“It Becomes a Game of How Clever I Can Make My Turmoil”: An Interview With AKAI SOLO

AKAI has always been around–close to the boiling point of New York’s elite tier of DIY rap, but never with the opportunity to flex his muscles as a solo star... until now, Will Schube writes.
By    December 8, 2022
Photo via Backwoodz Studioz/Instagram

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Fans of the Backwoodz universe have likely heard AKAI SOLO’s over the years, both as a solo artist and as a guest on billy woods and Armand Hammer records. If you’re a fan of Earl Sweatshirt–or at least follow his Twitter–you may recall the nimble-mouthed poet giving SOLO a shout here and there as well.

SOLO first got his start off the crest of Brooklyn’s revitalization as an underground hotbed, alongside MCs like MIKE and Wiki, and their cross-country collaborators Navy Blue and Earl Sweatshirt. He became deeply entwined in this world, establishing himself as a singular artist and exceptional collaborator. In 2019 he dropped Black Sand with Pink Siifu, and while the blissfully spacey Siifu saw his stock soar over the past few years, SOLO has been quietly working on the margins, sharpening his pen with releases like Eleventh Wind and True Sky.

Instead of moving closer to the indie/mainstream divide that NYC rappers like MIKE were beginning to toe, SOLO found kindred spirits in the Backwoodz crew, a decidedly unique group of MCs deeply invested in knotty turns of phrase and weighty thematic concepts, creating a smaller but rabidly devoted audience obsessed with the label’s founder woods and his collaborator ELUCID’s songs. On his debut full-length with the label, Spirit Roaming, AKAI SOLO becomes a brightly shining centerpiece within this quietly expanding ecosystem, weaving through the project’s 15 songs with joy, anger, desperation, and confidence. He merges the gap between the heady insularity of Backwoodz classics and the higher profile world of national indie staples.

When I ask SOLO why the only guests on the record are ELUCID and woods from Armand Hammer, he says–in a few more words–that it’s in his name. The SOLO half of the formula is what makes Spirit Roaming work as thoroughly and thrillingly as it does, a diaristic look into one man’s drive for survival despite factors internal and external that pop up like Little Goombas in Mario World (SOLO is partial to Power Rangers and Pokemon analogies himself). These obstacles do less to deter SOLO than reconfirm his purpose in this game. He sums it up perfectly in “What’s a Win???” when he raps, “I have a place that is mine/ That’s my work/ When I write, that’s mine/ It is free/ Nobody tells me what to do and I wouldn’t listen if they did.” On Spirit Roaming AKAI SOLO is at home. – Will Schube

Now that Spirit Roaming is out in the world and it’s sitting with fans, how are you feeling about it?

AKAI SOLO: I don’t mean to be depressing, but I don’t really have a feeling. I always feel like my work is not done, so I don’t really give myself time to celebrate. I’m really grateful that people are receiving it well and it doesn’t suck, but I haven’t thrown myself any crazy party or anything like that. The work continues.

Is that philosophy inherited or one unique to you?

AKAI SOLO: I guess it’s self-taught. It’s not like my family is full of deadbeats. My mom definitely instilled the importance of working hard, owning your own things, and making sure that all your bases are covered because no one will look out for you more than you. Maybe subconsciously that might have left a footprint, but I’m very familiar with inadequacy and I just feel like I’ve coasted on it. It’s like, ‘Hello darkness, my true friend.’ Inadequacy is the second friend. I’ve always battled with trying to shirk that and shake that feeling for my own personal satisfaction. It’s like Bruce Lee says, “Don’t fear the guy that knows a thousand punches, fear the guy that’s practiced one punch a thousand times.” I try to be that.

Did you have thematic ideas for the project before you began working on it? Or did they reveal themselves in the writing process?

AKAI SOLO: When billy [woods] brought up dropping a project on Backwoodz, I had three songs already done for the idea that I was going with. I had “Cudi,” “Musashi,” and “DEMONSLAYER.” I was letting him know where I was at regarding the spiritual exploration and that stuff.The rest of it gleaned itself in the process, but my work is already disgustingly honest. I knew that it was going to do that. It always throws me for doozy, the intensity of it all. It looks like the intensity of my truth is increasing with the development of my project. I’ll report back to you on whether that’s a good thing or not.

