When I call the New York rapper Medhane to discuss his latest project, Own Pace, he answers in a stern voice. “Who’s this?” he asks defensively. After introducing myself and reminding him of our scheduled interview, Medhane guard drops almost immediately. “My bad, man,” he says with a chuckle. “I thought you was a bill collector.”
For the past three years, directness has defined the 22-year-old, born Medhane-Alam Olushola. Medhane’s first two EPs—2017’s DO FOR SELF and 2018’s Ba Suba, Ak Jamm—are the brief yet potent attempts of a young man trying to untangle mental cobwebs. They’re glances into the pangs of young adulthood, delivered in the plainest prose possible. “I’m not on some super-duper lyrical miracle type shit,” Med explains. “I keep it smooth, but I try to say things that are hard.”
Medhane’s process bleeds into Own Pace—his full-length debut released November 12, 2019—and with a more profound sense of urgency. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this past May, he realized that loneliness was exacerbating his stresses. “I’m coming out of some serious mental health problems I was having toward the end of the summer,” Med says. “I’m just getting back up to my speed.”
Medhane uses familial energy to powers through Own Pace. There’s more talk of climbing out of pits (“Small Steps”) and a newfound sense of confidence not heard on his earlier work. “In the face of trouble, I be laughing,” he boasts on “Bloody Knuckles.” Medhane frames his troubles in the past tense.
The production on Own Pace gleams with cracks of sunlight, which complement its forward movement. This approach is most apparent on the album’s two “Affirmation” tracks. These are moments of explicit positivity placed to bolster the mood of the record. Produced by IAmNobodi and ANiMOSS, respectively, each track is a reminder of silver linings. “Sometimes, it’ll be a sunny day, and you’ll go outside and be like ‘Fuck this shit’ because it’s getting in your eyes,” Medhane remarks. “But sometimes, you gotta embrace that shit.”
There’s no better time than the present for Medhane to step into his blessings. The struggles documented on Own Pace are a crucible that has yielded what the rapper calls “a full thirty-minute thought.” He’s back home in New York, recharging with friends while plotting out his next moves. Every day is a small step toward something greater, and Medhane’s shoes are muddy with anticipation.
Our full conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You move through your experiences at varying paces across the album. What speed are you moving at in life right now?
Medhane: I’m moving at a steady pace. I’m coming out of some serious mental health problems I was having toward the end of the summer. I started coming out of that by tapping in with my friends more. I’m just getting back up to my speed and [productivity] with the music and [putting] in that work to be the best.
I graduated from college in May. Since then, I’ve been trying to put all my work into music. Steady, not too fast, not too slow. Like jogging type shit.
Own Pace is very insular, so adding two affirmation tracks adds some breathing room. How important is it to keep that balance in check?
It’s mad important, though, I don’t even be saying affirmations like that. I grew up with that shit, but I don’t even be runnin’ it like that. When I did that song, I was thinking about the titles, and those two songs [“Affirmation 1” and “Affirmation 2”] have the two longest verses on the entire project.
On “Affirmation 1,” I say, “I’m a diamond / I’m a king, I’m everything I need / Hold the keys, need the cream.” Then on the ANiMOSS track, “Sittin in the sun [inaudible] / we was in the mud, we ain’t never run,” that’s just facts. Just reflecting and finding positivity in the shit niggas go through. Sometimes, it’ll be a sunny day, and you’ll go outside and be like “Fuck this shit” because it’s getting in your eyes. But sometimes, you gotta embrace that shit.
The first two bars on the album are “In between tomorrow and today / sunshine and I’m in the shade.” You’re speaking truth to power.
Much of Own Pace is about confiding in your crew as much as yourself (“Smallsteps,” “Bloody Knuckles”). How do you build up trust?
When I got back from college, I didn’t talk to anybody for a month. I wasn’t talking to anyone for months on end at school and shit because niggas were in the pit on some reclusive type shit. I was in my room by myself, numbing myself to the stuff I was feeling with Netflix all day. So when I came back, I was apprehensive about hitting niggas up. When I finally did, MIKE and Caleb [Giles] were the first people that I chilled with when I got back. Chilling with them and having them say, “Yo, it’s love. We haven’t seen you in mad long,” helped me get back into music. I was sleeping on myself and tapping in with my friends gave me the extra push to do shit.
Own Pace went through so many drafts. I got a whole other tape I recorded and finished around the time I finished Own Pace that I just never put out because I wasn’t fucking with [the material]. I’ve made 50 songs or so, and in the last couple of months, things started to come together. Most of the songs were made on beats I produced.
What’s the main difference between producing for yourself versus producing for other artists?
When you produce your own shit, like making the beat and writing to it, it makes for a fuller thought. The texture and the shit you say comes out different. Working with a producer, this is what they do. They might know some other shit you don’t know that will help them make a hotter beat. I have this one song called “In The Wing” that I produced myself that felt like it was complete on my terms.
What do you find grounding about New York City?
I grew up here. I’ve been here my whole life. Everything is just here. Shit isn’t that close, but it’s close. You can take the train places, so everything’s connected in a cool way. People are fly in New York, mad art to pass by. It all influences you, especially compared to a place like Pittsburgh, which was all middle America and white people. There’s also mad artists who live in proximity to each other. MIKE and I lived ten minutes away from each other for a bit, so that helped with a lot.
You begin “Grapefruit” by talking about “feelings that I can’t shake” and comparing them to the bitterness of a grapefruit. Would you categorize the creation of Own Pace as bittersweet?
Maybe not bittersweet, but it was cathartic. I went through a lot of drafts getting this done. When I finished it, I was so hype.