Connotation can be a deadly thing. Camden-born and Pennsauken-based rapper Franky Hill knows this well. While doing battle with his own demons, he came to realize that words like “escape” and “user” are keeping us from seeking lasting help and challenging ourselves to be better. Several conversations with God and one jam session later, the 24-year-old artist began crafting his upcoming album, USER.
A personal reckoning, USER is also an attempt to change the way we do battle with our darkness. “When I say ‘user,’ I want people to shift their connotation of the word,” Hill tells me over the phone. “With the passing of Mac [Miller] and going through stuff, I want people to look at the word ‘user’ differently. Instead of using these things that render temporary joy and escape, let’s use friends. Let’s use love, let’s use God. Most importantly, let’s use each other. We really need each other.”
After a dark 2016 and 2017, Hill tells me that he was done being selfish with his demons. Being an artist affords him the opportunity to communicate his struggles with the world, to help others, and he does not want to take that for granted. USER was made to heal him but also exists as a platform for listeners to confront themselves. Truth is terrifying, sure, but as Franky explains, it quickly becomes the easiest thing we do.
“When you start talking about your truths, truth is almost like liquor,” he says. “Once somebody take a shot of the truth, they just start spilling their truths. Like, ‘Dang! You dealin’ with something too? You look so strong.’ It’s so much easier being truthful. Everything is better when you’re honest.”
Honesty is not simply the theme of USER, it is the modus operandi of the record and Franky Hill’s life. The most precious thing to him now is his growth and his journey. “I take a lot of pride in the process,” he says. So long as he keeps pushing himself to grow, the rest will follow.
DJBooth’s full interview with Franky Hill, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What was the first rap song you heard that really struck you?
Franky Hill: It would have to be JAY-Z’s… Which one was it? Damn. It’s either “99 Problems” or he had a song called “Cashmere Thoughts.” It would have to be “99 Problems,” because years later I got to read his Decoded book, and he was explaining how every time he does the hook, it was a different meaning. This is really one of my favorite songs of all time now. It blew my mind at a young age and as I got older, you know how you watch a movie again and peep stuff you didn’t peep the first time? I have to go with “99 Problems.”
When did you notice you had a knack for music?
Freshman, sophomore year. I started off writing poetry at a young age. My mom passed when I was 16, so I started writing to express stuff. I wasn’t really tryin’ to talk to nobody. The first rap I ever wrote, it was like a battle rap. I wasn’t dissing nobody. I was battle rapping the air, and everybody thought it was hot! So then I rapped over a beat around my sophomore year, and everyone was like, “Oh, yo! You hot.” So I’m like, alright let me try to make some songs. After that, here I am.
How did New Jersey influence the way you make music?
It influenced me to not make music not where I’m from, in a way. It inspired me, but it made me feel like there was more than just what I was around. Like I said, I was born in Camden and then I moved to Pennsauken. So all my family is right in the hood. I kind of felt like it was unfair because I go to Camden and see some of this bad stuff, but then I got to escape. At the end of the day, I would sleep in the suburbs, sorta. I felt upset about it, and it made me wanna give a new light to this area and a different perspective than what you used to.
Would you describe yourself as a guilty person?
Guilty? I do battle with guilt, whether something is my fault or not. Growing up, again I lost my mom at a young age and I lost my sister at a young age. And my sister had kids. So I felt a responsibility to my younger nephews to make an example and show that whether they’re in school or they’re working a regular job, there’s other ways than the street. So it’s more like a heavy responsibility.
How does music help you alleviate that weight?
Music is an access point for me to just release. I’ve been battling with the word "escape." I don’t really like the word "escape" too much. It feels like a word rooted in positive things, but at the crux of it, I feel like it’s a negative. I feel like escape is just temporary. Music was more of a way for me to confront myself and my feelings. One of my favorite Lauryn [Hill] quotes is: “Confrontation is the only way through hardship.” I’m paraphrasing, but that helps me confront who I am and my mistakes. Sometimes, I am the shit and I am lit and I can express that, too. Not that I’m egotistical or nothing.
How tiring was it to make such a self-effacing album?
It’s only eight songs, but this was probably the longest it ever took for me to make a body of music. 2017 and 2016 were really depressing times for me. I moved a few times, and it was… Life was happening, I had major adjustments. Money wasn’t right. Family was arguing. When I went to make USER, when me and [album producer] Kam [DeLa] started it, it was like, “Alright, I’m in a space where I’m comfortable.” Once we started making music, it was so natural and so organic, it makes you want to be organic. You’re not creating a facade.
It was tiring talking about my family getting killed throughout the album, old girlfriends coming back and finding closure, and me lying… It was a whole bunch of things I had to face. In a way, it was easier to create, but it was harder for me to be like completely, completely honest. Ultimately, I grew from the experience. Being honest is easy now. Honesty is nothing anymore.
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When did USER go from a project you wanted to make, to a project you needed to make?
