It’s 60 degrees in San Francisco and I’m on my way to Empire studios to interview Lil Pete for a second time. Arriving in the area on the train with two hours to kill and that sense of nagging dread that I’m going to interview a rapper that has absolutely no interest in talking to a white music writer who is poorly dressed, I make a decision, I NEED DRIP. So I grabbed a Corona and slyly stole a pair of designer shoes without so much as a glance from [redacted] security.
This was, it felt like, a liberating act and a “glow up.” And it was neither. I was still arriving on time to a major label studio while the photographer was late, the rapper was late, I was half-drunk and I was about to talk to someone who did not want to talk to me. As I sat in the lobby an intense and animated tall man screamed across a hallway and said to a receptionist:
“Can you not keep that door open unless absolutely necessary?“
“Just so people –“
“No so no one walks in with a fucking pistol, a lot of things are happening.”
Those lots of things are a Nef the Pharaoh listening party and whatever else happens at Empire HQ in San Francisco on a Friday evening.
It was, I think, a perfect introduction to the big leagues, with AAA prospect Lil Pete soon arriving in his Friday best, shaking my hand and watching me watch him.
Pete is, if you don’t know him, a rapper and singer from the Fillmore district in San Francisco. A man who has a first person perspective on the realities of our dystopian hellscape. His neighborhood has been gutted through gentrification and his city has become unrecognizable. At 15, his house was raided and his parents were arrested for crimes that they are still fighting in the courts six years later.
His options were related to sports, and when he failed to grow beyond a 5’8” frame or receive scholarship offers, the point guard became a rapper. And two projects later he has an artist-friendly deal with Empire, sitting in their studio wearing a massive Hardaway chain, a Louis belt, Balenciaga shoes, Audemars watch. and the impassive expression that rappers wear after the budgets for proper designer have been secured.
His chain and watch and belt were earned. Pete can rap, he can sing, he can choose a beat, and he does it all, seemingly, in a vacuum. Pete is not a Bay rapper, he is not an underground rapper, he is not a mainstream rapper and he is not a trap rapper. He is a product of a postmodern milieu that is acontextual to any scene, coming into a sound uniquely his own that blends guitar samples, R&B textures and rhythms, trap pop percussion, and his undeniable ability to craft a chorus, hook, and verse. A sound which he speaks of relationships and street life in vague, undefined and depersonalized phrasing so as not to expose the inner life of a man who has witnessed the fragmentation of family and community to a city and a nation that has decided to tear itself apart.
He found it not through friends or conversations or studio time or specific influences, but through YouTube. He finds beats and sounds that fit his palette and hit his ear and then buys them. And his songs, invariably have been as good as they are undefinable. Often they are catchy enough to gather millions of views on the same video platform which gives him his beats. Despite the postmodern nature of his craft, he has buzz. Buzz being defined as me telling my friend Dom I was going to interview him, and him responding with authentic interest and a glowing endorsement.
Pete does not make music for rap critics, nor does he make music for any conventional idea of an audience. He makes music that appeals to an audience determined by the algorithmic quantifications of YouTube, the same place he finds his producers. The same YouTube owned by Alphabet Inc, an undoubtedly nefarious and shadowy tech monopoly that is a driving force of the intense and unceasing gentrification which has devastated his community and made San Francisco into ground zero of neoliberalism’s latest dystopia.
Yet no matter how undefinable his music is, Lil Pete has undeniable talent. He likes to slink around the beat, singing syllables right before, then right after you’d expect. Take “Honest,” the lead single from his September album Hardaway. Listen to how he finds a melodic pocket that is maneuvering around his percussion in a way that defines the tempo of the song. It’s something like the downtempo Trap&B version of Drakeo or Blueface.
“Honest” has been stuck in my head since I played it first a few weeks ago and everyone I show it to immediately hears the appeal. It’s a special track, and another single like this could take off given the right push. Hardaway is almost a great album: an enjoyable and replayable front to back listen, where he displays 3 different styles (melodic pop trap, downtempo guitar sample pop rap, updated and trimmed down 90s G-Funk) gets the most out of Dej Loaf, BabyFace Ray and Yung Pinch features, and manages to communicate a sense of lonely despair on top of a backdrop of street life and designer clothing. Yet he communicates this despair, hope, success, hustle all without specifics and without a personality forceful enough to make this not worth mentioning. I don’t blame him.
To live one’s most vulnerable and intimate moments publicly is now expected of everyone, not just artists. It is exhausting to even imagine the sort of emotional labor it would take to do that as a major label artist on albums and Instagram posts and interviews with a fast-talking and excitable white kid from San Diego who could never quite understand your lived experience.
So after our phone interview was about as engaging as a Bill Belichick press conference, I am here in San Francisco, sitting on a rolling chair, as Pete sinks into half a couch and we begin discussion. — Lucas Foster