Music is one of the most subjective art forms out there, making it a little ironic that we're so quick to rank albums based on how we think they sound. If you ask Elujay, an up & coming rapper out of Oakland, there's a better way to judge a musician's output: honesty. One person's theme song might be viewed as trash by someone else, but as long as the creation is truthful, there's no reason to criticize.
Whatever you think about Elujay's own catalogue, there's no denying that he follows his own mantra. His debut album Jentrify is meant to honor Oakland as it falls victim to gentrification, impacting those who have called the city home for years. Combining elements of the "hyphy" movement that the Bay Area made famous in the 90's with his own soulful groove, it's an album that stays true to the city and true to the artist.
It's been nearly a year since the smooth vocalist gave the world Jentrify, but a stretch of singles through the first half of 2017 have kept his momentum rolling. After dropping the Chris McClenney assisted "Streamin'" in late July, Elujay's gearing up for the release of his sophomore album, titled AVNT GARDE. I had a chance to chat with him about the upcoming project, as well as his philosophy on music.
So where'd the new "Lacy McGrady" nickname come from?
It's a play on Tracy McGrady, actually. Lacy is just kind of like, "lacing people with the game." Tracy was a great basketball player, you know. It's in the next single that I'm about to drop– I'm setting the bar, as I said, "Lacy McGrady used to lace them with the game." It's like a metaphor, low key. [Laughs]
You've talked about the difficulties for Bay Area artists to gain traction outside of the city. What's been the key to your movement?
I think it's just that my sound is really universal, it kind of gave me the opportunity to branch outside of my region. And just being very versatile, as a producer. And then all these different platforms like Pigeons & Planes, Revolt, Spotify… they just helped me branch out and get a larger audience. The music I make isn't really regional; it's pretty global, it's pretty accessible.
It looked like you shot the music video for your hit song "Flagrant" at Mosswood Park in Oakland. How'd you decide on that place?
I used to work at that park! We used to go there as kids, and I basically just lived in that area, it's kind of my stomping grounds. That park is actually really famous; it's known for basketball pickup games. They have it in one of the NBA 2K games, I think it was '07 or '08. It has some really dope history behind it, I think some legends played there back in the day. It's definitely a park that means a lot to me.
So what made you put that inspirational message at the end of your new single, "Streamin'"?
I actually got that from "Showtime" by Dom Kennedy, and I thought it would be really cool to reference that since he's one of my favorite artists. I basically took what he said in the beginning and said it at the end, it just means a lot to me. I don't really feel like anyone should be judging people on what they do, you know. There's a lot of pretentious people out there, who like to think that they're above other people. I look at music in a different type of sense, like there's no bad or good music. I think the contrast between different types of music is honest and dishonest music. I'm not supportive of dishonest music, it doesn't matter if it's "quality" or not. I respect everything that's honest, and truthful. That's a teaching that one of my good producer friends Wax Roof told me about, he actually helped with a lot of Jentrify. He's the homie, and ever since he told me that I've stopped being very judgmental of people's art. It's very subjective, and everyone has the right to make the type of art they want to, as long as it's coming from a truthful place.
You used to be a visual artist before you got more focused on the music. What kind of things were you doing?
Painting, graphic design, and graffiti, actually. I was kind of prolific here in Oakland, I used to put my tags everywhere. I can't say what my tag was, but just know I was really out here. [Laughs] But I took all that passion and I put it into my music, around the same time I was stopping graffiti. A lot of people I knew were just getting caught, and they made it a felony out here, it got pretty bad. I've always been in love with music, so it wasn't hard for me to just transition.
So your upcoming album, AVNT GARDE, is supposed to relate that visual art background with the music. Want to talk a little about what you mean by that title?
It's really just a defining point in my career. My last project, I felt that I had to be very structural, and very aware of how people were going to receive it. I've always believed in the quality of music that I do, I use a lot of different elements and whatnot, but this is just going to be more free-flow. It's kind of like what I said on "Streamin'"– there's not really a lot of structure to it. I'm always tripping over how something sounds, but I'm not tripping off, "Oh, is this person going to like it?" I'm more free, I'm more abstract, and those are some of the elements of what avant-garde means.
There was a lot of meaning in the cover art for Jentrify, showing you peering out over a burning Oakland. What are you doing this time around for AVNT GARDE?
You just have to wait and see, I can't really talk about that yet. If you were to ask about the Jentrify cover before I put it out, I wouldn't tell you, because it would just take away from you actually seeing it. You're just going to put this visual idea in your head, and then it's just not going to be up to par, or it's going to be too much for some people…I don't know. I like to keep people on their toes. Just know that it hasn't been done before.
I get that! So at least in terms of the sound and the genre, what should we expect?
It's no genre, it's just music. You either feel it or you don't. It's definitely going to have that similar, soulful sound, but it's either gonna be all in your face, or really stripped down, or no drums… it's very experimental. I'm really trying to bring together all the types of music that I like, and compile it into this unstructured project. So I'd like to just set it as no genre, cause it's really just out there.
So Jentrify was meant to capture the essence of Oakland before it changed any further–Is AVNT GARDE going to be similarly about hometown pride?
It's not really hometown pride, it's more personal. Jentrify was a plural thing, this is more of an 'I' thing. It's a much more individualistic concept, a more introspective side of me that I'm going to be giving to people. I really feel like music is just about all your experiences, which is why it has to be honest. That's what I'm trying to give to people, on this one and all throughout my discography that I'm going to be releasing. Jentrify was my experiences, but it was more from my people from Oakland's experience, too, and really just give people a glimpse of what it's like to be from an ever-changing city hit by gentrification. Because it really brought a level of prosperity that wasn't beneficial to the people who have been here, inhabiting this land for decades.
How much of the album did you produce?
A lot of it is produced by me, and a lot from my man Julia Lewis. He produced a big portion of it. I've got Chris McClenney on there, some other Soulection cats. Just know that I want to surprise folks, it's a lot of vulnerability.
Last question: Who are some of your "Ones to Watch" artists?
I'm going to go ahead and shout out my girlfriend, Eileen Sho Ji. Y'all should watch out for her, she's got some fire coming. She's an R&B/Soul singer, she makes very ambient music. She talks a lot about existential crises–it's the type of music that you can really feel. And then my boy Franco Dollas is pretty tight; he's got a dope project coming out. My man Wax Roof, he's from Oakland. He's a dope artist, dope lyricist. He's real town, because he's got that soul. Shoutout to my man Julian Lewis, I know I mentioned him before but he's such a fire producer. Also Lake Stovall, he's a really raw singer from Virginia via San Francisco. He's real cool, like Masego-esque, he grew up with him. Lake Stovall's going to be on my project too… he's got that R&B sound down. All these artists, they're talented as hell, so they really deserve the shine.
Message from Elujay:
I want to say, everybody should know that there's no such thing as a better artist. It's all subjective; once you get to the point in your artistry where you can coherently express your story, and your sound, you are a fantastic artist. And you should keep doing what you're doing, and never compromise that story. There's a lot of artists that have gotten that huge platform, and they just don't know what they want… it's just not that honest. So I mean, stick to what you like and what you know, really represent you, because even if it doesn't take you far, you're putting it out into the universe. And the universe hears you.