King Reign's Sincere may be his solo debut full-length, but the Toronto MC has taken a long path to its release, logging plenty of experiences both good and bad along the way. While he's recorded with Pharoahe Monch as well as appeared on songs with Canadian standouts such as Saukrates and Drake, and intermittently issuing memorable singles and EP projects, he's also had to deal with the downside of the music industry, including the dissolution of a solo deal with Sony in the U.S., and the breakup of Toronto rap group Brassmunk in the wake of their criminally overlooked 2007 album Fewturistic. It's evident he's drawn heavily on these experiences for the thoughtful and striking Sincere, where he retains his gravelly voice, poetic flow and laid-back demeanour, infusing his music with authority and its listeners with empathy.
Why is the album titled Sincere?
I wanted something simple, and I wanted something that I think I touch on a lot [in] different topics on the album. I didn't really streamline it and say "I want it to be about this, I want it to be about that." I just kind of touched on topics I've felt over the years and were something that I wanted to write about. Sincere was, I felt like, another way to just say "true story." Ninety percent of the stories on [Sincere] I've been through or was close to. "When My Eyes Close," that was more inspired by a true story from vets that I had met in Vegas actually, and some people I had met before that, they were talking about PTSD and things that they go through and kinda have these dreams and visions and they're all messed up and that kind of inspired that song because it's really about a POW who meets his death in the end, but before that he has a dream. It's like, what would you dream about at the end of your life? They say dreams are like whatever you saw in the past 48 hours put together, so I wanted to play off of that, which is another thing that I believe in or experience, so that's why it ended up in a song. That's why it's [called] Sincere. Whatever you get out of the songs on the album. Whatever picture it paints of me, it's a sincere one, cos without me just talking about myself throughout the whole album like most rap albums are. I feel like you can still get a picture of who I am and it's just as sincere as me telling you who I am.
The meaning in your lyrics rarely come out on first listen. They are double meanings and allusions to things. Can you explain your writing process?
With any literature or any books that I liked to read when I was growing up. I always liked to read the stuff that started in the middle of some action. And I kind of take you somewhere from a different perspective they might talk about, I don't know, a young girl at school and she has something in her locker and you don't get to find out what's in her locker until the tenth page. By that time you're already in the book and you've learned all the characters and it kinda draws you in.
I always wanted to do stuff that drew people in so if you notice on [past songs] like "Looking for Love," I just go into it… and you're like "Who?" It's like "where are you?" and immediately it draws the listener in to be like "I want to figure out where it is." The movies and the stories that really get me are the ones that come from a different perspective, and maybe give you another side. I'm also playing with being a Libra and I always want to show both sides of it and that's how kind of how it comes out. I don't think it's a conscious thing, but I think I've programmed myself over the years to just be like that and to kind of always reach for a memory that's real to me.
I don't go into my imagination as much as I could — I have a great imagination [laughs] — but I always like to reach for a song or stuff that's a real story, 'cos I guess when I was younger, a lot of the artists I grew up listening to and influenced me, I always felt where they were coming from was a real place. Even Slick Rick, he told stories like "Children's Story," like the young kid running with the gun and I know that Slick Rick, that probably never happened, but in the environment Slick Rick came from, it happened a lot and that he could definitely talk about and give some insight on it.
I like to describe things in a different way. With "My Eyes Closed," I guess the height of that song is the sex theme, right [laughs]. I guess that's where you see some of my personality, because I never talk about sex on anything else. You get to see that side of me in a way, even though I'm not talking about myself. But what I said before, some of that has to be in you somewhere. That's kind of my writing [style comes from] I know it's a long answer but that attests to my writing style. I like to just throw everything in there and sometimes I just have to edit stuff out. Sometimes I get it right the first time and then you know. But I like those details in there, I like to be descriptive, I like to paint a picture and drawing the emotion is the most important thing so I like to do that.
You're telling other people's stories and looking at other people's lives, but there's also a lot of things closer to you and one theme that seemed to come up quite a bit was on "Oh No" and "Killer" seem to deal with black male stereotypes. What is it that you're trying to get across in these songs? Do you feel that that is the reality?
