Brooklyn drill music, like all drill music, is supposed to be played outside. It features breakneck beats meant for blasting from corners, from out of car speakers, and in densely packed clubs. The COVID-19 outbreak has put “outside” as we knew it on hold indefinitely, but that hasn’t stopped Sheff G from dropping music for fans hungry for an escape.
“[The music is] for everybody to just do something and tune in and keep your mind running,” Sheff tells me over the phone. “It helps you think about what you’re gonna do when everything [comes] back.”
Before COVID, the 21-year-old rapper born Michael Williams was on the cusp of drill stardom. He grew up in a Caribbean household surrounded by soca and gravitated toward rap. Sheff was a fan of Chicago drill artists like Chief Keef, G Herbo (then known as Lil Herb), and Lil Bibby, finding solace in their stories from across the country.
“There was certain music they was making that was about our life, so it hit different,” he explains. “A nigga all the way over there was talking about the same shit that’s going on over here and making it.”
Sheff’s growing love for drill dovetailed with his gang activity as a teenager. In 2017, he recorded and dropped his breakout single, “No Suburban,” which quickly went viral. His deep voice and penchant for patois and piano-laden beats drew comparisons to UK drill artists and made him a local celebrity overnight.
Sheff G channeled this charisma into a bevy of singles over the next two years, during which time he refined his sound and laid the groundwork for Brooklyn drill. In 2019, he released his debut project, The Unluccy Luccy Kid, a collection of breathless songs grappling with newfound fame. Sheff had made it past the bullets and the police against all the odds and was ready to celebrate.
The Unluccy Luccy Kid, while electric, is indicative of Sheff’s newness to the world of professional recording.
“When I was making The Unluccy Luccy Kid, working with a producer was new to me,” he says. “When I first started, I was only picking beats off of YouTube.”
While recording his follow-up project, One and Only—released last month via his Winners Circle Entertainment label and EMPIRE—Sheff abandoned this impersonal approach.
“When I was making One and Only, I was sitting there with [producer] Great John and [I] co-produced the tracks,” he continues. “I chose the melodies and beats that fit me; you feel me? We created everything together. I had more control with this one.”
Sheff’s newfound control manifests itself across One and Only. At 12 songs and only 25 minutes, One and Only runs considerably shorter than its predecessor. Sheff’s thoughts are concise, and the beats, produced entirely by Great John, run darker and more diverse.
Songs like “No Suburban, Pt. 2” and “Lil Big Bro Shit” move with the swiftness most expect from drill, while “Fear Over Love” and “Weight On Me” simmer and pop at a slower pace.
During our conversation, I note how a third of the tracks on One and Only clock in under two minutes, and none are longer than three minutes.
“Music back in the days used to be like three to four minutes, right?” Sheff notes, “[but] nowadays, the [attention] span is so short, and people bump music back-to-back. You gotta leave somebody some catchy, short shit so they’ll wanna run it back. Kids and people around my age group aren’t gonna listen to a song for no three to four minutes. It’s not gonna feel the same, especially when you put it out as a body of work.”
In cutting down on the fat, Sheff G unearths some of his punchiest writing yet on One and Only. “2012, name been ringing like bells / ’90s baby, I was probably like 12, look / Do a hit by myself / Ain’t no college, I read books in the cell,” he says on “Moody,” condensing years into just four bars.
Meanwhile, with “Weight On Me,” Sheff and fellow drill rapper and close friend Sleepy Hollow trade bars about paying back their mothers for the worry they caused while running the streets: “Get my mother rich, seen the chance and I took it / Sky was all black, never wished on a star, huh / Family proud of me now / Boy, you so dark, how you shine like a star?”
“When we in the studio and we workin’, it be on some friendly competitive shit because we know we gotta keep each other on go time,” Sheff says of his relationship with Sleepy. “When we both on the same track, it’s like one-two.”
Sleepy has two features on One and Only—down from his seven features on The Unluccy Luccy Kid—but he remains a fiery presence bringing the best out of his brother-in-arms.
This diversity of subject matter across One and Only speaks to Sheff’s continued growth and expansion of his sound.
“Think about it,” Sheff begins, “You don’t feel the same every day when you wake up. Sometimes, you wake up and you mad. Sometimes, you wake up money-hungry. Sometimes, you wake up sad. Those are the songs you go to. You can hop in the car and play you some soulful shit or some drill shit. I’m not tryna do a tape of just one sound. That don’t make no sense. I want to make a sound that lasts forever, not just one measure of time.”
At a time when a pandemic and protests have an entire nation on edge, Sheff G’s unfettered confidence—the trademark of a Brooklyn rapper—anoints him as a torchbearer, for both his genre and his city. “I be dropping songs and shit and paying attention to what my fans say,” he says. “That’s who I’m doing it for, so I’m making sure they’re having a good time.”