Green Label Sound Winner Kelechi Breaks Down “Before The Quarter” With A Track-By-Track Annotation
ATLien rap newcomer and Green Label Sound winner Kelechi is taking on a lot before the quarter age of 25.
Last year, he won our search for the next big thing in music: Green Label Sound: Open Call, beating tons of entries for the $50,000 grant from Mtn Dew Green Label to produce an album, a trip to SXSW 2015 to perform at the Green Label House, mentorship from RAC, a professional music video, and a promoted presence on SoundCloud.
In the year since then, Kelechi has already become a Renaissance man, sitting at the helm of the STNDRD crew, opening for Chance The Rapper, and crafting (and co-producing) his debut album, Before The Quarter—all while experiencing the music industry’s murky politics.
“One thing that I noticed—and I guess this is kind of music, personal and business—is that no one wants to be your only hope,” Kelechi says, also echoed in his lead single with Trinidad James, ‘Reachin.’ “Once people can see that you have something going on, it’s way easier for them to want to be a part of [it]. But if you have nothing else poppin’, no one wants to be your one ticket. No one wants to give you something until you don’t need it.”
Before The Quarter is the result of that knowledge gained—a collection of advice and insight offered in letter format to himself and the listener, before the impending change in his life occurs.
“If this is something that happens before things change a lot for me or before money change before that quarter, then these are things that I’ve learned that not only got me here, but that got me through this time in my life,” Kelechi says.
Composed of songs that Kelechi says radiate sonic warmth and multi-dimensional textured sound, influenced by Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Before The Quarter represents the underrepresented “other” side of Atlanta sound. Here’s Kelechi’s track-by-track annotation of the album.
The first verse was three years old, and then I kind of revisited it because it was starting to make more sense for how my life was, and then I wrote the second verse kind of more so like, “This is right now.” It starts off this letter that is this album, but kind of explains what you should do in a situation in which your life is about to change. It’s kind of like a mantra because it repeats itself over and over, and I’m saying it over and over because I think that these are very simple and important things to remember in any transition in life, whether it’s music, or whether you’re going off to school, you’re getting a new job, you’re moving—just any transitionary period. I think those are very key things that became very important to me.
- “Immigrant Son” feat. Ikey, Phay, and Ezi
“Immigrant Son” is more of an autobiographical piece just about me, who I am, the difficulties of feeling like you’re growing up in two places and not necessarily fitting one hundred percent into either. But it ends with a certain kind of pride and toughness, but also awareness that comes with that when you get older. It’s something that you’re like “aw” when you’re younger, but you get older and you look at life different. You begin to see things through two different lenses at once, and that goes as far as people, work, school, everything. You kind of look at things differently because you were raised with two pretty much parallel ideals, and you’re going to look through both of them. That’s where it ends up going, so it goes from like an “aw” to a “hm.”
- “Forbidden Fruit” feat. Miloh Smith
I wrote that song before [J. Cole] put that song out. I literally wrote that song in 2012. We’ve been tweaking it since then, but I’ve had the concept for that song for way longer than him, so I’m just going ahead and putting that out there [laughs]. “Forbidden Fruit” is about any vice. The vice is personified as sin or women, but it’s way bigger than just a sexy song. It illustrates how the dance of being tied up in anything is—it could be anything that could be a vice or an addiction, or whatever. It’s about that, and it’s about personifying something that you may be somewhat hooked on, and talking back and forth with that thing, which is the forbidden fruit.
On this song, Miloh sings. She’s from Atlanta. It’s crazy, we went to middle school together, and she moved to New York and did her thing out there. I just told her about the song, and then she just wrote exactly what needed to be said. She plays the tempter; I play the tempted.
Bet was the last song I did for the album. I did it like three weeks ago—totally just like beginning to end. “Bet” is about risking, gambling, investing in yourself, and that’s something we say in Atlanta. The chord progression is like a major of the minor of “Forbidden Fruit,” and they’re kind of doing the same thing. Roughly, not perfectly, because I don’t read music, but they’re kind of doing the same thing. That’s why it’s placed after it, aside from also being about vices.
- “Reachin’” feat. Trinidad James
“Reachin’’ is like the ratchet side of the whole thing where people are cool with you after things are going well. That’s the side of you that wants to be jaded, that wants to be like, “Oh, really?” What’s funny is that hook was originally written for Raury. Raury does this thing with his voice where he kind of mimics Michael Jackson, so he was going to do that, and it was going to be way more subdued than it ended up being. But then he toured, and he just didn’t have time to do it, so we ended up reaching out to Trinidad. I listened to [James’s] Trips To Trinidad mixtape, and he was really manipulating his voice and really doing interesting things with his accent, and I was like, “Oh, he could do this if he just sings it with a little more—if he just Trinidad-s it up.” I’m really glad that Trinidad ended up doing that, and he showed a lot of love.
