I interviewed Amir roughly a year ago when he was preparing to release his Medium Rare Ep. We drank Jameson Gingers at The Dime on Fairfax while he expressed apprehension about diving into his childhood dream of being a rapper. He simultaneously conveyed a sincere belief that “you can will anything you want into a reality.” The second time I interview Amir, we meet at Milk Studios.
Amir is shooting the cover for his debut album, Employee of the Month, which he conceptualized three years ago, but only began recording last July. As we sit on leather couches sipping Fiji water and looking out at the sprawling studio, Amir turns to me and says: “I feel like I’m hooking up with a girl who is way too hot for me.” This encounter captures one of Amir’s primary appeals, what Noisey called in its review of EOTM single, “S.O.G.,” a “sense of personableness” that permeates his rhymes. In a city often paralyzed by its overwhelming quest for coolness, Amir is a breath of fresh air. He speaks his mind. He doesn’t act over it or unimpressed. He lacks shame. This becomes clear when moments after our initial greetings at Milk Studios, he leaves to change into a janitor’s onesie. It is thrown into sharp relief when an hour later he pours a Newcastle beer into a mop bucket procured by the photographer’s assistant as he poses for a photograph to the beat of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Also, when he matter-of-factly tells the group that when Suspend Magazine followed him around for the day, he puked and got a nosebleed at the same time.
“This is the exact outfit my dad didn’t want me to wear,” Amir says when he first begins zipping his coveralls. He tells me he once wanted to be a custom mechanic (Amir’s “vast knowledge of cars” infuses his music), which was a big source of contention between him and his dad, who wanted him to be a lawyer. But Amir’s father has come around to the idea of his son as a rapper, particularly as the man is a big hip-hop fan himself. In fact, his dad is more than just a hip-hop fan—he’s Conrad Tillard, the minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, Malcolm X’s former place of worship, where he was deemed the “Hip-Hop Minister.” When Tupac died, Reverend Tillard organized the “Hip-Hop Day of Atonement,” a service meant for rap fans to “atone for the self-destructive, genocidal lifestyle” that killed Shakur. The current album samples several speeches his father delivered in the ‘90s. “I was super excited to show him,” Amir tells me.
The inclusion of his father’s speeches on EOTM are appropriate, as the album is meant to be partially autobiographical. Amir calls himself the “blue collar priest,” and EOTM is about a young rapper who wants to escape his dull day job. The album opens with a Pink Floyd-inspired, psychedelic track called “Back to Sleep”—which details wanting to stay in bed in lieu of going to work—and ends with “Finally Free”—a track featuring vocals by Justin Bieber tour opener Moxie Raia about “breaking up with your old life.” The album’s theme, Amir says, is “darkly optimistic.” His motto, he tells me, is “fuck life... but it will be okay.”
Exclusive premiere of “Finally Free” produced by Cy Kosis, off AmirSaysNothing’s debut Employee of the Month.
Sonically, EOTM melds New York’s classic boom bap sound (Amir was raised in Brooklyn and grew up on the likes of Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Biggie, Guru, and Wu-Tang) with rap’s more current, bass-heavy sound—“something in the car knocking.” Amir tells me that EOTM differs from his Medium Rare EP in that he’s begun experimenting with harmonizing and singing: “I’m trying to make the music more fun and enjoyable without taking the trap route.” In the first story I wrote about him, I explained that Amir’s old school sound and optimistic message separate him from the glossy gangster fantasy that has infused the recent rap scene. Amir says Kendrick is an inspiration for blending socially conscious rap that was once the norm with radio-friendly bangers. “He’s teaching, but he’s having fun.”
“I do consider myself normal but I guess other people don’t, which makes me understand more about people and the basic things they fear.”
“What are you trying to teach people?” I ask Amir.
“You can do whatever the fuck you want,” he says, then expounds so elaborately that I begin to zone out.
