ILoveMakonnen on Breaking Free of ‘Industry Politics,’ Being Gay in Hip-Hop and When Things ‘Soured’ With Drake

A.D. Amorosi
·12-min read

Audiences have had the feels for Atlanta-bred crooner-rapper ILoveMakonnen since 2014. Known for a dreamy brand of club-hop, via such tracks as “I Don’t Sell Molly No More,” ILoveMakonnen got the attention of Drake with his song “Tuesdays,” and the superstar rapper later did a guest feature on a remix version. In short order, ILoveMakonnen was signed to Drake’s OVO Sound imprint.

But things went from rosy to rough as ILoveMakonnen found himself dissatisfied with the label’s view of his place and his music. He left dramatically and moved to OVO’s parent company, Warner Brothers (now Warner Records), in 2016, only to face similar obstacles.

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For his 32nd birthday earlier this month, ILoveMakonnen gave himself a present: a new label (Own Timeless Magic) and a new album, “My Parade,” which returns the artist to the harmony–heavy soul and folk that he started his career with, independently, in 2011.

ILoveMakonnen wears his freedom well, as he first displayed when he came out as gay in 2017 — a brave public admission for an artist of any musical genre, let alone hip-hop. And with his newfound independence comes a refreshing frankness, which ILoveMakonnen demonstrated during a recent interview with Variety.

What were the circumstances under which your left Warner Brothers to start your label, Own Timeless Magic? Was your contract up?

No. My contract wasn’t up. I just wanted to get away from record labels, and go back to being independent since 2016. Warner Brothers and I — we tried to work it out, but, there just didn’t seem to be any interest there [in] me as an artist.

The label went through a round of management changes during those years, too…

Yes. People who signed me left. The new people who came in really didn’t know about me. They were there to sign new acts. They had different priorities. It was a battle for about four years — me trying to leave, get independent and free, to create the music I wanted and put it out on my terms with the people I wanted to work with, without politics and the usual industry stuff. So I finally got released in September 2020, and started recording “My Parade” in October. But before I even signed with OVO Sounds and Warners in 2014, I wanted my own thing — to give my art to people the way they wanted it, and I wanted it. And now we’re here.

You started out at OVO, Drake’s imprint. What were your expectations in being an artist on the roster?

When I signed with OVO, I thought that they were interested in me as an artist, as ILoveMakonnen — what I do. I thought that they wanted me to be part of the OVO family. I was hoping that I would be collaborating with all the other artists on the label. But I guess that I rubbed everyone at OVO the wrong way because that never happened or seemed what they wanted. It all wound up as just politics without me ever talking to them. My manager at the time did that, talking to OVO’s head, Mr. Morgan. They didn’t mesh well. But when I met 40 [Noah Shebib], Oliver [El-Khatib, OVO co-founder], Mr. Morgan and Drake, we had a great relationship. We all sounded pretty cohesive in what we wanted to do together. When managers and representatives on both sides talked, however, communications got lost.

Suddenly, too, there was a situation with old tweets where you dissed Drake going back to, like, 2010.

I was young, online and saying wild stuff just to get attention — to get a reaction. Drake was mentioned, and someone brought them to his attention in 2015, posted them on the internet saying “Makonnen was saying shit about Drake.” “Drake, you should leave him.” That probably soured stuff. We never really spoke again after that. Then, when I released my second EP in November 2015, I got no support from OVO. They didn’t post about it. It was as if I wasn’t even on the label, as if I had been shelved. That hurt me a lot. I had no issue with them, and apologized for my old tweets and being young and dumb. So I left. But I was leaving OVO, Warners wanted to keep me. I found out that to be a conflict of interest as the OVO imprint is through Warner Brothers — like am I going to battle all of them now? I just wanted to make music, when and how I wanted to do it. It took five years to get my freedom back.

Concerning “Tuesday,” which Drake released as a remix: It’s yours and OVO’s biggest hit. You said in 2017 that “they needed a hot song. … That’s it.” Do you still believe that?

I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to these people in years. Nobody’s ever reached out to me. But, that seems as if that was the reason. From me looking back and people telling me, they knew that I had a new wave, a new sound starting up, and they jumped on that to further their wave. They didn’t want to sustain and support me, only themselves. Besides, I only met Drake three times. We spoke maybe five times — never about my career, just about getting stuff done.

What influenced your new wave?

The Delfonics. Prince. Rick James. The Isley Brothers. American folk singers and songwriters of the 1960s. I like music that connects with the people of their times. That’s how I would like to connect with people now.

There have been rumors that you have executed some notable ghostwrites. Is that true?

That claim is wild. I’m not a big ghostwriter. I do my own thing. Most artists, though, really can’t do my style, so when it comes time for them to do that… I guess the ghostwriting thing didn’t turn out too well for me. I do feel as if I have influenced other writers. There are plenty of ghostwriters who thank me for knocking down doors with my style of music, and opening them up so that they can have chart-topping hits. Those opportunities haven’t come my way.

“My Parade” feels more open and free. Were you able to express everything you wanted?

