Nick Grant talks trendy rap, the need for prayer, and being the best lyricist
The ‘Return of the Cool’ rapper is bettering himself without compromise.
For a new artist to release a debut LP titled Return of the Cool, there’s a certain level of fearlessness involved. Nick Grant has that aura, unshakable confidence.
The South Carolina-born rapper had moved around the open mic circuit in Atlanta for years before he signed into one seemingly promising situation a while back, and then managed to get out of it unscathed—for the most part.
Jason Geter, head of Culture Republic, then stepped in and Grant has been seeing the fruition of things previously promised ever since. Some say that it’s the lineage of his team that has earned the Epic signee certain opportunities. Geter, being the co-founder of Grand Hustle, oversaw the careers of everyone from T.I. to Travis Scott. Chaka Zulu is the co-founder of Disturbing the Peace, the place where 2 Chainz got his start. Then there are industry mainstays such as Amir Boyd and Tamiko Hope in the mix, as well. Grant says that it’s about having faith and “keeping God first.” Oh, and the fact that he proclaims (and works) to be doper than a substantial number of his fellow rappers, that also helps.
There is indeed a difference between arrogance and sheer tenacity, but Hope confirms, “None of us have really worked with any shitty artists. We all have a certain pedigree to our name. Why would we be wasting time with an artist that would rate themselves as below average or average?”
Less than 18 months ago, Grant dropped his first heady freestyle on Sway in the Morning, showcasing the type of lyrics that made Jeezy, standing directly behind him, literally throw his hands up in disbelief. Six months later, he signed to Epic. And after the release of his ‘88 mixtape and the A Seat At the Table (Plus One) project, Grant took major advantage of the momentum and released ROTC earlier this month. The progress appears effortless from the outside; Grant just won’t stop moving.
“I’m in it to change lives, uplift my people, inspire people,” Grant insists. “I’m just in it to do different things, my path is different. My path is real, honest and it’s about making good music that people will be playing 20, 30 years from now.”
From nationwide silent listening parties and Apple Store appearances to his MLK Day performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, can anyone truly deny that, quietly, the cool has returned?
What has been the reception of Return of the Cool so far?
People are loving it and I’m glad to be in a place where my voice is appreciated. They love the body of work and they feel like it’s a natural progression from my initial project ‘88, so I think that’s dope. We gotta spread the word a little more but everything’s been going pretty well.
You were trending that day of release, too.
Absolutely. And I don’t take it for granted [that we trended], I think it’s just different from the times. Needle in the haystack music, I look at it like that. You got all these trendy rappers that you can’t really tell the difference between and that’s no shot at anybody but if you do something that stands out, you gon’ trend.
In October 2015, you told me that you’d love to go head-to-head with Kendrick Lamar or J Cole. Have you met anyone since then that you’d want to work with?
I ran into Kendrick in New York and he told me that he likes what I’m doing and he’s listening. Ran into Andre 3000 who was, like, the first person to embrace me. ScHoolboy Q, I ran into him in Atlanta. I feel like certain people are like, ‘You know these people? Why don’t you take pictures and post ‘em? You know that would help…’ I’m like, ‘I’m not in it for that, man.’ I appreciate the love and support but when it’s right, it’ll happen. If they wanna be seen supporting me and loving the music, it’ll happen; they’ll come to the forefront. But, for now, I’m not gonna promote that. I don’t even know that they wanna be posted like that. I’ll let them do it.
I did Stephen Colbert and had a conversation with him; that’s a big moment for me because I used to write rhymes nobody would hear. So you get there and see all those lights and it’s Martin Luther King Day, that’s a special moment. Just felt normal, but it was surreal in a way. It was the most eerie feeling. You train to get on those platforms and you can’t pay to get on those platforms so to do that is, like, crazy.
You looked comfortable in front of all those cameras, though.
Man, I was so nervous. I was so nervous. You can’t even imagine. I feel like that’s a good thing though. Like, if you don’t get butterflies, this ain’t for you. You care so much that you don’t wanna mess up. But if it’s just like, ‘Whatever, I don’t care what happens,’ It ain’t for you.’ It was a lot of fun.
Everything seems to be happening for you without you having to compromise.
Oh, absolutely. Not at all. But more than what I imagined. I’m doing things that people that are trained to do music will probably ever see. That’s a blessing.
It’s interesting that it was one of your high school teachers that pushed you to focus on rap over school. What do you think was the biggest lesson you’ve learned since that conversation?
To pray. Because it’s not gon’ happen for you if you don’t pray and keep God first. I used to write rhymes… You know what’s dope? I wasn’t always the dopest, but I felt like I had to write and practice makes perfect. Being repetitive with the craft is what made me doper. Earlier [in my career], I wasn’t praying the way I should’ve been praying and when I was consistent with praying, things opened up and started to change. I feel like I’m surprised by a lot of this stuff but, at the same time, I know where it’s coming from.
You’re really positive-minded in a tough industry, especially as much as you move around. How are you keeping your composure?
I’ve seen it a few times–feeling somebody’s energy when you shake hands and they might be the most kind person to you, but behind your back it’s something different. I don’t even try to focus on that. For me, it’s just about being who I am. Keeping the same relationships and the same positive attitude when I’m around the people I’m with from day to day. I might see somebody that I’ll never see again, but still be positive to ‘em; but they can’t affect me if I don’t see them all the time. And if there’s anyone on my team acting funny, well then, they gotta go too. But we’re all about positive energy, that’s how we stay above it.
