“I don’t fit in with no genre it’s true,” raps Vancouver’s SonReal on “Soho,” the final track from his latest EP, The Name.
It’s the third release in as many years from the Juno-nominated rapper, who’s steadily seen his star rise in direct relation to his increasing embracement of a sound that straddles the line where pop meets rap.
“I have one song on every one of my albums that never really gets heard, I never shoot a video for it, but it's all singing,” he says during a sitdown interview in Toronto of his reluctant embrace of singing more. On The Name, a five-song EP, SonReal dives right in on what is, by far, his most pop-focused effort yet. Although it shouldn't come as a surprise to fans who have seen him grow from backpack rapper to pop crooner.
“I was always kind of scared to sing while I was not afraid to rap, you know what I mean? I’ve always rapped a little bit more because of that, but on the new album I’m singing all over the place.”
What finally helped SonReal get over his fear of singing was, of all things, a session with Rahki, one of the in-house producers for Top Dawg Entertainment who worked on Kendrick’s Lamar’s last two albums, including the songs “i” and “Institutionalized” from the universally acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly.
“When we first started hanging out, on every single song he would produce, I would try to rap so hard 'cause it's like yo, this guy works with Kendrick all the time, I want to be respected for my raps,” says SonReal. “I remember one time I started singing, and he's like, 'Yo dude, you have a dope voice, you should just sing on a song.'”
Rahki ended up producing two of the most pop songs on the EP, “Hot Air Balloon,” an upbeat, piano-driven song that woudln’t sound out of place on a Cee Lo Green album, and “All I Got,” a touching acoustic guitar ballad that features no rapping at all.
“He told me to express myself however I wanted and was like, 'I never seen anybody like you, I wanna make sounds that look like you and describe you and your personality and the conversation we have in the studio,' and that's when I really opened up to just singing and being myself,” he says.
While working with Rahki gave SonReal an insight into the current West Coast rap scene via the producer’s stories of influential artists in his circle such as Kendrick, Schoolboy Q and YG, he's also open to working with more straightforward pop producers.
“I work with people like him, and then I'll work with RedOne, who did all of Lady Gaga's stuff and Nicki Minaj's ‘Starships,’ like super pop stuff,” he says. “But again, he looks at me and says, 'What can I do for this guy, how can I make it go into his world?' It's cool working with people who really care about me and my music and where I can go with it.”
A big part of that plan – to see how far he can go with music – is dependent on music videos.
“I think videos are everything,” he says. “We live in a time right now where everything is so fast, people are putting out music so fast, taking it in so fast. People listen with their eyes now, so when I do a video, they wanna feel it, they wanna see it, they wanna understand it in that type of way, so we try to do something original with our videos and go outside the box.”
It’s a strategy he has always employed, but it wasn’t until the viral breakthrough of his 2013 video for “Everywhere We Go,” which featured SonReal as a Napoleon Dynamite-type character and, to date, has amassed more than three million views on YouTube – far and away his most popular video – that it truly started to take off. That video was followed by “Preach,” another viral success which is singular in its commitment to shooting the rapper in as many locations across North America as possible – from Walter’s house in Breaking Bad to Jay Z’s stomping grounds in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.
On The Name, it’s the courtroom drama-themed video for “Can I Get a Witness” that is getting the most views, a song that deals directly with some reactions to his evolving styles.
“Man, you don' changed up on me, you changed your flow/Now I been hating on you everywhere I go,” he raps in the verse before planting his humble but direct response in the chorus: “No, I ain't too flawless and no, I ain't the best/And no, I don't say sorry and no, I ain't perfect/But I am the man.”
“I was so afraid to do pop music because I come from rap music,” he says matter of factly. “I just didn’t really ever know how much I loved pop."
SonReal has several tour dates in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario this September. For more info and to purchase The Name EP, go to iamsonreal.com.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG