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  • Writer's pictureEvan

Another Talk with Unruly: Identity, independence, and the pursuit of versatility

Perhaps the greatest fear of any artist is being boxed into a single sound, recognised for one style with no wiggle room to experiment or evolve. From as far back as his debut album, Unruly has been well aware of this, doing everything in his power to show his versatility.

The Virginia rapper shook the underground last year with Don’t Go Outside: underground hip hop in its darkest, most distorted form. As successful as the project was, Unruly has no intention of repeating the formula for another LP. His upcoming third album, Black Beloved, is a statement to listeners: Unruly can never be pinned down to one sound.

While the gap between the rapper’s first two albums was only a matter of months, fans have been waiting over a year and a half for Black Beloved. “The reason for the year and the half leap was because I was stuck in my own creative box,” said Unruly. “Was I a Griselda-type rapper? Was I a lyrical miracle? Was I the super technical guy? Was I the hard gangster? A lot of that stuff is not me. I didn’t want to box myself in, creatively.”

Unruly Interview
Credit: Instagram/@trenchcoatopera1

The new album, scheduled to drop on 20th July, was originally set for a December 2023 release. A year on, Black Beloved is practically a different album to what Unruly teased in our previous interview. “I had every intention of dropping Black Beloved at the end of that year because I really wanted to be prolific in 2023,” he said. “I wanted to build on that momentum, but I didn’t want to release an EP … I like to drop records and bodies of works rather than fillers to hold my audience over for a certain amount of time … I hadn’t even though of the whole concept of what the album is now.”

Like the rapper’s last project, Black Beloved is a concept album with various motifs, metaphors, and internal narratives laced into its songwriting. Unlike his previous effort, however, Unruly promises that Black Beloved is a denser, more complex experience:

“It’s not a linear narrative more than it is a character study … I condemn Kanye West, but The Life of Pablo had a great concept. The three Pablos: Pablo Escobar, Pablo Picasso, and Pablo the fashion designer, whatever his name is. My idea was: I’m going to take three Michaels I feel I can relate to, as far as mind-state or problems with my family or success and battling myself and not being good enough to battle the world.”

Careful not to reveal too much, Unruly described the concept behind Black Beloved. Each track is inspired by one of three figures named Michael who inspire him – Michael Jordan, Michael the Archangel, and Michael Corleone. Each figure holds a different significance in Unruly’s life, reflected in his lyricism.

Unruly Interview

First, the rapper touched on Michael Jordan. The basketball icon is a source of inspiration for all sorts of artists and athletes, but Unruly’s connection to the player is especially personal. “I relate to Michael Jordan’s unprecedented run of success and those highs, when he won those championships, without his father … That’s the level of greatness I’m trying to achieve, and I will gamble whatever to get there, with or without whoever.”

On a more religious note, the Christian figure Michael the Archangel also impacted much of the writing behind Black Beloved. Unruly said, “I have a chain of St. Michael, the protector and God’s general and Leader of the Heavenly Host, and all that shit, who is sent to fight the battle of good vs evil.” The figure of the Archangel ties into the rapper’s increasing frustration towards the political climate, using his music as a form of protest.

Along with them, Michael Corleone was a core influence for Black Beloved. Corleone is the main protagonist in The Godfather – a war veteran who juggles his need to protect his family with his responsibility to head the family’s criminal empire. In fact, Michael Corleone is the main reason Black Beloved became the album it is now. Unruly said:

“I was watching the second Godfather – the scene where Michael goes in and asks his mother, ‘Could I lose my family trying to be strong for them?’ That shit struck me; it hit me on a different level … I can relate to Michael Corleone being the quiet type having to take on a burden that shouldn’t be his own.”

Unruly Interview

Beyond the symbolism, Black Beloved is a testament to Unruly’s maturation as an artist. Looking back on 2023’s Don’t Go Outside, the rapper sees a stark contrast between his work now compared to last year. “Don’t Go Outside was very much a temper tantrum for me,” he said. “If anything, it’s emotionally immature –you’re not in control of your emotions, you’re not sure why you have this trapped feeling; you just do. On Black Beloved, I unpack these emotions, discover these emotions, and tear myself apart about how I let these emotions affect my life and my family’s life. It’s really having grown man self-awareness with this album, as opposed to Don’t Go Outside where I was mad at the world, but I didn’t know why.”

