January I went on my little self discovery. I went to [the annual electronic music cruise] Holy Ship! and I got to spend time on the seas. That whole EDM scene, they take care of me. They very accepting of whatever you are. And I was out there on the ocean and it was a full moon and I had time to reflect and I thought, “I’ve been trying to make up shit and force relationships with girls and all this shit.” I was like, “Fuck that. I’m gon’ go ahead and do me.”

You also had a falling out with your old manager. What happened with that relationship?

He fucked me over and tried to steal and tried to expose me as being gay. I was like, “You right, I need to come out fully on my own. I can tell everybody about me.”

When did things go bad?

Things went sour when I started reaching success, and he started pressing OVO and them for like millions of dollars. Because he, whatever, had debts. He like, “Y'all the goddamn biggest niggas in the game. Give us a million dollars!” So I can see how I was misrepresented to them over there. And I found out what he was saying. Then he sued me, got a settlement and all that. He still has a percentage on “Tuesday,” still lives off that song. I hope he’s taking care of his family with it because that’s what he need to be doing.

What did he sue you for?

I guess breach of contract. He put me in some dumb ass contract. Like, Yeah we both from the fucking hood, who knows if we’ll make it. And it was a three year option, then another five year option, and I was like Woaaaaahhh! I didn’t know about options back then. I didn’t have many options.

Makonnen Speaks His Truth

On a weekday afternoon, bright and sunny, light is pouring in from the apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Makonnen grabs a combination-pillow-speaker and plays me new tunes. The tracks, he explains, are tentatively slotted for an upcoming release via his current deal with Warner Bros. Technically, after a three-year string of SoundCloud one-offs and mixtapes and EPs, he has yet to release an official debut album.

One song is classic trap banger Makonnen, a big grab-bag of boasts all the stuff he’s been selling and pushing and whipping since he was that telling age. Another is therapy by way of epic ballad. Hearing it now, it leaves him with watery eyes.

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He’s been working with his old collaborator and an early champion Mike WiLL Made-It, too, on something else altogether. There’s a slick, quick palm-muted guitar riff that’d make Good Charlotte proud, and Makonnen doing his take on proper rock-radio vocals. It’s a kiss-off. “Since you ain’t around/ I got my middle fingers up,” he croons. “Fuck love!”

You’ve known Mike WiLL pretty much since you first started making music, right?

Oh, yeah. Mike, he ain’t really like my trap music. [Laughs] At all! My whole career, he been like, “Bro, I want you to do pop music. When you ready to start doing this shit again, holler at me.” I had no budget and I was throwing scarves on my face [in the early videos] and goddamn trying to be looking all mysterious and shit. And he’s like, “Yeah man, that shit was cool as fuck. You had capes on like a superhero.”

He’d be all the way in meetings with Jimmy Iovine. We’d be arguing on the phone. Like, “How am I gon’ do that, Mike? Look at me, I’m from the southside, I sell drugs, who the fuck gon’ be trying to hear all this goddamn Prince shit from me? I’m fucking 240 pounds. How am I gonna fit into some sick ass boots right now?” But I guess he hears that thing in there. Like, “Yo shit is authentic. That real pain in your voice. You really be crying in there, huh?” I’m like, “Yeah, I do!” [Laughs]

You’ve always had a big range of musical interests.

I was like, if anything, closeted in that way, in my music. I would listen to Bloc Party, Black Kids, electronic stuff from Sweden. And I’m from the hood and shit, so that’s looked like, “Fuck out of here, we gon’ beat your ass.” And I’m like, “Ahhh! I’ll just go in my room and play piano.”

Did you ever feel a pressure to write songs about girls?

No. I made songs about my life. And at those times, “Sarah” and all those things, are from my real life. I should be able to get across on all levels. It should just be an energy thing, or a human thing. I feel like that’s why it’s been so confusing to others. Lately. “We don’t give a shit. Is it gay shit? Is it straight shit?” I've went around and met everybody, shook all hands, kissed all babies. Nobody wants to talk about my records, so I'll sit over here and be quiet.

