“When you try to carry it quietly,” Natia explains, “that’s when it gets real heavy.”
It’s a few minutes past midnight in a West Los Angeles park and the Inglewood rapper is coaching me as I move a bench from the middle of a tennis court to its corner. While a one-off exercise for me, this was a frequent ritual for Natia during his homeless years, which began in 2011 after a strained relationship with his mother forced him onto the streets. That bench is an afterthought to most, but it was Natia’s bed for countless nights.
I start by leaning the seat forward, finding balance on the front legs. Per his instruction, I adjust my hands to grip the middle back support and begin to awkwardly waddle towards the shadows.
“I chose that corner because it was the darkest,” he notes, “the easiest to hide in.” His former alcove also features a gap between the ground and fence that matches the height of the bench, giving Natia a way to screen late-night visitors. “Recycling comes at 3 a.m. and that would scare the shit outta me,” he continues. “Once I got used to it, though, I stopped jumping into ‘I-might-have-to-kill-this-n***a’ mode.”
The evening’s chill was dull until then, but it became a reality biting at my fingers. I try to be sturdy and silent in my movement. Still, the bulky frame inevitably slams back to the DecoTurf before I reach my destination. Natia never had that option. He needed a place to sleep like the rest of Los Angeles County’s chronically homeless population, which rose twenty-three percent last year to nearly 58,000.
The now 24-year-old rapper, born Natia Happy Maluia, describes sleeping on the court like he does everything else, emphatically and with a humor uniquely his own. He chuckles recalling arguments with sleepers on adjacent courts and dodging affluent, early morning players who scoffed at his existence. Natia relays these stories with the attractive bluntness he uses in his music. It’s effortless to get invested in his shenanigans, which seems the most appropriate word for them since many lines make him laugh on delivery. After talking with him I’m convinced it’s involuntary. He takes a comedic angle during our conversation, whether discussing inspiration from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or how he would certainly beat me in a chess match (he would). When he’s recording, his wit manifests equally in tales of fatal retaliation (“Watch Your 6”) and self-deprecating, genital punchlines (“Blood on the Hypeman”).
Most recently, Natia showcases his likeability in the video for “Optimism,” premiering exclusively on DJBooth. The track comes from his 10K Hours album, released in July on writer and free speech champion Jeff Weiss’ P.O.W Recordings label. On it, Natia rattles off bars about his homeless years, from inventive ways he afforded meals to gratitude for friends who helped the days he failed. From the moment he flicks his cigarette and producer El Lobo’s concise drums pop, he earns the camera’s attention. The pitched vocal sample and nod-inducing cadence pair well with the New York setting and Natia looks as comfortable gliding between commuters as he does alone on a bus fidgeting with his GameBoy.
While this track is a primary source for his Ghostface Killah comparisons, Natia doesn’t fit a mold on 10K Hours. He dips his hand in bouncy, hi-hat rich trap for “On Your Knees,” while indicting the fakes (“Listening to all that trap / Now you think you rap”), and delivers thunderingly indulgent anthems like “Fuck Our Problems.” There are traces of absurdist humor from Eminem and wordplay only possible after Big L. Once he started rapping, he would combine Raekwon’s lessons with poetry guidance from his ninth-grade English teacher: “[She] would show me how to put all the senses into my work and that’s what I try to do in my raps. I want you to smell the concrete, taste the donut if I say ‘donut.’ I would hear my teacher tell me that and see Raekwon execute it in his music, so I figured there must be something to it.”
“It was right shooting 'Optimism' in New York,” he says. “I think the city fits the song well. Those shots help you feel how hungry I was. Plus it was nice to go out there and come back with my girl.” After shooting the video, Natia and his girlfriend, who was living in New York at the time, drove back to Los Angeles in her 2006 Buick, which is also where we conducted our interview. “She says it’s a 2006, but I don’t believe her,” he smirks, claiming the car’s condition provides reasonable doubt. He’s adamant about the trip’s benefits, largely because it gave him time to reflect. “I learned I gotta be calm, you feel me, not be as anxious as I’ve been,” he says. “I was getting mad at Instagram, seeing other people pop off. Going across the country, helped me look at shit day-to-day and just focus on my music. When I do that, things end up going my way, or I’m at least pleasantly surprised.”
Once the last Newport sunk close to his lips, he tells me he needs to leave. I ask if he maintains that elusive awareness he had on the road. “I’m getting better at it,” he says. “I thank my girl for that shit honestly. She makes me more present and optimistic every day. And I got my family in this music. I have miserable days, but I try to make one thing about myself better every day.”
He made me smile once more as he turned out of the park. Passing behind, he saluted me with unexpected, amicable honks and it seems he’s living up to his imperative.