Amir later says he likes photo shoots because “you can do whatever you want and call it art.” He laughs, “I could sacrifice a goat right now.” Before being a rapper, Amir was a comedian, a route he tells me he fell into because he was “too insecure to be a rapper.” It’s odd to think of someone resorting comedy out of insecurity, as to me there is nothing more insecurity-inducing than standing on a stage alone and telling jokes before an audience. But watching Amir over several days, I can see how stand-up comes naturally to him.
During the three hours at Milk Studios, Amir’s lips do not not stop moving. He alternates between telling jokes, freestyling, and throwing grand proclamations into the air (“Instagram is the new Grammy’s”). A good percentage of his sentences begin with “you know how...?” or “you know what I don’t like about...?” Sometimes, it appears he’s even talking to himself. At the studio, he treats his producer and me as his audience, mimicking various other rappers’ flows (DMX, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick) and going off on numerous skits. For these reasons, I was shocked to learn in speaking with Amir’s childhood friend and current producer Jamaal Taylor, i.e. Cy Kosis, that growing up, Amir was—wait for it—shy.
But looking back, I think it makes sense that a shy child lives inside of Amir. He’s always talking, but there is a certain interiority about him. He lives in his own world. Later, while doing research for this article, I crack up when I come across the following snippet from his Suspend Magazine interview:
Would you consider yourself normal?
Yes, but for some reason other people tend not to. Not in like a “I’m special” way, but I’ve always heard a lot about my behavior.
I copy and send this to Amir, telling him I find it hilarious. But I quickly realize that Amir was not joking. He responds: “I do consider myself normal but I guess other people don’t, which makes me understand more about people and the basic things they fear.” Amir is an interesting mix of contradictions: people-focused, yet internal—goofy, yet profound.
“I’m not a preachy dude,” he later tells me, “but I like to make shit about something. And when I make it about something, I need to insert humor into it so that people pay attention to it.” I see this phenomenon come to life in watching Amir record, when after writing several serious bars, he starts belting a line about rubber ducks in a faux-Caribbean accent. “Dude, I love rubber ducks,” he explains. “I don’t understand what it is. I just love them.” And on the same album that samples his father’s fervent speeches about police brutality and racism (which Amir likens to unfairly-treated employees), EOTM includes a track—“Stoop Kid”—whose name is derived from an anti-social character from the 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon, Hey Arnold! There is also an interlude featuring two drunk girls slurring romantic nonsense about Amir’s voice that I’ve probably listened to forty times. It’s simultaneously hilarious and brilliant and terrifying because I’m pretty sure I’ve sounded the exact same.
When I arrive at Jamaal’s studio and apartment in Inglewood, the boys and his overwhelmingly adorable 4-year-old daughter Sakara (who has a cameo on the album) are standing outside the complex. Amir told me previously that they would be recording from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. I arrive at around 4pm. “We’re getting food,” Amir tells me.
“Taking a break?” I ask.
“Oh, we haven’t started yet,” he says casually. I think back to this interaction a few days later when speaking with L.A.’s Ramona Gonzalez, who makes solo electronic music as Nite Jewel and hip-hop with Droop-E as AMTHST. She explains that while she records her Nite Jewel songs in short, hyper-focused spurts, making hip-hop moves at a much slower pace. “Rap,” she tells me, “is all about vibe.”
In the spirit of “vibe,” Amir and I walk to Bravo’s Charburgers while Jamaal and Sakara go around the corner to Starbucks for the Wi-Fi. After picking up food, we circle back to Starbucks and chill in the sun for a bit. We riff about Starbucks being the obvious rapper hangout, about Future fiending for Pumpkin Spice Lattes. I also get some background on this creative duo and little Amir’s aforementioned shyness.