Is that honesty something that you’ve had to work towards in your career or have you always just been like, “Why not leave it all on the record?”

AKAI SOLO: I’ve always been like that, only because I feel like it takes way too much effort to lie and be deceitful. All of that energy could be better redirected towards the vocation and my proficiency with it. Instead of writing a bar about something that did not happen, I could make a cool braggadocious visual bar. I did three corkscrew backflips and landed in the laps of two Peruvian models. That didn’t happen. I was actually in my house, depressed. I was actually ruminating on the relationships that I had with my family and whether or not they exist. That’s what the bars turn into. It becomes a game of how clever I can make my turmoil.

You’ve referred to this album as wandering through various self engineered hells. Are these intentional roadblocks? Do you get in your own way?

AKAI SOLO: It’s a constant theme of no person’s life being a cake walk. I took this album as an opportunity to put the magnifying glass over myself and zoom in to an uncomfortable degree on the context of those hells that I feel like I’m going through. An overarching thing that I like to do with my music is use myself as the conduit, or the guinea pig, or the crash test dummy. I use my issues and I try to expand it to a broader audience. You’re not going to relate to this exact thing, but there are little impressions or instances that should be familiar. Even if it’s not the exact words, it should be a similar feeling.

I do strongly believe that people can be victims of circumstance, but I’m also aware of the fact that human beings are very powerful species and everything can start in the mind. Me owning up to that realization is embracing that line in the sense of, no matter how I feel about it, I also dictate how much of it I have to sit through, how much of it I’m choosing to analyze. There’s always the option of just running away.

I consistently choose to sit there and figure it out and try to salvage things, and try to acquire understanding, and try to prevent it from happening again. Prevention is better than cure. I’m really big on that. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have been looking for the cure in this lab for so long. Everybody else fled to the next lab in Brazil. Maybe I should have left. It’s like I stayed in this place with the nuclear meltdown thing blaring and everyone’s leaving. I’m just like, “No, man, I’m about to make a breakthrough. Wait.”

Are you a perfectionist in the studio?

AKAI SOLO: I definitely don’t sell myself short. I’ve done takes 70, 80 times. It’s just like, “No man.” Everybody’s like, “That was good.” And I’m just like, “Nah. It could be better.” But at the same time, which is funny enough, I try to leave one mistake in almost all my songs on purpose. It helps to retain a human element and it keeps me humble. I just like the aspect of leaving a little scrape, or indentation, or squiggly line on the side of the paper, just to show a human being did this.

That squiggly line is also meant to be considered in the totality of this art piece that you’re taking in because human beings isolated away from every other circumstance are not perfect, as I referred to earlier. So that squiggly line is arguably a stronger footprint to a person’s humanity than this perfect thing, or seemingly perfect thing. They should both be considered to get a true outlook on what one’s humanity is.

You don’t have any guests on Spirit Roaming until the final track when you bring an Armand Hammer. Why the intensely solo project?

AKAI SOLO: I typically don’t really do a lot of features, so that was easy. My music is really personal. I do a lot of the rap things too. Like, “Oh, man. Internal rhyme there,” and all of that. What I’m actually saying and what I go through when I make it is extremely personal. It’s inconceivable for me to consider that another person could be on this track. Not because I don’t think anyone sonically can contribute nicely to it, but contextually it makes no sense.

Most of my music takes place in a really deep corner in my mind and nobody’s there but me. It wouldn’t make sense for me to invite somebody on a track where I’m talking about being deeply morose about me not being considered for something or how I’m perceiving my output or my worth. These are things that started with solo ruminations in the confines of my home or something. Once I get to the studio, I try to keep it as close to how it started as possible. This thought didn’t start with a group of people. By the time I get to the studio, I’m not looking for a group of people to help me flesh it out.