In the buildup to Black Beloved, Unruly has posted a number of cryptic posts online, teasing what is in store for the artist’s upcoming release. Amongst ominous posts simply reading ‘Michael’ or ‘unprecedented’, the rapper has called the new album ‘genre-defining.’

However, Unruly’s use of the term may not mean what fans expect. “Would I say this album is expanding outside of hip hop in any particular way? No. Like I’ve said before, in the sense that this album is my most true-blue hip hop record; it’s one of those records that, when you put it on, you’re like, ‘This is hip hop.’” Rather than breaking new ground, creating a new genre, Black Beloved is “hip hop to its full definition … It’s an ode to the genre itself and it’s sticking to the definition of that genre in my own way.”

Another clear difference between Don’t Go Outside and Black Beloved is the number of guests featured on the album. On the former, Unruly rapped alongside countless MCs from Matt Draugos  to Patty Honcho; on the latter, artists Armani Jordan and Unknown INK are the only names credited.

Just like the multi-layered concept, there are many reasons why Unruly decided to keep the track-list empty this time around. He said, “If  somebody was to send me a feature and was like, ‘Rap about this, this, and that,’ I’m going to look at them like, ‘Now I don’t want to do it. You should have let me write my shit.’ I didn’t want to be the guy to be like, ‘Yo, my album is a concept, so if you could stick to this concept, that would be great.’ I never want to be that guy.”

Preserving the concept is not the only reason Black Beloved has so few features, however. On Don’t Go Outside, Unruly could rely on producer klwn cat to gather features, but Black Beloved is entirely his own vision. “I need such creative control that it’s hard for me to arrange with features … I’m not great at arranging talent across the board. I can acknowledge that as a flaw in myself. I feel like I do a good job of maintaining the album and not letting it drag, and letting my brother break up the monotony. He’s on the album four, five times.”

Unruly Interview
Credit: Instagram/@trenchcoatopera1

Having collaborated with his brother countless times before, it came as no shock to fans that Unknown INK is featured multiple times on Black Beloved. The rapper/singer only has a few songs to his name, but INK’s contributions to Unruly’s work are far greater than his catalogue might suggest.

Discussing his creative alliance with INK, Unruly described it as “bread and butter … He’s such a sponge for the intricacies of songwriting … I like the song how I want it, and he understands that. He’s willing to be coached and he’s willing to work hard and he’s an extraordinarily talented person, so it just clicks.”

In contrast to the rappers featured, Unruly brought together a host of producers to handle the beats on Black Beloved. “I really tapped into guys like sevens and DRUMS and Paradox, and miles, and even MILLENIUM, who’s not on the record, but sent me some crazy shit. And Matt Swain, who produced six out of 14 tracks.”

Although there are weeks to go until the album drops, Unruly is confident that fans will see a clear difference between Black Beloved and his previous output. He compared his new LP to Black Graffiti, the rapper’s debut album from 2022. He said, “On Black Graffiti, there’s tracks where I clearly don’t have the delivery that I have now. You listen to ‘1993’ [from Black Beloved], and then you listen to the title track on Black Graffiti, it’s like two totally different people.”

Unruly Interview Black Beloved

Now more than ever, Unruly feels a sense of purpose with his music. Black Beloved is more than an album of rhymes and beats; it’s a layered concept that the rapper hopes will resonate with listeners across the world like nothing he has made before.

“I hope to bring people together. I hope people can listen to this shit and smile and smoke and be happy to this shit, and revolt to this shit, rebel to this shit. I hope people fight for the cause they need to, to this album. I hope to spark something within the consciousness of a generation. This album is just the beginning of that. That’s the point. If that’s not your point, if that’s not your goal in music, I don’t know why you’re doing music.”

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