As Charles Hamilton took the stage for his first appearance at this year's SXSW, his appearance on Fox's smash-hit tall tale take on the music industry Empire—which featured him performing his sweeping new single "NY Raining" in front of a room full of industry VIPs—was airing simultaneously. On television, comebacks are the norm—just ask Cookie. But following Hamilton's spectacular fall from blog-rap pioneer to internet punchline—which included this dissolution of a seven-figure deal with Interscope, a fanfic-like musical dedication to Rihanna, butting heads publicly with J. Dilla's family, a viral video that showed him being punched by his then-girlfriend, an altercation with a police officer that resulted in jail time, and intermittent hospital stays—the question remains: can we expect much out of Hamilton's second coming? More importantly, should we?
"It's not that I'm not used to it," said a soft-spoken Hamilton, speaking on the bustle of the music industry, which had currently enveloped downtown Austin's historic (and allegedly haunted) Driskill Hotel lobby, where we met up during SXSW. "I'm just getting re-acclimated with it." During our conversation, Hamilton was closely tended to by someone from his new management team, as well as his mother, who at one point stopped Hamilton to adjust his collar. He was making a concerted effort to steer clear of the festival's chaos, barely bristling at the close attention they were giving him; it's the type of care he knows he needs while inching back into the spotlight, as well as the type that he'd been privately crying out for during darker times.
"Everyone was telling me to relax because of how much music I put out between 2008 and 2010," he tells me a week prior in the NYC office of his new label home, Republic. "They were like, 'We love your music, but we love you.' I was trying to explain to them that I don't know how to rest, like, 'I don't know what y'all are talking about.'" The content of that music, too, he now recognizes to have been something of a symptom. "I felt a little weird about showing people the smile because I had so many things to vent about. My music started taking a darker turn and I was happy as hell," he recalls. This time, "I just wanted to be a little more laid back, because if you sit and dissect my lyrics, it's not laid back at all. It's pretty intense."
This time, his approach is more restrained; his management team gave him a laptop, with the caveat that he shut it off at 10 p.m. every night. For someone like Hamilton, who was once notorious for owl-hour marathon music-making sessions, the ultimatum was scary—but it's proven creatively fruitful, too. "My beats have gotten monstrous," he says on the music that's resulted from this new curfew. "I'll start making a beat at 6 p.m. and rap up around 8 p.m. I spend so much time and energy mixing that I'm like, 'I can go to bed after this.'"
"NY Raining" is Hamilton's first major label single since Hamilton lit up the blogosphere in 2008 with "Brooklyn Girls"; it's not quite as catchy as its predecessor, and it's notably subdued in comparison to his mixtape output. It also happens to be featured on an album—the Empire soundtrack—that debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. Regardless, the small crowd that gathered in the rain for his Friday afternoon performance at outdoor venue Cheer Up Charlies didn't seem all that familiar with the song—or, for that matter, with Hamilton. He nonetheless thanked them graciously, and repeatedly, for their participation. "I'm learning how to fight depression, and my new music is indicative of that," he says. "I'm showing, despite the left turns, if you will, that there is a path that I'm supposed to be on, and I'm supposed to be here for a reason."
"One thing I can say about myself is I remain myself," he says, for my sake but perhaps as a reminder to himself as well. "I cleaned up and everything, but there's a lot of hard work you have to put in, too. Some days you wake up and you don't feel like you want to be a star, but you really have to put in the work if you want to be something major."
Lead image: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images