The phoenix rises from an environment where that rise seems impossible. The phoenix is able to turn death into life, to immerse itself in pain so fully that energy becomes joy, life. The phoenix doesn't just willingly destroy itself to evolve, it has to destroy itself to evolve. Oh, and the phoenix is hot as fuck. That too.
Our new Top Prospects selection Sincerely Collins is attempting to become the first hip-hop artist from Arizona to truly make an impact on the national music scene. Sincerely Collins has already lived through a life's worth of tragedy, losing his mother at a very young age and pushing through a car crash with his first band, Weird is the New Cool, that killed his friend and seriously injured his bandmate. The music Sincerely Collins has already made is no real indication of the music Sincerely Collins will make. He remains commited to creative evolution, even if that means setting his previous sound ablaze and building something completely new.
Oh, and Collins is from Phoenix, Arizona. That too. In fact, he's so Phoenix that our interview gets delayed due to a flash flood, which is the AZ version of heavy traffic on the 405 for Angelenos and blizzards for Chicagoans. Even for a music that is thoroughly obsessed with geography, where even a few city block difference can completely redefine how an artist is seen, Collins is Phoenix to the core.
What it means to be from Arizona though is far hazier. Ever since he was young Collins was obsessed with New York City, and in many ways still is. "Growing up, even being a shorty watching Ninja Turtles, I always wanted to live in that city," he said during our interview. "My favorite show is Seinfeld, I watch it religiously. It's just what I've always wanted to be surrounded by. I have a song where I say, 'Manhattan the mission once the world catch my rhyme spell. Skyscraper, 12th floor, next to Seinfeld.'"
That love for the Big Apple lead to a year long trip crashing at a friend's place in Bed-Stuy and travelling through the DMV. East coast vibes were appropriately soaked in, songs like "Brooklyn Basement" were written, but ultimately he had to return to the only home he'd ever known. It may seem counter-intuitive to leave one of the world's entertainment epicenters to go back to a state that has yet to ever see an elite rapper emerge from its borders, and in many ways it is.
"The problem with artists out of Arizona is that you can pinpoint their influences, what they're trying to do," Collins explained. "So it's like a non-authentic version of what the industry already has. The rest of the world doesn't want to hear that from Arizona."
But where some might see a drought, Collins sees an opportunity to grow something organic from the desert soil, something strong enough to unite local artists instead of having them fight over the scraps the industry feeds them. And really, the fact that Phoenix has no strictly established scene, no trademark sound they have to conform to, makes it a place where that change can truly be possible.
"There really isn't a [Phoenix] sound," he said. "That's the beauty of it. We're kind of a melting pot. Everyone's from other places, what do all those influences combine to make? I'm like...if Mos Def and Kanye had a baby, and Andre 3K came through and raised it. Everyone out here has multiple influences. It's always been a go-with-what's-popular city, but now we're determining what's hot. Phoenix has something to attach themselves to."
Coming from that gumbo of influences then, it makes sense why Collins can be so hard to pin down into one particular sound or label. The former rock band lead singer grew up influenced by the same radio rap as most of America, at a time when the Ying Yang Twinz driven sound of Atlanta was everywhere, but a trip to the studio with an older cousin changed everything. "He was a KRS and Rakim type cat, he was the one who taught me it's dope to be smart," Collins recounted. "So from then on out, it's like, that's who should I be listening to. That was the stuff that hit my heart. I can give people this feeling? That's where my writing really took off."
But if you think you can take those early moments of inspiration from the likes of Rakim, Mos Def and Common, listen to his recently released Sincerely, The Mixtape and get a grasp on what kind of artist Collins is, you'd just be grasping at sonic sand. He promises that his next project, Destroyer, will be the music version of Sin City, a dark, gritty album in stark contrast to the often more uplifting Sincerely, The Mixtape.
"Coming off something safe like Sincerely, The Mixtape, I wanted to do something risky," he said. "On Sincerely, I stuck to my roots, I stayed in my comfort zone in terms of subjects. Destroyer is more like 'Give Me Love', that's more what you can expect. Let me give them pure rawness, not put the sprinkles on it. Let them know it's not all good."
And no sooner did I start to get a grasp on Destroyer than Collins was mentioning yet another upcoming album, Manhattan Project, that he promises is going to be completely different yet again. Crucially though, all these moves aren't the whims of an artist with his head in the clouds. Collins also has his feet firmly planted in the economic realities of the music industry. He's been selling his music since the high school mixtape days, an entrepreneurial spirit that lead him to found his own company, Better Different Music Group, and link up with Bootleg Kev, whose voice can be heard all over Sincerely, The Mixtape, to form their joint venture, Ready Set The Label.
That calculated hustle has lead to meetings with the likes of hip-hop heavyweights ranging from Lyor Cohen to G.O.O.D. Music, but Collins remains committed to building his own foundation. "Right now we're at the point where we want to create a demand so big that we either have the type of deal that we can't refuse, or we don't need a deal at all," he said. "We're not in a rush to sign, we're not looking for a label deal. But we know we're on their radar. This is the real deal now. This is inevitable now, in my head."
Only time will tell if Collins will truly be able to reach the heights he envisions, and put Phoenix on the map in the process, but all the pieces are lined up for his ascension. Who knows, maybe "Top Prospects" will be one more rung in the ladder he's climbing. And if something doesn't work, I've got a feeling Collins won't hesitate to burn it all to the ground and rise again.
"I just love to be able to create these sonic paintings. I feel really fortunate to have something like this to do, it wakes me up in the morning."
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]