I am not dangerous, I am not scary and that's where that comes from. Honestly, I'm just fed up of it. I feel that as black men we have to make ourselves small in these situations to make people feel comfortable and I'm tired of it, man. [Starts rapping the chorus refrain of "Killer"]: "You think I'm a killer." Really? Do you know how many times I'm walking down the street and I'm like "Who's that?" and because it's so far I think because they have a hood on, I don't know who it is, so I'm more bracing myself for them. I can tell they're not black, but I'm more bracing myself for them and then I find out it's a lady and I'm like "Oh, OK" but they've already crossed the street by this time. And I'm like "You were afraid of me? I was afraid of you."
But just for natural reasons we're in a dark street or whatever, in a vulnerable place so we're naturally human beings were gonna be on our guard a little bit, but I'm tired of this happening in broad daylight. What I'm getting at is where is the reward for those of us that actually didn't fall into the stereotypes and I would say that's the majority of us, right? Where's the reward? We still get treated the same way, we still get put through the same things. I get pulled over all the time.
In the past couple of years it's been great. I haven't been pulled over as much, but before I was chronically pulled over for nothing. And I tell people that all the time and they're like "It can't be that bad," and then they drive with me and it happens while they drive with me. I can't tell you how many times that has happened like "What the hell! Seriously?" and these are my white friends. They were like, "I thought you were lying. Really? This is bullshit." And I'm like "Yo, I'm tired of that." I know it's not gonna change, but this is me venting on songs like "Killer" and on "Oh No" I say "But none of that shit happened/ because your boy started rapping." I'm telling you on "Oh No" why I didn't end up going to jail. Did a lot of my friends go to jail? Yeah. The crew I was running with in high school, yeah they went to jail.
When the drugs came out it was over for me. I was done with it and being in Eddie Bullen's studio, being into music and being into something to distract me, just being a writer and writing constantly having good parents — my dad was there until I was like 16, at least I had him there — I don't feel like I didn't have him, I just felt that they broke up later on. So I think all of that helped me stay out of those situations, but I don't judge my brothers that went through that, not even a little bit, because I know how they got there. I know where that anger comes from. This profiling that we have to deal with all the time only fuels that anger. And it makes guys like you and I who aren't criminals and don't have a criminal record — and I'm not saying that we're on a better path or better people — I'm just saying what you think we are, it just silences us, so I just wanted a song that somebody else could vent through too. I know that it helped me. I'm still angry but it's helping me being able to talk back… the message in "Killer" also translates to everybody. Doug Marcaida, who did a video — he's an instructor in knife fighting and they get the same kind of stigma like you're a killer. And he's like "I haven't killed anyone, this is just an art for me. And it's good for me, it's an art form that I enjoy doing, but I've never killed anybody." I don't know if you've seen the other [video] for "Killer" the doc version with Doug Marcaida in it and he's training me he's training his people and I do a little performance in it.
But "Oh No," you hit it on the head, they're two songs that touch on that. [On] "Oh No" [I'm saying] "These are the things I could have been doing." I could have been that young man [Sammy Yatim] who was on the [streetcar], yelling at the cops and I could have been shot nine times like he was in Toronto. That's what that first verse was about. "I'm waving a knife at the cops/ Calling them all pussies/ I ain't going to jail/ I ain't a killer/ But they pushed me/ They shot me nine times/ And it turns out, I don't have nine lives/ Don't cry for me/ This drama's been brewing a long time." Don't cry for me, this problem is a bigger problem that's been going on a long time and that's why I say "Oh No" because "Oh No" represents the panic. So it's like, you hit on that — those two songs are my way of venting that issue that I have. It's an ongoing issue, and I just feel like, I always say cops don't know who it is, but cops need to have a course to figure out who is who. Are there dangerous black men out there? Yes. But do you need now to treat every single one of them like they are dangerous black men? No. And by doing that you're gonna actually create what you were afraid of.
All that stuff you were just saying about stereotypes is on those tracks, but then you have a song like "Happylaidback," which seems to be the way you channel it, because your delivery, even though this stuff gets to you, is always very calm. And a song like "Happylaidback" is talking about a number of issues that were specifically related to the music industry or any stress you could be undergoing but the attitude is to maintain.
Yeah, [quotes from "Happylaidback"]: "I've done the worst to get back to the best shit." I get it from my upbringing as well. Running out in the street with a knife and to get some guns is probably not a good idea, and recognizing that we don't live in a perfect world and there is work to be done… but at the same time there are a lot of reasons why we should be happy and it's actually easier to deal with these things if you can keep your spirit up and don't let things get you down.
