Applause is the sound of approval, acceptance, a crowd's reaction to witnessing something so good that only hands are able to convey what their speechless mouths can't. When Wara From the NBHD released Kidnapped in 2014 it was met with a standing ovation, an almost shockingly large reaction for a fairly new, unknown artist. His beats appeared as the offspring’s of RZA and Pharrell, wrapped in the nostalgia of a sound that was scarce in the era of trap beats and generic replication. He wasn’t some clone that was copying a style but someone who inhaled his influences and exhaled a fresh style and outlook.
Artists spend most of their careers seeking acclaim, and once the crowd begins to clap, they will always ask for an encore. The artist is then forced to decide how far they will go to keep the applause going. "I’m glad with the way I came out the gate with albums, full bodies of work," said Wara when we spoke. "So even if I have a popping single, they will still look forward to my albums. I came out making listeners appreciate my music. I want people to hear it, feel it, and think about what the fuck I’m saying.” Now, two years after Kidnapped, the world is learning to appreciate a man who refuses to drop the same album twice.
When you come across a talented rapper, you assume he spent years pursuing the spotlight and perfecting his craft. Wara is in a different class. “I never wanted to be a rapper," he said. "I just felt like rappers are the epitome of fucking fake. Growing up in certain environments and you see what’s really real. It wasn’t something I was drawn to." He enjoyed the music, collected the albums, but rap wasn't real. Real was what he saw when he stepped outside, and what he saw outside was an Atlanta neighborhood - Brockett Road, Clarkston, the Eastside of Atlanta - that he quickly became immersed in after his family relocated there from his Brooklyn birthplace.
Growing up in Clarkston a life in the NBA was his dream. That was his first love, but dreams don’t come true and reality has a way of rattling you awake. Having a son on the way at 21 was the alarm clock; he knew he had to do something, but wasn’t sure what.
“What really inspired me to start doing music is I went to a N.E.R.D show in 2010. I was looking at them onstage and felt like I could do that. I slowly started writing after that. That show inspired me, it was my first time seeing them live and seeing how people reacted. I hit me homie to go to the studio one day and I’m just rapping, freestyling. The first time you hear yourself through the speaker, it's a feeling you can’t describe. Damn that’s me. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror for the first time.”
A small spark was born that day in 2010, one that only grew bigger with each passing year. The first time he officially recorded was in 2012, his first project The Ill Street Blues was released in 2013, and by the end of 2014 that potential spark had exploded. Even though he started rapping later than some, he’s always felt an innate attraction to words. Rap gave him a chance to explore the gift, discovering a sense of purpose. Kidnapped was a conceptual album but the way he tells stories seemed autobiographical, like he’s speaking of actions he’s watching unfold. His imagery is vivid and rich with detail, Wara doesn’t make just songs but he exhibits canvases. “I got a real specific way with words," he explained. "I can’t really explain it. I just know how to paint pictures."
It’s his eyes that originally caught me when looking at the cover of If Guns Could Speak, his 2015 follow-up to Kidnapped. There is no fear, no shock, just a cold stare that pierces through you. The image can be interpreted a lot of different ways. As a picture of blacks in America, as a metaphor for living and dying by the gun, however you interpret it, Wara just wants to make sure it unsettles you. “The purpose is not to make people feel comfortable. The best music makes people uncomfortable," he said. This outlook is one he’s been channeling since his first album’s cover, a picture of his son as an infant sitting in a miniature chair with a gun right beside him. A portrait that shows the good and the evil of his life.
That same piercing stare captures his surroundings in his music, an environment he describes with the same cold stare, he details all the guns and violence without a flinch. The chaos never seemed to get the best of him, even when his street was saturated with liquor stores and a prominent strip clubs, even when rapping about Mike, one of his best friends that was murdered when he was 16 and is mentioned on “Shotclock." The answer wasn’t to escape but to prepare, get yourself a gun as Nas would say. Instead of just being a product of his environment, he became a voice of his environment. I can see similarities to how Wara and Vince Staples approach their storytelling, reflecting on what they saw when life was at its most intense.
"The music, a lot that I talk about is more so drawn from memories. Just things I’m trying to get off my chest from the past. I been living in the same complex from 13 to basically now since my mom's still live over there. As much as I have seen over there, it’s so much to be talked about. I try to make it relate to everybody that feels that way. I know there’s other niggas in the hood that can’t rap and can’t explain it like me. They know what I’m saying though. Years and years of seeing the same stuff. My world is really my neighborhood. I try to be the voice for people that feel like me."
“This album is not for them,” Wara says without the slightest hint of remorse in his tone, referring to If Guns Could Speak. The statement opened my eyes for why the two projects, despite the similarities in subject, are sonically so different. Kidnapped is gritty but that dirty world is illuminated by recurring piano chords from Neptune and other instruments that burst through with lightness. On the final song, “Gone Baby Gone,” the beat is grungy, something from the armpits of hell that is more in the realm of rock than rap. It’s a quick glance at where he would take his next project, a more distorted and menacing sound to match the dim world.
Change doesn’t come without a trigger, a switch that is pressed that is too overwhelming to ignore, a feeling that you have to follow even if it leads you down a rabbit hole into the unknown. “I went through some real shit. I had to make this album. Even if it doesn’t work, I had to take the risk,” he said. Wara knew the same audience applauding Kidnapped might fall silent when they heard Guns, but it just didn't matter. Wara considers it his “Anti” album.
“The whole 2015 I was making music. When they thought I was quiet, I was making music. The music on Guns That Speak was already made so I spent all last year working on new stuff. I went from Kidnapped to Guns That Speak and it was a major leap musically. I lost fans because of it and I gain fans because of it. I know what I like to rap on now, I know my sound. This year I’m focused on putting out music. Quality music. It’s going to be fun. In many ways, I’m going to keep it in a similar lane, I want people to gravitate toward it.”
Anti is a good way looking at Wara, speaking with him was like meeting a rapper that is passionately against everything rap. His angst runs deeper than the shallow perspective that the South is killing hip-hop and extends to an irritation with things like social media. As an artist, he wants fans to gravitate toward the man behind the music and not the man behind the status updates. Before the release of If Guns Could Speak, he took four months off social media. In the internet age, that’s practically a year. For a new artist, that’s retirement. While he promises to be more active and won’t take such a lengthy time away from the fans and followers, he still carries the ethos that his music will speak the loudest. He’s also perplexed by how quickly albums die now. Lifespans are shorter than a week, some music dies the same day it stops.
So instead of dropping another album, his goal this year is to be consistent and active. Expect to see him on more stages performing and releasing new material. Quality music that can be felt globally, but don’t expect that to mean comfortable. “My music is the type of music that has to break certain ground first," he insisted. "It’s daring music. It’s not made to adjust.”
Wara is the anti-rapper that hates social media, the power of popular opinion, and the lack of risk takers in the industry, pointing to Kendrick Lamar as one of the few artists who uses major label resources to break new ground instead of follow old patterns. If he ever finds himself in the majors he swears he'll go left while they move right. He cares about making art that demands attention, making music that lasts longer than a week, and being a leader rather than following the status quo. He's a rebel that understands the system that is planning to infiltrate before ever conforming. Most importantly, Wara is from the neighborhood and he has a story to tell. Applaud that man, and listen to him.
"If my music is really touching people it will live forever. On or offline."
[By Yoh, aka Yoh Never Petty, aka @Yoh31.]