Published Jan 23, 2015When Tona arrives to meet at the back of a restaurant in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, he does something unexpected. Though a glass of water is poured and a place-setting ready on the seat facing, the rapper slides into the booth next to the writer, side by side, the way couples still in love might dine.
Maybe he wants the conversation to be personal, the way he describes his latest solo album, Carpe Diem, out February 3 through eOne distribution. Or maybe, like his self-description on standout LP cut "Unmeasured Lies," he's paranoid when he's drug-free.
When high (and he's not tonight), the Scarborough representative says he struggles to hold coherent thoughts; his mind wanders to people and scenarios that make him suspicious. But recently he realized he's paranoid stone-sober, too.
"It's embedded in me. It's not like I can't function around people, but the way my mind works, I want my back to the wall at all times," Tona tells Exclaim! "I want to see what's in front of me. If I'm in the club or a spot, I want my back to that wall. I don't want to be standing in the middle. My senses are heightened.
"I was still paranoid by the people around me in 2014. People I was close to I didn't trust as much as I should — personal and music relationships. A few business relationships went to shit over [2013's] Silverspring Crescent project, and that made me paranoid about trusting the next person."
Known for stacking bars upon bars, Tona delved into more socially poignant territory with two acclaimed group projects released in the last 15 months: Freedom Writers' Now and Naturally Born Strangers' self-titled debut mixtape. But when his older brother was listening to Tona's 2009 album (with producer Lyve), he threw a challenge at his sibling.
"I had a moment of clarity with my brother. He was listening to Direct Deposit and was like, 'It's just all bars. You don't have any personal songs. Get personal, man. Go deep.' He reminded me: 'You know how deep our struggle is, what our family's been through? Tell your story. Make relatable music. Talk about your life. That's how people connect, how they relate to each other.'"
Carpe Diem seizes that opportunity. "This Town," produced by Grammy-nominated Paperboy Fabe, is an uplifting Scarborough anthem that rushes us with a feel for Tona's stomping grounds. "Life Away" details his funk with a drink-smoke-fuck cycle that wasted his days. And "Fairy Tale Divorce" gets specific with an on-again, off-again relationship. He played the song for his muse. "Mixed feelings," he laughs. "She liked it but didn't expect for it to get that personal.
Tona explains, "Music is the only time I can actually speak what's on my mind with no repercussions. It's artistic expression. You're not gonna tell a painter what image he can paint. Say whatever's on your mind; paint what you're feeling."
This holds true even if what you're feeling might ruffle the feathers of the ones you're supposed to reserve. "I'm probably closer to Tie Domi than I am to being your homie," Tona spits on one song. "These veterans in my city, I can't even respect them," he hurls in another.
Tona breaks Toronto MCs down by class, by era: the Maestro Fresh Wes age begat the Kardinal Offishall era begat the Freedom Writers era begat the class of new cats on the rise now.
"A lot of these dudes, especially the ones that have come before us, they're not respectable. They're just not. They think they've left behind these legacies people are supposed to respect, but they don't pass anything forward," Tona says, his volume raising. "The veterans that are still doing it now, they're not doing anything inspiring. They're not inspiring artists though workshops; they're not in the communities taking care of their people. We stepped up and did that as the Freedom Writers collective. We made sure we took care of aspiring artists. We made positive reflective music. A socially conscious message. I feel those guys should be doing it too. That's why I don't respect them. I hear your music, but it ain't about shit. You're not trying to uplift your people."
No names are singled out, but the point is drilled. Admittedly past the point of trying to blow up as a global rap star, Tona's filter has been extracted, his music improved. Between sips of Mill Street Organic, he lets out a deep laugh when asked about the Tie Domi punchline.
"At that time I was probably closer to wanting to smack the shit out you than I am to wanting to be your friend and be in the industry parties and network with you. I'm more the outcast type. I'm more resilient. I don't want to be in your inner circle smiling and doing stupid shit," he says. "I did write that out of emotion."
Never before have Tona's lyrics or his goals been so in line with reality, and he's looking forward to really promoting Carpe Diem on a European tour with New York legends M.O.P. before dropping a new mixtape with DJ Wristpect this summer.
"I want my music to be felt, to tour with it, to touch different audiences other than the ones I've been exposed to already," Tona says. "That's the ultimate goal, but it's a realistic one."