I'm always laughing and you'd think I'd never gone through anything, but I'm always going through something. But you find a way to laugh at it, you find a way to change your mood and you'd be surprised that situation you thought was totally unfixable finds a way to fix itself if you just stay up, y'know, if you dig your head into the ground and go to sleep for 30 days. Cos that's what I want to do sometimes and a lot of my people are dealing with depression.
It's funny a lot of us are becoming more open about being depressed which I think is a good thing and "Happylaidback," I'm like "busy like Tuesday, easy like Sunday morning." But it's not like I'm laid back doing nothing. It's like laid back but also be alive, y'know. Stay loose, but stay live. Just let go of all the things you can't control 'cos you know you can't control. I'm the cat that just says it the way it is, I'm known for that. Let's not get dramatic about things that we think are gonna end our lives, it's all over and at the end of the day it really doesn't matter. And I'm not saying I have that formula that I'm proud of, I'm saying that's the format I'm aspiring to.
You talked a bit about depression there and one person who recently did that on his album PTSD and who you've worked with was Pharoahe on previous tracks that aren't on this record like "Dear God." How did you meet up with him?
It's a funny story but I was in New York and I was at Sony going to Sony studios and [former manager] Guy Routte parked outside the studio but in the wrong place. So after the session we come out of the studio and — no car. I don't know if you know what it's like to be towed in New York, it does not make sense to argue. You're done and you gotta go to this compound place to go pick up your car. So, we jumped on the train and when we came up from the train I don't know if it was planned or what — we came up from the train and as soon as we got to the sidewalk, Pharoahe was driving by in his nice white ride [laughs]. And he was all dressed up. He had hard bottoms on and stuff and there was a lady in the front seat. The timing it couldn't have been better. The way he drove up he was able to see us and he was like, "Oh, what up!" So he knew Guy and he gave us a ride to the tow place and I guess that's where they reconnected or whatever and then fast forward I came back to Toronto, I went to Jamaica and then I came back to New York to do a show and he came to my show and before the show we sat in the car. I guess Guy had played him a song called "Nomad" that I had from before and he really loved that song. So he was like he had some ideas for songs and he played me some samples he wanted to mess with so he played me "Dear God" and "One More Time."
I listened to ["One More Time"] again this morning, that was a pretty good track.
Yeah, that was a fun track to do. Remember he was working with Eminem? He told me "Dear God" was an idea he had for Eminem. When he said that I was already on it. "Nomad" had the guitar in it and I guess he was like I had an idea just like it, cos he really loved "Nomad" the song. And from there it wasn't too long after that we jumped in the studio and started working and we did a bunch of sessions and we did "Dear God" and "One More Time," that's how that came about.
A thing that comes off from you is a poetic side. I don't know if you started off doing spoken word or poetry but I'm intrigued to know what that trajectory is [to what you are doing now].
I started writing when I was like eight [laughs]. And the Jody Watley song "Friends" was the first song… Rakim had a verse in it. I started from then. And Rakim was the influence and Slick Rick was an influence, but I guess what made the storytelling style that I came up with, a conversational style is because Rakim was very conversational.
I always aspired to rhyme and flow, but not just to sound like you're rushing, but he always sounded like he was just talking you. I consciously tried to do that as I developed and as I kept writing and getting better at that style and then I did a talent show I decided to go to the studio and I was like 15 through 18, 19, I got signed to [Juno Award-winning jazz producer and musician] Eddie Bullen and we had a group. It was me and two other guys. One guy went to college, one guy stayed and we carried that on until college and I stopped doing music for a while. I was reading, finding God in a sense [laughs] and when I came back to music I met up with [Saukrates manager] Chase [Parsons] and [producers] Da Grassroots and Darp Malone, and I started recording songs with no real intent just to record.
You mentioned poetry. When I first started the writing, the spoken word vibe does come from that conversational style but I wasn't writing poetry, I was also influenced by Shakespeare believe it or not. I was in that class. Macbeth really caught me, that whole story. There are some songs, I'd say and start the song "No man or woman born shall harm King Reign" [laughs]. That's where it kinda came from, the Shakespeare influence and also I have poets in my family. My uncle was a poet and a writer, he just passed away... So that's where that kinda came from and it just kind of carried all the way through, 'cos I found that early on people really liked that style and it was something people called out early. They were like "I really like the way it's a conversation," you know and so I did songs like "Looking for Love" and "Uptight" came out.
