This story appears in HYPE magazine #37, available here.
The big-hearted bad guy
Words: Lesiba Mankga
Images: Black Milk Studios & Mishaal Gangaram
How does one begin an introduction to arguably one of the best rappers of our current generation? What would be a fitting introduction to an album that transcends music and exists in the plains of a movie score for the biopic that is A-Reece’s life? The answer is that there isn’t one best way to do it. So, I will simply say this: enjoy the cinematic experience that is the story of the big-hearted bad guy – a sonic biopic directed and curated by A-Reece.
Coming from the hood is somewhat of a double-edged sword, but such is the nature of life, and you have to take the good with the bad and the yin with the yang. I say this because, despite the negative socio-economic connotations that come with life in the townships, there are positive aspects that come with growing up in such an environment. Taken from the saying “We making it out the hood”, there is a sense of brotherhood that comes with being from a place with fewer opportunities. Although this might be in stark contrast to the crab-theory narrative that has been pushed among township communities, the division in townships across the country leads to groups or cliques forming. A-Reece was part of one such crew known as The Wrecking Crew, abbreviated as TWC. “I am just naturally a nice guy, and I wanted to bring everyone with me and give them the opportunity to become as successful as I wanted to be, but along the road, things change and real n*ggas end up alone,” says A-Reece.
The crew formed when A-Reece left his label at the time, Ambitiouz Entertainment, to pursue a career as an independent artist. Although one might think that A-Reece’s career was always set in stone, as destiny would have it, that wasn’t the case at that juncture of his career. Naturally, independence is no easy feat, and it came with its own fair share of trouble; however, that is where the magic existed, and A-Reece created one of the most pivotal projects of his career under those circumstances. With all eyes on him, he released From Me To You & Only You and that album marked the beginning of his reign. “I credit my independent success to me leaving the label as early as I did. If you look at the music I was making before I left the label… I was basically doing everything. They had me rapping in Zulu, they had me doing club records, they had me doing singing records, but looking back at it now, I’m grateful for those moments because they stretched my palette.”
At this time, he was still the big-hearted guy, and that aspect could be felt in his beat selection and lyrical context. The album is filled to the brim with beautiful melodies and singalong tracks, with each track having the potential to be a lead single. On the intro song of the album, ‘The Promise Land’, a much younger and more jovial A-Reece can be heard on the chorus singing, “Okay, now we made it! Roll one with my n*ggas, and I scream out loud, we made it!”
As great as his ascension was, the journey to who A-Reece is today wasn’t a straightforward dash to the end destination. Of all of A-Reece’s albums, none received more criticism than the follow-up to his debut album, Reece Effect. The public lambasted him for his seeming reluctance to collaborate with artists outside of his inner circle. This was a pivotal moment for A-Reece because his big heart may have gotten the best of him.
What makes a villain? What motivates them to behave in a villainous manner? Some of the best villains in films have all had valid reasons for their outlooks on life. The Joker became an erratic figure due to how he was treated in his earlier life, and a similar comparison can be found with A-Reece. He only became a villain as a result of being betrayed by those he trusted dearly. Following the unfortunate split of TWC, A-Reece felt as though he was made out to be a villain by those closest to him. While others were speaking on public platforms about the split of the crew, A-Reece remained silent, and his silence was viewed as an admission of guilt by the public at large. “I realised that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation. I don’t need to confront everyone about what is going on. Sometimes it’s just better to leave things the way they are and let those people expose themselves from a distance,” says A-Reece.
Seemingly tired of all of the controversy and narratives that were imposed on him, A-Reece’s silence grew into contempt and resulted in him embracing his new role as a villain. It is important to note that A-Reece’s transition to the “bad guy” was not immediate. We started to see glimpses of it in his sonic exploration of Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory, commonly referred to as TTTM. “I feel like I am the big-hearted bad guy in real life. Having been part of this industry for the past six or seven years, that’s what I have been turned into (a bad guy), whether it was voluntarily or involuntarily,” says A-Reece.
Let me paint you a picture of A-Reece’s position at the time. Having remained silent throughout the noise that was being made about him, yet again, all eyes were on him as the game was eagerly awaiting his upcoming mixtape. The release of his mixtape caused shock waves throughout the game. No one anticipated A-Reece to come out with an unapologetically rap tape. “I earned my stripes. I went through all of the hurdles and difficulties, and that’s why I can talk my sh*t.”
This was no longer the same A-Reece who was naive to the sinister intentions of people in the City of Gold, that is “Gollywood”. The album saw a more mature A-Reece in contrast to the Reece that we heard on From Me To You & Only You. The production and lyrical subject matter carry more of a brooding nature in comparison to his previous records. Whereas those he formerly associated with went on press runs, A-Reece responded the only way he knew how – through music. TTTM was adored by fans and critics alike, further cementing his place in the figurative rap hall of fame, but paradise wouldn’t last for long…
“When I was a big-hearted guy, I always felt like it was my responsibility to confront the issue or confront whoever the person is that I might have a problem with or the person who has a problem with me,” says A-Reece about being considered a bad guy. Much like the majority of his career, fans were eager to see how A-Reece would follow up his last project, in this case, TTTM. The only thing more difficult than releasing a sophomore album is releasing a sequel to an already perfect product. That is the mountain of a task A-Reece was taking on when he announced that he would be releasing a P2: THE BIG HEARTED BAD GUY. As much as fans were excited by the idea of a sequel, they weren’t sure which A-Reece they would receive on the album and how it would stack up against his debut offering, Paradise.