I can go in any direction I want and feel supported by my producers while doing it. Before I took control, I was told to “dial into” this or that sound, or focus on a niche market. “My Parade” is all different genres. I wanted to share that, that I’m more than just “Tuesday,” or “I Don’t Sell Molly.” My hits. Everybody’s not in the club, or having a bad day. Everybody’s not going through a breakup. I haven’t been able to express all of me until now. I had to give people what my team wanted; not what I wanted. This new one has different vibes on every song — it’s a celebration of all my vibes.

“Whoopsy,” the single off “My Parade,” features 17-year-old Payday. How did you link up with her?

Payday is a young, amazing talent and “Whoopsy” was fun to work on with her. We met in the studio through one of her producers, and immediately thought she was dynamic — a great writer who believed in what I wanted to do. Most time I’m freestyling, but she write-writes. We still have a few other songs we’re working on. She’s already a legend.

There are two back-to-back love songs — “All I Want to See” and “I Can See It in Your Eyes” — that stand apart from the rest of the album. Can you talk about their genesis?

“All I Want to See” is about me being a gay man but still going to the strip club, having fun, courting the girls, watching them dance. I’m from Atlanta, so that’s embedded in the culture there, no matter your sexual orientation. We all can enjoy the art of stripping and dancing. It’s about me telling a dancer that I’m not trying to offend her, instead that she’s inspiring me. I can’t be your man, but I can enjoy your art and beauty. “I Can See It in Your Eyes” is that jungle prowling thing — you see someone making eyes at you, eye-fucking me — and me responding. If we wind up making love, I wouldn’t be surprised. That vibe.

How did you hook up with Lil B for “More Bitches Than the Mayor,” and which mayor, pray tell, are you referencing?

We don’t know exactly which mayor that is, as there seems to be several mayors like that. … Lil B has been a hero of mine from even before I came out with “Tuesday.” I wrote about him on my blog, and I sent him one of my first tracks and videos in 2010 and said that I’d love to work with him someday. He was encouraging: “Someday we’ll get to it.” I met him at his studio in the Bay Area in 2015, made three songs, and when I wrote “More Bitches,” I reached out. Sent it to him, and he sent it right back – not like other people you have to chase down. We were actually supposed to tour together in 2016, but it fell apart. Maybe once things get back to normal.

Your mom was an opera singer and created some of the graphics for “My Parade” — so an artist unto herself. Discuss the influence of the women in your life.

My family’s women have always been true matriarchs — the nucleus of everything, especially art. When I was younger, my grandmother, who was a piano teacher, would allow me to play between her students’ lessons. With my mom, she’s been a multi-format artist and painter, musician and crafter. They both gave me the strength to go forward. They make me want to go harder. If these women can take care of business — family, jobs, their own art — I could give at least half of that and do good. Women are my life force.

You famously collaborated with the late Lil Peep on several projects. Can you share what it was like to work with him?

That was like working with a twin flame. We definitely vibed and connected. We were living together for a while and getting to know each other. That helped us form our own points of view on the same topics. They were the most authentic, real sessions. I remember traveling to London with him. We got a little drunk and he started singing my songs to me. So I started singing his songs to him right back, both of us crying. That was a real bonding moment so that we could get into the studio the next day and do some timeless stuff that I hope will be released soon.

You came out as gay in 2017, a rare occurrence in hip-hop, though that is changing thanks to the likes of yourself and Lil Nas X…

I feel like if you’re coming out in hip-hop, you have to be very brave. Understand that you’re doing this for so many people who are silent — not just for yourself. There’s a silent majority out there looking for someone to relate to, to speak for them, and be honest with them, Unfortunately with hip-hop, we have a lot of capping, lying and deceitfulness. … When I started hanging out with some of the bigger artists and heavyweights in the music industry, I felt sorry for many of them, and sad, because they could not be their true, honest selves. Now they’re just giving off weird vibes because they wanna do weird stuff that they don’t want everybody knowing about. But they’re out here doing it. Look, I’m from Atlanta –the Black gay capital of the world; the Mecca of hip-hop. I don’t understand why they aren’t being honest with themselves and their fans.

But you do understand.

I do understand. They want to be accepted and cool, and coming out as gay isn’t truly accepted or cool in the hip-hop community. But, in true hip-hop form, it is always about being honest, showing yourself and your art, and not caring what other people think. It’s about your individuality, and I wanted to stay true to the essence of hip-hop — for myself and for everyone younger. Think of those coming up and influenced by hip-hop; they’re constantly dealing with issues of sexuality without any support or experience. People look up to me. If I’m an influence to these kids — like Lil Peep told me — I don’t want to lead them on by lying.

It got to the point where I couldn’t take it no more. Too much lying and not enough straightforwardness. How could I expect people to be real with me when I couldn’t be real with them? So I just went ahead and did it to relieve the pressure off myself and hopefully it helped others. People have told me that it did help — that it’s given them the freedom and confidence to come out. Hip-hop needs that. It has for too long flirted with the gay community while also hating on the gay community. Openly gay people support hip-hop but openly gay people don’t get supported by the culture they support and help thrive. I want to be a voice and a face for those in the industry and outside the industry — to let them know that they can just “do you.” If I have to take all the flack for it, and have everybody be mad at me so that others can eventually come out and get celebrated, that’s fine. I just want to forward the culture and all of its people.

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