I met Chase opening up a studio and he asked me who I wanted to work with and I was like well, only two really Sauks and [Mr.] Roam at the time and he was like "Well, I work with both of those guys!" So we started working, I hooked up with Sauks and he was immediately like "Yo, we're gonna do this!" he was all hype. That's a whole other story, but then we started running and Sauks and I really connected. We're brothers. And all those songs you heard early are what got me to Sony. My cousin hooked me up with someone in New York, it was on the anniversary of Biggie's death, I took a trip to New York and this is probably one of the first times I went to New York for just music. I'm just going to focus on music. And my cousin, Selwyn who was the chief editor of The Source for ten years…
Oh, I know who you are talking about. Yeah, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. Yeah, that's my big brother. We don't do the nepotism thing in our family, but basically what he did do, he had a friend who was married to Guy Routte and when I went to New York, it was great, I didn't even get [to where I was staying] I went straight to Madison Square Gardens or whatever and we stood outside there. We didn't go inside and I was like "What are we waiting for?" And then Jay-Z comes out with [former music artist manager] Jimmy Henchman and [Selwyn] introduces me to a bunch of people. He introduces me to Jay, I met Jimmy Henchman and that's how I met Wyclef. I met DMX and that trip was for that. I met Guy that same time too and I wasn't sure what was going on, but Guy and I ended up just to see if we could vibe and we ended up vibing. Guy got the music to [record label executive] KP Prather, an associate he had in the industry. And KP liked it. After my first trip to New York I can't remember how long it was after that, I got a call from Guy to come out to New York… he sent a ticket when I got to the airport, it said Sony on it. I was like, "OK, cool" and when I got there, there was a car service, but I didn't believe it. I was like "that can't be for me" and then my younger cousin, who knew about it, he was excited and took me back to Selwyn's house and KP was there and he introduced me to KP and the first thing he said was "I wanna sign you" and the Sony deal came about. And it was actually solidified, the story I heard — it takes a while for the paperwork to come through — so the story I was told was they have a meeting when they play music and they have a bunch of artists go over and give their feedback and they played "Guilty Party" in that meeting and Mos Def got up and was like "That's the shit in Toronto!" and was praising the song and me and lo and behold a couple of months after that I got my paperwork.
Wanted to ask you about Drake and the [Saukrates] song "Fades Away" that you both appeared on and the circumstances of that song being created. What was your sense of him at that time and where he has gotten in the meantime?
I thought that he was ambitious, I thought that he was talented. I think he got better in time. When he first came around, he reminded me a lot of myself when he was just that guy. He was just down. If you talk to guys like Promise and all these guys that worked with him, he's just worked. He would propose to me many times "I want to do this, I want to do that" and my idea that I came up with. Before So Far Gone, he was like "I want to do work, I really like what you're doing." I respected him too and I was like "I think we should do an album just about relationships, just about females." And I don't know how good that would have been, it's just an idea that I had.
It never came about, probably my fault as I was running around doing a bunch of stuff too, but it was always something we were going to get to. But my initial impression was that I was impressed with him. I liked his ambition. He was a lot more innocent than he is now. I won't tell that story, but that's natural growing up. "Fades Away," no we didn't do it together. I give more credit to Sauks for that song. You know we all put in on it, Sauks — it was his vision and he did the beat with another producer he worked with. He asked me to be on the song and I got on the song, it was no problem, we worked together a lot. I don't even remember if I knew that Drake was going to be on the song, I think he did that after, but I think it goes back to we were always talking about doing something and that might have been Sauks' way of starting us two up.
There were a lot of people saying "You and Drake need to [work together]." Everyone was always trying to push for that, especially after he blew up with So Far Gone and I still feel that we're still two of the best out here. But I guess I'm at the point of my life where I'm supposed to be hating, but I don't have it in me. I'll be honest. I don't have it in me. I still get excited when I see him do something. I don't know how he feels about me. As far as I would think, the last conversations we had were great. I knew 40 before I knew him, so as far as I know we still have that respect for each other. So I have no reason to hate, I don't think. I think a lot of people feel like "But he blew." Well, somebody's always gonna blow. Like, Kardi blew, how could I hate on Kardi? To me it excites me because I've been in it so long.