At the listening session for P2: THE BIG HEARTED BAD GUY, we were all mesmerised by the menacing keys on the intro song. The eerie keys filled the room, and from that moment on, we all knew that we were going to receive an A-Reece that we hadn’t seen before. The skit at the beginning of the intro accurately describes A-Reece’s state of mind when the voice-over artist says, “Do you understand what comes with being who I am? My heart wouldn’t fit in that chest of you.” With the meaning that had anyone been in the same shoes or faced the same circumstances that A-Reece has faced, they would have done no better… or even worse, for that matter. “I wanted the album to have a gangster-esque aesthetic. I wanted the imagery to support the sound of the album,” says A-Reece about the cover art and overall sound of the album.
‘THE RUN’ is the second song on the album, and it continues where the intro left off with menacing keys and horns as A-Reece raps, “Stuck to the plan and I kept this sh*t in motion. Self-preservation over self-promotion.” These opening lines are in stark contrast to the A-Reece we saw on Paradise, the debut album. He carries a level of understated braggadocio that can only be expressed once one is settled in their career and in their stylistic approach as an artist. There is a sense of freedom that comes with embracing who you truly are. That certainty of who he is is the golden thread throughout the album and his braggadocio comes off as more confidence than arrogance.
In 2016, A-Reece was a bubbling artist who had a lot to prove in the broader South African landscape. His debut album, titled Paradise, consisted of a number of hit singles like ‘Kena’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Zimbali’. They were all well received, catapulting A-Reece into the minds of South African hip-hop listeners and making him a household name. Despite having disdain for the type of sound he was producing at that point in his career, it gave him commercial viability. His label at the time, Ambitiouz Entertainment, was the creative director of his art and taught him how to deliver a product that would appease the general populace and hip-hop heads alike. With that being said, Paradise was neither the sound nor the image that A-Reece wanted to develop into for the foreseeable future of his career, with a song like ‘Make Up Your Mind’ being the epitome of everything he didn’t want to be.
Widely regarded as some of his finest work, From Me To You & Only You is A-Reece’s first solo endeavour following his leaving the label Ambitiouz Entertainment, and an overbearing pressure was placed firmly on A-Reece’s shoulders. Needless to say, he delivered when it counted most by crafting a beautifully melodic offering filled with enchanting instrumentals and raps to match. From a writing point of view, the album saw A-Reece mature his pen in comparison to that of Paradise, covering a new spectrum of subject matters, such as his ambition to achieve greater feats in his life. One could feel the fire in him to establish himself as one of the select few artists who could be considered the best outside of Cassper Nyovest and AKA. One can point to a number of songs on the album that display both his lyrical prowess alongside his ear for melodies, but I will point you to the song ‘Pride’, featuring Rowlene. This is where he touches on how having too much pride could lead to one missing out on the wonders of life.
Reece Effect was the album in which we started seeing hints of the current-day A-Reece. Firmly established in his career, the album was somewhat of a victory lap, producing something that isn’t necessarily radio friendly and carried an overall moody hue, which is in stark contrast to the melodic version of A-Reece we received on From Me To You & Only You. It also came with a new air of confidence, delivering understated tones and raps that see him talk about wealth and women in a way we had never seen before. Solidified in his career and at the peak of his powers, and with a fan base to match, A-Reece seemed untouchable at what we thought was the pinnacle of his career.
Following Reece effect, A-Reece took a brief hiatus from music before he went on to release his critically acclaimed mixtape, Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory. The album opens with the song ‘MARK 15:35’, which sees A-Reece evolve yet again. This time into his final form. The song sees Reece exit his own universe and see life from a broader perspective. No longer does he view futile rap beefs as “problems”. This viewpoint came as a result of talking to people around him about deeply personal issues. Nowhere else is this more prevalent than on the song ‘No Man’s Land’, where we see A-Reece detail the struggles of a person stuck in a loveless marriage and a job with no future prospects. No longer do we hear a rapper in love with the superficial aspects of life, nor do we hear the same kid who was once concerned with the vanity of money and women. That leaves us at the end point of his catalogue: P2, the sonic biopic.
P2: THE BIG HEARTED BAD GUY is more than just an album. It is a sonic experience that sees A-Reece direct and feature in his own biopic in the form of a sonic expression. Instead of experiencing it as a film, it reverberates in the ear of the listener. Each song in isolation may seem disjointed, but as a body of work, the album is clear in its escapade. A-Reece strikes a jaded and aloof figure in the game, and he vividly details why and how that perspective came to be. Drawing inspiration from classic gangster movies like The Godfather, A-Reece moulds the thematic golden thread throughout the album. The gangster movie influence can be felt in the dense production, almost as if the album is meant to be consumed in a cigar lounge.
The gangster movie reference goes beyond just a thematic reference point. It goes as far as how A-Reece mentally approaches life. Rather than reluctantly accepting the role of the villain, he fully embraces it in the same way The Godfather knows he plays the role of a villain to some and the role of a hero to those close to him. This code of honour that A-Reece lives by can be felt particularly on the song ‘BETTER NOW’ where he speaks on how an individual betrayed his trust and the sanctity of their friendship, rapping, “Calling it a friendship when you treated it like business. Stop acting like it’s all love when you know it isn’t.”
This story appears in HYPE magazine #38, available here.