Photography Steven Taylor
Styling Blake Hardy
Rapper, singer and songwriter Aminé started developing his sophomore album Limbo over two years ago. Its title refers, not to the current paradox of a life on hold in quarantine and the rise of potentially the largest civil rights revolution in history, but the bind he found himself in after his first megahit “Caroline” and first album Good For You blew up, and the world wondered what else, if anything, he had left to say. It turns out that Aminé has plenty to say and that what he wrote and felt two years ago is especially pertinent today. “Fetus” (featuring Injury Reserve) sees Aminé wondering if he can bring a baby into today’s climate with a clear conscience, what “am I if I bring [a baby] into this world?” In “Burden” he tackles systemic racism from multiple angles, “When yo’ skin get darker, life get harder.” And in his track tribute to Kobe he reflects, “A lot of my innocence and being a young person died with Kobe.”
Several tracks on Limbo are dedicated to other artists or people in his life that inspire him. Riri is a shout out to Rihanna, “Mama” is his go at the classic Mom tribute, “Becky,” a melancholic flipside to “Caroline,” is about his interracial relationship with a white woman and a world that won’t have it. In “DR. WHOEVER” from OnePointFive, the mixtape he released between his first and second album, Aminé reveals his personal fears and traumas, venting directly to his fans. But his music feels healthy, “good,” and smooth enough to take easily even when it’s somber. The self-proclaimed “regular guy” of the hip hop scene, Aminé has no dark hangups, drug, or alcohol fixes of which to brandish and let loose upon his listeners. His songs can be self-reflective and therapeutic, but unlike artists steeped in the industry and equipped with an army to shape their self-image (Aminé works with a small team and runs his own social media), he always humbles himself to tracks designed to appreciate others. His songs often extend from himself, and with the increased pressure on celebrities to speak up on civil rights issues, he’s pointing his listeners to the activists better suited to guide them on the way of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Aminé’s characteristically clean sound aims to cut closer to the soul than it has in Limbo. His songs have always talked to his listeners in total clarity, but never aimed at them this deep. The effect is like succumbing to something you want to. The sound’s seductive, but it never feels like it’s luring you somewhere you don’t want to go. Listening to Limbo on repeat, I felt refreshed every time I got to the tail end of its endless loop, and awaited the next cruise through the aural labyrinth I was happy I couldn’t find my way out of.
L'Officiel: When people talk about racism in America, it’s usually centered around the east coast, west coast and the south, but we both grew up in small suburban towns where it’s subtle. One of the ways I experienced it was with music. I felt a lot of resistance to the kinds of music my parents grew up on, hip hop and Prince, mostly, and got a lot of flak for not knowing the classic rock their parents listened to. Did you experience something like that?
Aminé: It’s always surprising to people that a rapper came from Portland. For a lot of people, it’s hard to understand. The funny part about it is that for me, when I grew up, if you lived where I lived, that isn’t a hard concept to grab. There is a very small Black culture that is such a big community in Portland. It’s just not talked about as much because it is a 90% white state that doesn’t really shine light on Black people, of course. So for one of the biggest artists from Portland to be a Black guy is just funny. All my friends listened to hip hop and we’re very Bay Area influenced with our music. We listened to a lot of E-40 and Mac Dre, that’s how our house parties were. All I listened to growing up was rap. I went to a very white middle school and it was the first time I was introduced to indie music and rock. I liked it and it opened up my palette towards music, I started to listen to new types of music and new artists like John Mayer, [laughs] and that was all such a new type of music. My mother was also a big influence for me as well. But hip hop was never a surprising road for me to go down, I guess.
L'O: You’re in L.A, but you’re still doing it differently. You don’t have a social media manager, you do a lot of the work on your own. Do you feel a lot of pushback from the industry to conform to the way they want artists to do things?
A: I feel like I’m one of the most regular guys to become a rapper. I’m just a guy who likes to walk my dog and get some coffee down the street I’m pretty much like a dad. [laughs] That’s just how I am. I’ve never been like the club guy or the guy who’s super worried about how his selfie looks on Instagram or something. I just try to be myself, and if people like that and gravitate towards that or they don’t, and whether or not the industry does or doesn’t, they’re just going to have to deal with it. It’s who I am. I’m from Portland, that’s just how most of us are.
L'O: I feel like the artists that are most steeped in the industry are also the most cut off from it. They can’t talk about anything in their music but themselves because their self-image is so manicured. But you make songs for other artists, you have one here for Rihanna, a thing for Kobe, other people like your mom, and even songs that directly interact with your fans. You’re able to extend from yourself.