Jamaal and Amir go way back. Their fathers became friends back in Queens after Jamal’s father, a reporter, wrote a story about Reverend Tillard. Amir recalls a party where everyone was hanging out in the living room while Amir sat on the steps outside by himself listening to a ringtone of Mike Jones’s “Still Tippin’” on repeat. We all laugh over this image. I laugh a little harder when combining it with the fact that Amir told us earlier that he, at that time, wore Phat Farm velour sweat suits. “I wanted everyone to see me,” Amir says, “but then when they asked if I wanted to join them, I was like—crap, they see me!” Amir finally got the courage to join the group, during which, he tells me, everyone surprisingly seemed to like him. “It was a defining moment,” Amir says, in which he started developing self-confidence. “I wouldn’t be here today without that weird moment.”
I learn that Jamaal and Amir first started working together two years ago. Jamaal had been DJing and making EDM music as Cy Kosis and Amir used to come to all his shows. As seems to be the trend in Amir’s life, Jamaal knew that Amir was a rapper before Amir did. “You’ve always been rapping. Since we were kids,” he says to Amir. “You rap. I make beats.” It was a no-brainer.
Amir is the rare perfectionist who sees perfection as attainable.
The boys recorded their first song after a party. Amir recalls saying repeatedly during the session, “I think it’s too loud,” and Jamaal reassuring him, “Nah, it’s fine.” Jamaal laughs, nodding. “But the next day it was like—yeah, it was too loud. We were drunk.”
Back in the studio, it’s clear Jamaal and Amir have come a long way since their intoxicated sessions. A chart of goals is written on whiteboard on the wall. “DJ Khaled ain’t the only one with goals,” Amir laughs, pointing out the board. Throughout the session, we take ample breaks—to smoke, to chat, to play with Sakara. But I also hear Amir obsess over numerous takes of what will become EOTM’s third track—“Just Sayin.’” I ask Amir if he’s a perfectionist.
For the first time during the close to six hours I’ve spent with him at this point—Amir Says Nothing.
“He’s a perfectionist,” confirms Jamaal.
But Amir is an easy-going perfectionist. He says he decided to put out an album instead of a mixtape because an album is more ambitious: “It needs to be seamless.” But then seconds after, he’s stressing about “hearing all the errors,” or that his words aren’t effectively “stinging.” He’s saying things like: “I just want to give myself a pat on the back with this;” “I impressed myself with that one;” and “ONE TAKE JAKE!” Amir is the rare perfectionist who sees perfection as attainable.
When the sun begins to fall, I decide I can no longer keep typing all the one-liners Amir is dropping, and I tell the boys I’m going to head out. They stop working and walk me to the front. In the living room, Sakara is fast asleep on the couch.
“She can sleep through that?” I ask, referring to the bass that was booming from the room next to her head.
“Oh yeah,” says Jamaal. “She loves it. That’s my kid.”
Amir walks me to my car. As I drive away with my window up, his mouth is still moving.
Over the next few weeks, Amir keeps me thoroughly in the loop as he puts the finishing touches on his album. He sends me various versions of songs and asks me my opinion. He shows me a Facebook comment by a former Dunkin’ Donuts customer, where Amir once worked (on “Just Sayin’,” Amir spits about taking secret naps while working at the doughnut chain): “What’s up fool…DAMN son…Drake ain’t got shit on you…Started at Dunkin and now your here.”
A week later, I notice a Facebook status by Amir that seems to embody him. He writes about his distaste for the education system, which always made him feel like there was something wrong with him. Amir is an artist, a rebel, the type to take secret naps at work and text me about his brilliant idea to light his staff T-shirt on fire for album art. His Facebook post’s ending reminds me of why I’m so drawn to Amir. As I wrote in my first profile of him, he shows me that authenticity is truly more than an abstract character trait.
“i hate to let out my personal thoughts on all this on the internet but fuck it, you can’t kill a man with a dream, and you can’t kill a man whose determined to make it a reality, no matter how hard you try, good night, follow your motherfucking dreams, that’s all.”
AmirSaysNothing’s Employee of The Month drops this summer.
Photos by Carol Isabel.