Last week, Drake tweeted "Straw-Ber-Rita dreams turn to champagne reality," a once aspirational line from iLoveMakonnen's "I Don't Sell Molly No More." The song's one of a handful of cuts that, over the past few weeks, have rocketed the singing rapper from obscurity to seemingly every single blog every day. A few hours before the Drake tweet, Makonnen had Instagrammed an owl statue. Something was in the air, and sure enough, over the weekend, Drake announced he'd signed him to his label, OVO.
This wasn't Makonnen's first offer. Three weeks ago, while I was in Atlanta reporting for a feature in the October/November print issue of The FADER, Makonnen said he'd turned down a deal worth $1.5 million; two weeks ago, his longtime manager told me they’d rejected another for $4 million. Money aside, which is mostly a mystery in music anyway, signing with OVO feels something like destiny, following a Champagne Papi Instagram referencing Father's "Look at Wrist," a song on which Makonnen features with a Gucci-level verse, and Drake's remix of "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday." The remix was notable not only because the king of deft cosigns had cherry-picked a pre-buzzing song with, at the time, just around 30,000 YouTube plays, but also for the fact that Drake so jubilantly aped Makonnen's flow, making his own contribution more like a faithful and reverent cover. The song was a hit in waiting all along
A lot of people will raise an eyebrow at Makonnen's sudden rise: goofy freestyler hops on a few beats from a predictable cast of hitmakers, then a major label gobbles up his self-starting competition. But Makonnen is no freshman. He Babe Ruthed his success back in 2011, with his first song, which he self-produced, and which shared a name with the music and culture blog he'd started to pass the time while on house arrest. Tell them I'll be known in all time zones, he rapped on "The Newness," sounding like Slick Rick had just discovered chillwave. I'm so into the future/ I know I'm something you're not used to/ Leaving old ones clueless every time I do this/ I am the motherfucking newness. Fourteen albums and EPs later—all of which are available for free—the hardest working man in DIY rap is long due a check. Can't begrudge the payday.
Lest you think Makonnen popped based on two songs, Matthew Trammell and I have rounded up 10 of his slept-on deep cuts. "I've fallen in love with all of those projects at one time," Makonnen told us. "I like to make the music with the seasons and keep it going with the year. When it starts getting colder, LTE and Trillion Light Years are the releases I listen to the most. I don't like to have a summer song in the middle of Christmas. There's nobody going out, shirts off. I like to a make a soundtrack to the life that everybody's living."
“Living on the Southside” (Drink More Water, 2012)
Matthew Trammell: First time I ever heard Makonnen’s voice, two years ago. Two different homies tried to put me on; both described him as “the next Based God.” Blasphemy aside, it was one of the earliest concrete examples of Makonnen's style: ground-level Atlanta drug talk delivered from a baby-face with a bugged out voice, over cloudy, deranged piano chords.
Phantom Posse, “Sunshine” (Separate Ways, 2013)
DC: When I first learned of Makonnen, some of my more DIY rock-inclined friends expressed surprise: he'd been known around Bushwick for a while as part of the zoned-out band Phantom Posse. Anchored by Eric Littmann, who records solo as Steve Sobs, Phantom Posse is best soundtracking heavy-eyed naps. "Sunshine" is nothing like "Club Goin Up" or "Southside," but its mere existence proves Makonnen's bonafides, whether the streets he runs in cut through Riverdale or outside Roberta's.
"Down 4 So Long" (5D, 2014)
DC: This might be my all-time Makonnen motivational, right off the first lines: 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. Brighten any day by yelling that 10 times. Nobody else can better voice being downtrodden. I've been having spiritual wars lately, he raps at one point, then quietly mutters, It ain't easy. It really fucking isn't.
"I Don't Care About Anything Anymore" (LTE, 2012)
DC: If "Down 4 So Long" is about motivation, this song's the death drive. It's too real, apparently—the song hasn't been uploaded to YouTube or Soundcloud yet, despite coming out two years ago. Still, it's a great showcase of Makonnen's unusual, minimalist approach to narrative storytelling, one of his secret greatest traits: My friend survived Katrina/ She ain't even get no help from FEMA/ Now they asking why she driving in that Beemer/ When her auntie, she can't fucking see her/ Cause her auntie is in jail/ For fucking with that mail/ On some federal counterfeit type shit/ Trying to make it out the hood cause she was drowning in that bitch/ Damn…
“Anytime” (Single, 2014)
MT: I caught this ballad during a 3AM Saturday night binge of Makonnen’s YouTube channel. He rides shotgun through the city in a black Corvette with a special someone, and lets her know she’s never off limits or out of reach. Never having nightmares now, cause I only dream of you. The beat sounds like the Sonic 3 soundtrack chopped and screwed.
"Tonight (Live)" (A Trillion Light Years, 2012)
DC: One of the first, and most mind-blowing, discoveries when I started sifting through the Makonnen back catalog was that there are early, stranger versions of current, more marketable songs. On his most recent EP, "Tonight" is a thick-bassed stomp produced by DJ Spinz and DunDeal, but the song first appeared in 2012 as a piano song for ’80s Vegas lobbies at 4AM. Here, he performs it live in LA. It's DIY Makonnen at its best—the setup is nothing, the vision is just too much. He reminds me of Elton John on Soul Train.
"Sneaky Lady" (A Trillion Light Years, 2012)
MT: Speaking of pianos, here's what could be considered Makonnen’s first “hit,” first storming video-hosting site ILP in 2012 (think WSHH but weirder). He plays show tunes while belting about a man-eater he can’t escape. I've heard this is the one Polow da Don plays to introduce Makonnen to people.
"21st Street” (Drink More Water 4, 2014)
MT: There’s so many stylistic tics on this cut that it may be the most fully realized Makonnen track. Over a booming DJ Spinz beat, he self-censors random words, harmonizes over a piano solo, and spends half the song riffing off “SKRRT” with all of 2 Chainz' humor and Dolemite’s swagger.
"I Mix My" (Drink More Water 4, 2014)
DC: This spring's Drink More Water 4 tape was Makonnen's first with major-league producers, and he burst out the gate with high-grade, pent-up newness. The sleeper hit, though, is a track he produced for himself. (You can tell the tracks he does on his own, because the drums slap a little less hard, and the synths skew a little more weird.) The hook, ostensibly about drugs, also works as a fitting description of his approach to music: I mix my soft with my strong, I mix my strong my soft/ Experimenting every day and night, ain't no tellin what I'm on.
"Give U What U Need (Acoustic)" (LTE, 2012)
DC: The based visuals for this "acoustic" rework of what was once a song of otherworldly synth wailing a la Lewis, presented her featuring a caped Makonnen on the California shore, bring to mind an important point. As Trammell pointed out, strains of Lil B are all over Makonnen's odder output; today's signing shows the difference Lil B made in the world. When Lil B came out, and when he was inspiring Makonnen's early work, there wasn't a place at a major label for a guy like him. Beyond credit coming where credit is due, what warms my heart about this story is just the fact that now it's possible.