In February 2016, New York’s Nyck Caution released his debut mixtape, Disguise the Limit. A series of 14 coming-of-age tales in pill-ridden Mill Basin, Brooklyn, Disguise the Limit established Nyck as an artist to watch out of the then-and-now beloved Pro Era collective. Fast forward to May 2016, and I’m standing in line at Baby’s All Right to catch Nyck Caution’s first-ever headlining show.
Nyck Caution, now 26, performed the most brooding and banging hits off Disguise the Limit for a sold-out crowd, and before the show’s end, a chunk of Pro Era took the stage to cypher as fans dispersed back to their homes. It was a headliner for the ages as the packed-in crowd watched a promising rapper bloom before our very eyes.
A year later, Nyck Caution teamed up with rapper-producer Kirk Knight for their best work to-date, Nyck @ Knight, featuring some of Nyck and Kirk’s most fearsome bars and Kirk Knight’s most dizzying and atmospheric production. Now, three years later, in 2020, Nyck is back with Open Flame, a 15-minute EP to tease what should be his debut solo album. Open Flame exudes playful confidence with honest bars peppered throughout. Whether Nyck Caution is repping New York on “Margot Robbie,” or promising us his whole self on EP intro “Demons Don’t Take Off From Work,” we’ve come a long way from the punchline-heavy energy dotting his earlier work.
With features from Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy Darko, Flipp Dinero, and Jake Luttrell, Open Flame is a decidedly New York affair. We wouldn’t expect anything less from Nyck Caution, either. I recall the viscera of Disguise the Limit’s standout, “Basin,” where Nyck pens a brutalistic ode to Mill Basin and being raised to work for his every success. Without New York, there is no Nyck Caution, and with Nyck Caution, New York’s rap scene is ever healthier.
“The main theory behind the whole shit that I came up with is to inspire the escape,” Nyck Caution said back in 2016. “The whole idea is to relate to all of these people in whatever situation they are in… And to inspire them no matter what.” With Open Flame, Nyck Caution continues his mission of inspiring the escape, of giving his fans somewhere to look and someone to look up to.
My conversation with Nyck Caution, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Let’s start with New York, which you shout out across your career and most prominently on Open Flame’s “Margot Robbie.” How did New York and Mill Basin influence this project?
Nyck Caution: I don’t know if I would say New York was the main influence [for the EP], but for the song “Margot Robbie,” it definitely was. A lot of people always ask where I [came] up with “Nyck.” It stems from New York City Kid. I never had a song saying it, so when I was writing “Margot Robbie,” I had in my mind I wanted to make something with “New York City Kid” as a chant. It became the hook of that song, and throughout the verse, I started referencing New York a couple times.
Between 2016’s Disguise the Limit to 2020’s Open Flame EP, what’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a man?
When Disguise the Limit came out, it had released right after my father passed away. He had heard the album, and I wasn’t even… I wasn’t done grieving yet. After that album came out, it was time to deal with that. In the four years [since], my music mind has changed. I wanted to make more songs where I wasn’t wasting lines. I feel like I’m getting better at expressing what I’m trying to say, and I was challenging myself with my vocal range. Towards the end of “Demons Don’t Take Off From Work,” I’m harmonizing a little bit. On “Slippin Away,” I’m singing. On “More Than I Deserve,” I’m doing different vocal stuff, also. I don’t limit myself on what I do when I hear a beat.
How has loss impacted the way you create? When you say you don’t wanna waste words, it makes me think of not wanting to waste time.
I guess I never thought of it like that, but, yeah. I don’t like to get super somber all the time; I like putting my stuff more into the music than talking, even to my family. I’ve lost important people, you know? STEEZ, my father, even when I was younger, I lost a good friend of mine. It goes hand-in-hand with my music as far as not wanting to waste lines. You don’t wanna waste time, but also… I want everything I’m doing to be [with] my best foot forward because I don’t know when this shit is gonna end.
I don’t believe in half-assing everything. I could’ve taken this EP as, “Oh, I got the album coming, let me just give a group of throwaway tracks, so it looks like I’m busy.” I worked on the EP, too! These weren’t throwaways. I don’t believe in wasting anything, even if I’m [just] featuring on a song. I’m always going with my best foot forward, no matter what.
How much of your career is for your family, chosen and biological?
It’s in my mind, and my family—chosen and blood—and Trevor, who I record with, I consider him my family. My family is in my mind, but I also know… There’s more I want to do before I can look back and [say], “I’m doing this for you.” I need to get my feet fully through the door. When I get personal on a lot of songs—not to sound selfish—but I do it for me. I do it as a form of therapy. It helps me get my words together and get them out, and when I listen back, it’s like I’m talking to myself. My family’s in my mind, but there’s a little more I need to do.
It’s good to be selfish, too. You have to be a fan of yourself.
Exactly! I consider my friends my family, and they might give me advice, and I for sure take everything people close to me say [to heart], but sometimes I have to go with my own gut. People use the word “selfish” as a bad thing, and it can be bad, but in some instances, to be the best version of yourself, you have to be selfish a little bit so you can get your shit together.
I remember seeing your first-ever headlining show at Baby’s All Right in 2016. What do you remember from that night?
I remember the whole day, bro! We had the basketball game down the block, free for anyone to come. We had a tournament; we were giving away shirts. We walked over to Baby’s. I remember there [were] openers they wanted me to put on the show, and instead, I put two artists I knew locally on the list. Everyone I knew was there. It was the most love I’d ever gotten up to that point for anything music-related. It was something fully attached to me. This was my shit. Being able to do a free basketball game when everyone can be together, these are the things I’ve always wanted to do and what I push for. After the show, I was outside. I was hanging out with everybody.
I always think of your earlier message of “Inspire the Escape.” How does Open Flame inspire the escape?
Open Flame… This is the most I’m inspiring the escape. If you go back to the early Pro Era days, for a while, no one wanted to hear anything from us that wasn’t boom bap or what our first project was when we were 17, 18 years old. I’m 26 now. I’m a totally different person. I can’t make the same music. I’m rapping about different shit. I’m challenged every time I’m in the studio to elevate where I’m at. For this project, every song is a little different. I’m not gonna be locked into one type of sound. I’m gonna keep trying.
What can you tell me about the forthcoming album?
The album is my life after I lost my father. Some of the songs speak on that, and I think it’s gonna be a good album for people who are dealing with loss, who are trying to get over it. I’m vulnerable on a bunch of songs. And there’s some hard songs on there, too. My dad was a big supporter of my music. I was grieving on the album, and I got to a point where it’s like, if he were still around, he would’ve told me, “Enough grieving, you gotta get back to work now.” That’s what the whole album encapsulates.