- “Pretend” feat. Dre and Mike Golden
Mike Golden is literally probably one of the most talented people—not even underground—and exactly how he sounds on the song, he sounds like that or better live. He has an amazing voice. We’ve been friends through just online and stuff, and we finally met at SXSW for the first time, and then we hung out in Chicago a couple of times. He killed that verse, and the song itself is clearly about pretending, but beyond that, it’s about the irony of how dumb you end up looking trying to save face. You end up showing exactly what you were trying to not show by pretending. He caught it perfectly because I attack it from more of a relationship point of view, and then he ends up hitting it from a musical point of view.
- “It’s Alright (Interlude)”
It’s a totally instrumental thing. It’s played by Josh Porter, who played the keys on “It’s Alright,” and he did additional production with me on “Advice.” He really beats up that record, and really made it sound a lot bigger. It’s just an instrumental medley he did, and then I gave it the texture that you feel throughout. I honestly did it to make “It’s Alright” feel more important. It was just done because that next song is so important that I wanted to give your ears a chance to set—like totally separate it from the last song and make it its own event and experience.
- “It’s Alright”
It’s my favorite song because it’s just a very simple concept. Things were not cool with my home life, with my mom at one point. She would go to work, and I would go do studio stuff and rapper stuff, and then come home, whether I was coming home from out of town or wherever. She would be super tired; our interaction would be the same every time. It’s like, “Hey, Ma.” “Hello.” “How was work?” “Work is work.” “Ah, it’s alright.” And that’s what I’d tell her: “It’s alright.” It’s like a comfort thing, but more importantly, just telling someone it’s alright is being committed to trying to convince them that it’s alright, and it’s kind of one of those songs that repeats itself. I think that’s a really powerful sentiment because just knowing that things will get better is sometimes enough for people to keep going. I did that, and it’s roughly dedicated to my mom and whoever is going through something and might not know that it’s going to be okay. I really value that song just for what it could do for people.
- “I Wrote This For You” feat. Ezi and Phay
Every other song is kind of either biographical or about something particularly for me to express, and I did this literally for you, for the listener. I just wanted to dedicate a song to whoever took the time out to listen to this because it’s right towards the end of the album, so I dedicated that song to whoever took the time to get to that point. I want it to be the 2016 version of “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” from Toy Story, just being like, “I got you.” If you listen to my music, the least I can do is respond to a tweet, say hi, or say happy birthday to you, or I don’t know—whatever I can do. Phay, who’s in the STNDRD, is on there, and it was interesting because he wasn’t even gonna go on there, but he was going through some personal stuff, and I just played him the song and he just sang what he ended up doing. It’s cool because him being able to get that off of his chest was almost like an illustration of what that song is, being able to be there for people. It could’ve been the end of the album, and it kind of tricks you into thinking that. I finish the song, and I finish out the letter that I’ve been writing through the songs, so it ties the theme of the album together. I sign off the letter, “Sincerely, Kelechi,” and then I say, “P.S.,” and then it gets into the next song.
- “The Glo” feat. BJ the Chicago Kid
“The Glo” is like a victory lap of the album and this whole process, finishing the album and everything on a high note. It’s a super triumphant song. It’s really big, with a choir on it, and then BJ is super church-y and he’s singing on it. It’s really inspirational, and I want that song to feel like the fruition of hard work, and that’s why it’s at the end. I want people to think of that song when they graduate high school or college, or when you hit your goal weight, or when you just do the “thing.” I want that song to play in your head.
Originally, I wanted Anthony Hamilton, but my pockets weren’t gonna go that far [laughs]. When we reached out to him, they’re like, “Honestly, Anthony loves this song. Here’s how much it’ll cost.” And we’re like, “That’s not happening.” But they were like, “We’re really cool with BJ. Let us connect you guys,” so they connected us, and then I played it for him over the phone. He was in Houston on tour with Big K.R.I.T., so we met him in Houston and just set up a studio in the hotel room. He knocked it out in like an hour and a half, and he even took it way further and did way more on it than I was expecting him to do. He also helped out with sequencing the track and doing the arrangement. He did a lot on it, actually. That’s how that came about, and when you’re hanging out with him—like we were just chillin’. He feels like a kid that you went to church with. He’s really cool, easy to talk to, really fun. He made the record really important; he didn’t just do the bare minimum and get out of there. That was tight. I wanted to make sure the end of the album felt like the end of the album process, which is that glow, that light.
Images: Evan Carter, Erikson Corniel