One of the standout characteristics of Return of the Cool is that none of the songs sound alike. Was that deliberate?
Yeah, absolutely. Because people were saying: ‘Okay, yeah, he can rap. But can he make records?’ And for lyricists, or someone who people really think can rap, that can be a little difficult. So I wanted to make something different for everybody. I can appeal to everybody, I ain’t limited to just verses. I ain’t just the guy that goes on radio shows and rap, drop punchlines. I can make “Change the World” too, so that was my mindset. Also, pulling from people that I was inspired by early on: Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Isaac Hayes (who we referenced on the “Sometimes” record), I wanted that feel. “Gotta Be More,” J Dilla-sounding production. Something current, but to make something for the club–not that that was my intention to make radio records–but I just wanted to make something that was real and sounded like me.
Being signed to Epic, home to radio darlings like Future and 21 Savage, do you feel pressured to make that “smash record”?
I feel like, for me, my route is different. If you look at all the great MCs, they were doing what they were doing. They had careers that would just coast. They made what they felt until everybody accepted who they were and started to listen. It’s definitely a longer road and just because I have a bigger backing doesn’t mean I have to make these records. The way I look at it is, they came to get me for what they came to get me for, so let me continue to do that and better myself within that. I can step out and do other records too, but don’t tell me what I need to do because then I’m compromising myself and my art. And once you do that, we’ll probably never hear from you again.
Speak on A Seat At the Table (Plus One) and why it was important for you to drop that between full projects.
I felt like it was a long time since I had put out music and me, personally, I would put out music everyday. I just wanted to put something out that people could digest. Nothing too long. Just enough for people to be able to understand it. I was inspired by [Solange’s album] so I just wanted to go in and write, work, and create but tell everything from a man’s point of view. It was fun. We did it in like two days. I got like a room full of raps. That’s the hardest part for me is figuring out what I want to say and chopping down rhymes. It’s never a thing of not having enough rhymes. It’s just what do I want to use and I feel like that’s a great problem to have.
You were signed in May 2016, six months after that first freestyle on Sway In the Morning. How has the process changed since?
Before that, of course I was running around with Jason Geter, Chaka Zulu, and all the guys from Culture Republic. But we were already doing all the stuff that we’re doing now with Epic. They elevated it and L.A. Reid wanted to get behind and support it. It just felt good. They wanted stand behind and support us without standing in the way of what we were already doing naturally and organically.
Now you’re always on the go.
I attribute that to my team and the way we move. If my team ain’t moving around and spreading the word then I can’t do nothing. That’s just as important as having talent and that natural drive. Talent is just what I bring to the table but my team is everything. There are a billion rappers and a billion rappers that can make records but my team is what helps me. It’s a 50/50 thing. I bring the talent and they bring everything else.
Some say that the reason you’re getting the looks you’re getting is mainly because you have a superstar team. Have you heard that?
Absolutely. That’s like one of the struggles for me. But I feel like, I got a good team, but does that mean I’m not dope? Forget the team. Just listening to the music. It’s about the art. Once I put it out. It doesn’t belong to me anymore. I have a great team but listen to me. We can’t move without each other. Don’t incorporate the business stuff. I feel like, the people who do that are people who wanna be in the industry. Just listen to the music, don’t say, ‘Oh, why he on?’
The legendary Organized Noize produced your latest single, “Luxury Vintage Rap.” How did that connection come about?
Jason [Geter] brought it to me; he was in the studio with them and me, knowing who they were, I was excited to work with them. Getting in the studio I was hyped. And it wasn’t even about making music for me, a lot of times it’s just about conversation. Just being in with them was special a priceless. A moment you can’t pay for.
The beauty of this project is that every record I collaborated with people on, we were in the studio together. I feel like that’s the best way to make music. Even with every producer, I sat with them. Whether it was me writing the hooks or them writing the hooks: ‘I want this to sound like this…’ or ‘Say this, this way…’ Just bouncing ideas off each other and inspiring each other to make the best quality music. I’m not a singer and I feel like, if I’m not a singer and I’m trying to sing my hooks, that happens so much today that you water down your song. Why not get somebody who can do that?
One online review of your album stated: “Grant proves that he’s nice with the pen, sure, but after digesting this album, listeners may not walk away knowing anything more about the 28-year-old other than that he believes he’s better than everyone else…” What are your thoughts?
As an MC, isn’t that what I’m supposed to think? That I’m better than everyone? Or that I’m one of the best of this generation? I feel like this project was polarizing. Initially, for me, it was supposed to be a mixtape. I wasn’t trying to give my life story on this project, I was just trying to put out the music in a time where everything sounds the same. We felt like the music was good enough to make it an album. For me, it wasn’t officially my first album, it was just a project that I put out on a major label. That person is entitled to whatever opinion they have and that was a good observation of that but it wasn’t meant to get people to know who I am. It was just meant to put out good music that people could rewind and have a good time with. But the next body of work gets a little more personal, about who I am as a person. This wasn’t meant to be a selfish album like, ‘Yeah. This is me. All about me.’ But lyrically, I do feel like I’m better than everybody else.
Your uncle was at the Atlanta listening party. What were his first words to you after the event?
He’s like a strong dude so he’s got that thing where he doesn’t wanna be too emotional. One of the first things that he said was that he’s proud. He also said, “I don’t know how you did it, because if it was me, I wouldn’t be able to.” I asked him this morning what he meant by that and he was like, “I wouldn’t be able to have that kind of patience with these kinds of people. That takes a person that loves what they do.