Truthfully, after the first song. The first song I wrote on that was “Something I Can Use.” It’s really the crux of the album. I wrote that song at home before me and Kam even talked about making a project. I had a shell of the chorus, and the first 12 bars. When I brought him the song it was crazy. It was me, Kam, my boy Ant Clemons, a girl who’s featured a lot on this, her name’s Mel. We just had a jam session for this. I went home that night and I sat in my car and I was listening to that all night. It was so honest and it struck a chord in me. I knew I had to make a project honestly.
You have a really impassioned and punchy delivery, but you never overpower the gospel production. How did you learn to temper your emotions on a track?
I really like music. I don’t want that to be like “duh,” but I really like the music behind things. I’m always a beat-first kind of person. Music first. Trust me, I love lyrics, but melody and harmonies intrigue me more. I’m not here to compete with Kam; we’re collaborating. I’m more trying to make sure that we’re on the same page, but I want both of us to flourish. At the end of the day, I’m here for the best music we can make. Nothing else. That’s where it came from, checking my ego at the door to make the best music.
How do you go about selecting people to get on such a personal project?
Truthfully, at first, it was out of necessity. There were a few things at the time I wasn’t comfortable doing. I grew a lot through this project, trusting my voice. But it was first out of necessity. We needed people for this, and this, and this. The choosing process was just through my lifetime of making music and the people that I’ve met, and genuinely enjoying those people first and respecting their talent almost second. It’s like, if I’m gon’ work with you, I gotta respect you first. It’s about you first. If I don’t respect you, regardless of how good you are, I don’t want you near me. A lot of it was spontaneous. A few of ‘em were hand-chosen, but sometimes it was people who had an earlier session and then I came in. It was organic.
You mention the moment you “found music” and contrast it with a battle with alcohol abuse. How did music help you with your drinking?
A bunch of my family deals with alcohol abuse. I think I deal with it to a certain extent. A big theme throughout this is just challenging myself and confrontation. So it was really, let’s address it and talk about it. Let’s grow through it. Let’s not be selfish with your demons. Especially at the place where I’m at, where I can openly express myself. Let’s about things and help somebody, too. Definitely, I was helping myself, too. Even if I’m just talking to myself. Even if I’m just sitting with a candle and a glass of wine listening to the song and going over these emotions, I gotta deal with it myself.
How do people stop being selfish with their demons?
It’s tough. It can sound kind of condescending if the context isn’t right. It’s hard to deal with your demons, and I’m still overcoming things. It’s not a flip of the switch. I feel as though once you get to a point where you can address it, and you can talk about it without feeling like they’re winning, tell somebody. That’s a big thing that I want USER to represent. When I say “user,” I want people to shift their connotation of the word. With the passing of Mac [Miller] and going through stuff, I want people to look at the word “user” differently. Instead of using these things that render temporary joy and escape, let’s use friends. Let’s use love, let’s use God. Most importantly, let’s use each other. We really need each other.
Confession is also a big theme here, especially on the title track/poem “USER.” When did you become capable of being honest with yourself?
I feel like I’m only scratching the surface. I guess I got comfortable being honest once I got over myself. Once I was willing to let go and have a conversation with God just by myself. Like, “Yo, these are your truths. Wear ‘em.” Then I started bringing them to other people and realizing that everybody’s dealing with something. When you start talking about your truths, truth is almost like liquor. Once somebody takes a shot of the truth, they just start spilling their truths. Like, “Dang! You dealin’ with something too? You look so strong.” It’s so much easier being truthful. Everything is better when you’re honest.
People are never as strong as they present.
Nobody should go through this life by they self. You are not meant to be alone. You are not meant to go through things alone. We’re supposed to lean on each other. We’re supposed to use each other. That’s what the crux of all of this is. It’s like, yeah, we have demons, we have things we have to deal with, and it gotta start with us, but, lean on people! You shouldn’t be doing anything alone.
How do you continuously challenge yourself without getting discouraged?
I get discouraged! I do. I kind of embrace that discouragement. I almost crave my limits. Like, “Where are my limits? What do I have to work on?” Then I just attack. After that, it’s an attack mindset. Some of my favorite people [have] a very attack mindset: JAY-Z, Lauryn Hill, Will Smith. Once you see what you say you can’t do, let’s attack it. I still have days where I’m like, “I’m not shit. No one likes what I do.” Then I wake up on the third day like, “Let’s go. Let’s get it because you can’t be like this. This is unacceptable.” It’s a will that lives within me. I still have my days, though.
Last question, what is the most precious thing to you currently?
Wow. I would say, the most precious thing to be… My journey. This journey that I’m on, I’m mad protective of it. I’m kind of really OD about it, because throughout this, like I said, I’ve grown a lot from where I was a year ago, two years ago. I’ve grown so much and I’ve been connected with people around me, and I’ve helped my family. This journey, it’s not just me, it’s everyone that’s in my life and how we’re all moving at the same time. I’m an uncle to my friends’ kids. It’s a lot of things in my life that’s really precious to me. To sum them all up: it’s this journey I’m on. I take a lot of pride in the process.
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