It also goes back to what we were talking about earlier as far as where I get that head down energy from. I started this entire thing, for the most part, by myself. I met a lot of friends along the way and I have a strong array of friends and artists in grips and everything like that. But the last part of my name is Solo for a reason. It’s always to remind me that I came into this alone.

There are a lot of walks reserved for us individually as people that we have to take alone. That type of thing isn’t meant to isolate me and turn my nose up at the companionship and the people that I’ve come across, but it’s more to keep me grounded. A lot of the things set in place are mental stabilizers and things that I use to keep myself closer to the floor, because I’m not trying to have a swollen head.

How do you differentiate that approach from when you put out a collab album like you did with Siifu in 2019? How do you balance those two aspects of the way your brain works?

AKAI SOLO: The other side that gives life to collaboration is me feeling like a real relationship is developing. I’m not really good at making music for politically correct reasons or because it’s strategically viable. I have to fuck with you, I have to appreciate you as a person, we’ve got to be friends, preferably. I started Tase Grip because I wanted to create the love that I didn’t feel in the underground circuit when I started. It wasn’t me thinking, “If I get a bunch of cool guys together, it will be undeniable and this is perfect. Phase four will be achieved in three months.” It was just me being really goofy and just wanting kindred spirits to adventure with. That’s always been the thing.

I met Siifu, we were on the same bill together, and we had a lot of mutuals. He would come to New York we would link up at a mutual friend’s house, we would just eat together, tell jokes, freestyle, and all of that shit. As soon as the collaboration doesn’t feel like a chore, it’ll probably happen. I naturally like to make music. Once those two checks are cleared, we’re going to put our heads down and lift our heads back up, and then we made 10 tracks. Then we’re sitting here like, “Oh, well what are we going to do with this?”

Speaking of the community that you are a part of and exist in, can you outline what New York underground rap is like right now?

AKAI SOLO: Almost like a hodgepodge of natural disasters. It’s probably the most free sounding that it has been in a minute, just as far as the amount of bases being covered from the dance shit, the electronic shit, the drill shit, and the alt rap thing that people want to put a handful of us in. I was talking to BSTFRND about it a little while back, about the whole concept of regionality in hip hop dissipating and becoming less of a thing. Before, you used to be able to listen to something and you could tell where someone was from. Now that’s not really the case.

In New York, we’ve always been good. We have a lot of people that aren’t really trying to be secondary. A lot of us aren’t trying to come up to get signs like J. Cole or something like that. I fuck with J. Cole, that’s not even a slight at J. Cole, but it’s like a lot of us are leading our own ships. We’re not trying to get hired to scrub somebody else’s deck. That’s very prevalent in our stampede, in our scene. Everyone has their own philosophy. Everyone has substantial goals for themselves. No one’s trying to make it to the NBA to sit on the bench. Everyone has the ambition–at least most of us have ambition to aim for the top spot–and that’s exhilarating to me. It’s competitive, but it’s also supportive.

Can you reflect on woods and the Backwoodz family…What’s it like having someone like that on your team with the structure to help support you?

AKAI SOLO: An indispensable resource, if I’m speaking coldly. To speak more from a warmer note, it’s a huge honor and I’m really grateful. billy woods is one of the people that I have studied. I fuck with him. He’s definitely an influence. It’s surreal to have my project come out and get pushed with so much vigor and passion and faith from someone like him because he’s also a very strong critic. I fully reserved space to be told at several points throughout this process that I was garbage, this is bad, we’ve got to do it again. It was a pleasant surprise that I was not as horrible as I was anticipating I would be to him. It’s also cool because Vordul Mega is another huge influence on me and he’s one of the few people that has a tangible connection to Vordul. You can’t make that up. For that to have happened is cool. When we first started speaking he told me that I sometimes remind him of Vordul, and that busts my head. It’s just really humbling.

I appreciate the opportunity to work with Backwoodz because I’m constantly looking for ways to beat the shit out of my form and build it back up. He helped me do that. I always take his word with consideration and I appreciate his thoughts and I appreciate his attention and I’m just grateful. Because he didn’t have to.

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