As far as hallucinogens and shrooms in hip-hop, you were kind of early on that wave.

At a time, but not anymore. I don’t do any of that stuff. I’m a hustler and I like to sell so I was like, “What’s in demand,” and then, “Shit, I got a plug!” But it seems like the pack has gone everywhere. Everybody fucking gone crazy! I don’t do none of that shit no more.

Were the hallucinogens important for you, as far as making music?

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Nah. Mike WiLL, when he first heard me, it was me in my room at my most soberest point. I’m just over here singing ‘cause I’m on probation and goddamn house arrest and I can’t do no drugs. I can’t do shit, all I can do is express myself. If I break the rules I go to jail. So I’m just in here singing to myself about the stars, the moon, and whales beaching themselves, and why nobody cares.

Are you hoping for another big hit? Do you want another song to blow up like “Tuesday” did?

Ummmm. I mean. I don’t even know. I just like giving music out to the people and hopefully it helps them feel better about themselves or helps them the way music helped me. And it’s like, I know that some of the songs that helped me have not charted at all!

And say it does blow up. What would you do differently this time around?

I would definitely be more cautious of everyone who I let around. I’d be more cautious of everyone I was expressing and sharing with.

Were you more open a few years back?

At the time of my first go-around, I was like, “Hey everybody!!!” And everybody took, took, took took, took. I was stressing myself out. Going from extremes to overeating — Hot Cheetos, pizza, hot wings 30-pieces, all that — to where I’m not eating. You got friends like, “Keep looking goddamn skinny, pump more drugs…” Like, “Whoa. I have to stop doing all this shit, you guys.” I have a career. And my career isn’t being the ultimate partier. It’s, goddamn, being onstage at the ultimate party.

Makonnen Speaks His Truth

After the impromptu listening session, we head to a thrift store, one of Makonnen’s regular spots. Quickly, he racks up a few hundred dollars worth of “pieces”: leather jackets, studded white-denim vests, threadbare Eric Clapton tees. I ask if he’s dating anyone. “Yeah, no, I’ve never had a boyfriend,” he says. “I’ve always had little fantasies in my head of, I guess” — he smiles, and his voice drops into a nearly imperceptible whisper as he name-checks a certain Real Madrid superstar — “Cristiano Ronaldo.”

We talk at length about a little recent thing Makonnen had with this boy from Australia. He was part of a big group of friends that Makonnen made when playing a festival over there. Palling around on the beach one day, they picked up a jellyfish and both got stung. “And it was like, a spark!” he says. But the guy had a girlfriend, and despite what felt like a budding romance, the relationship didn’t flourish. It’s got him bummed, but he’s working through it. “I’m telling you, don’t get stung by no jellyfish near nobody,” he offers, avuncularly. “Boy, girl, nobody!”

It’s all said in his own, particular frequency, a vibration where his joys and his pains commingle. What he himself calls, at some point, “my little depressed swag.”

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He’s alone now in Portland. Well, not totally. There’s his assistant Faisal, and the guys on the farm, and the chickens and the pigs and that plucky sheep dreaming of freedom. And his mom. He’s meeting new people, too, and he sounds open to dating. But for the foreseeable future, as he fights to make sense of the dramatic last few years of his life, he may best be served by staying lonely.

Back in the apartment Makonnen takes a seat at a table, rolls a spliff, smokes half, rolls another, abandons it, and goes back to the old half. “I’m a hermit-slash-wizard now,” he says. “After I finish all my obligations, I'm gonna turn into The Red Dragon, right here in the mist.” On a roll, and aware of it, he grins to himself. “People’ll see me on hikes like Hillary Clinton. ‘Oh shit, was that Makonnen? The man who used to sing those songs?’"

Makonnen Speaks His Truth