A: [laughs] I see your observation and you’re completely correct, actually, but I guess when I’m doing these things I don’t think about it at all. Like the Kobe track on the album isn’t really even a song, it’s just a tribute to him. He meant a ton to me, and I shed so many tears the day he died. When he died it was like I lost my stepfather or something. It was just devastating. I literally went out and got a tattoo for Kobe on my arm the same day that he died. In the song “Woodlawn” I mention Kobe really quick, but I knew that wasn’t enough to gather all the emotion of what he meant to young Black boys in America. Most of my friends that day, our group text was devastated. It was all of us not believing a word of what happened. I think that track, I’m really proud of it, not because of the music, but what I know it’ll mean for young Black boys in America.
L'O: You’ve evaded the celebrity spotlight in some ways, but now a time has come when people with a platform are expected to come forward. Has your perspective on how you should use your platform evolved?
A: I’ve always tried to speak out on anything I believe in, like in my Fallon performance in 2017 [where he broke character and denounced Trump and the late-night-television-industrial complex in an altered verse on “Caroline”]. This year has taught me that not everyone has to be an activist. Our role as an artist or celebrity is to amplify other peoples voices. There are so many people who study civil rights, Black history and revolution that really know what they’re talking about. So for me, I’m not going to go, “I’m going to lead a protest! I’m going to do this!” I don’t want to be self-centered in the way I talk about Black Lives Matter. I would rather amplify that voice as much as I possibly can, other people's voices. I think artists need to speak out, but also really listen to other people as well when we’re talking about these kinds of situations.
L'O: Have you seen the current events influence your writing? How often do you write and what is that process like?
A: For me, I’m always writing on Apple notes and my voice notes on my phone. I have maybe over 5,000 voice notes in my phone. I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll get a melody idea, or someone will say something in conversation and it’ll spark an idea for a lyric and I’ll write it down in my phone. So I’m constantly writing. It’s annoying actually. I can’t ever stop thinking about writing a song. If I have an idea I have to jot it down quickly or I’ll forget it. The times have influenced me obviously, but I prefer to take in everything that’s going on and be able to sit down afterwards and start writing. Luckily I finished my album before everything happened, so I’ll probably start working on a new album right away.
L'O: Do you draw inspiration from any specific movies or TV shows for your music videos?
A: Definitely. I’ve always wanted to get into film and TV. The spot I did on Insecure this year was my first acting role. I had got a couple of gig offers before Insecure but I turned those TV shows down because they were trying to portray me as a gangster or Amine the rapper, but I wanted my first role to be something they took seriously as me playing someone else. So Issa [Rae] gave me the opportunity to play an actual character on a TV show, so I was super excited to do that. A lot of my music videos are really influenced by shots you see in other things. I was watching Snowfall and there was this scene where they had the camera rigged onto this crackhead doing cocaine or something, and the shot was so trippy and beautiful that I screen recorded it on my phone and put it into a treatment for a new music video and said, “we gotta copy this.”
L'O: I know a lot of your process is intuitive, but with some time in between your earliest work and now can you see a trajectory?
A: Definitely, it’s been refreshing to see the actual growth in myself as an artist. I wasn’t so certain of myself during Good For You and OnePointFive, but with this music, even though I’m in limbo, literally, with my decisions, and that’s not even a marketing push, the album is called that because that’s how I feel all of the time in hip hop. I feel kind of like an outlier in hip hop and in general. This is the first time I feel really proud about what we put together. The time and the effort put into this deserves everything it has coming for it.
L'O: I feel like you could have taken your career into a bigger and more predictable direction after “Caroline,” will you keep things small and intimate like you have been, even as you grow?
A: I knew when I came out that it was a lot of attention and fame at once. I could have gone and did another type of hit song and kept doing singles. There were so many different ways I could have done it, but I wanted to be an artist. I wanted people to know that I wasn’t a one-hit-wonder and that I had a career that I wanted to build. And with time and support of my team like my manager—because it is hard when you first come out and people are wondering if you’ll be a one-hit-wonder—there’s a lot of pressure on an artist when you first come out but. Keep your head down, don’t be in no fuck shit, goin’ to parties every other night, and just work on your album and make sure you’re putting something good together and it’ll work out itself. Luckily I’ve been in this thing for at least four years now and hopefully I’m in it for another ten. [laughs]
Hair Alika Theyana