"Be the change that you wish to see in the world."
It can feel like Gandhi's words have lost their revolutionary edge in a culture seemingly in constant need of motivation. Posters spangled throughout high school hallways and chipping bumper stickers are souvenirs of the quote's ubiquity. Makonnen Sheran, perhaps subconsciously, echoes the statement when we speak. But the 26-year-old rapper isn't lobbing pacifist turns of phrase in some kind of rebranding effort. Rather, he's just a person doing his best to let the words guide his life.
On the day we meet, it's 71 degrees -- unseasonably warm for the East Village in early March. Makonnen is troubled by the temperature fluctuation (it snowed the week before), but decides not to let stop him from enjoying the late afternoon sun. He's been trying to spend more time outside, and judging by his recent Instagram snaps of the surf and sand, has been succeeding. It's this time spent in nature -- coupled with his change in diet and lifestyle -- that most notably impacts Drink More Water 6, the latest installation of his experimental series of releases which arrives today. "There are some love songs about people and places; there are some songs that are pretty hype or high activity -- not as in intoxication high, but high energy," Makonnen explains. "I'd like to call it a soundtrack to living life. If you're out there really living, there should be a song on Drink More Water 6 for you."
The trio of tracks Makonnen has already released -- "Big Gucci," "Sellin," and "Live For Real" -- certainly illustrate the record's high octane elements. They're thumping trap cuts crafted for the turn up, bound together with the bravado of his lust for (real) life. "Becoming more outdoorsy -- practicing extreme sports like dirt biking -- is also about trying to stay away from the 'net," he explains. "That's pretty much where I came from, and where I spent most of my time on house arrest. I was online and researching things that I would do when I'd one day be free. Now that I am, that's what I enjoy doing: traveling, being in nature, stuff like that."
For those unfamiliar: following his high school graduation from Atlanta's North Clayton High School -- days before he was scheduled to begin service in the Air Force -- Makonnen was wrongfully implicated in a close friend's tragic death. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, he spent the next seven years in jail, on house arrest, and on probation. The internet became an incubator for Makonnen's creative freedom; he voraciously studied all aspects of culture he connected with, and crafted his own tracks, initially with a keyboard and busted Gateway desktop. Influences as broad as The Killers, Bloc Party, Lil B, and Adele -- who Makonnen swapped MySpace messages with just before she hit the stratosphere -- informed the oddball alchemy of his infectious and individualistic sound.
In May 2014, Makonnen's probation finally ended, an occasion he marked with one of his most boundless and unabashedly original projects, Drink More Water 4. Spanning from the free-associative, bouncy "21st Street" to 22nd-century love song "Sex, Love, Ecstasy," its clutch of wildly eccentric cuts -- on which he teamed up with outside producers for the first time -- enshrine his progressive irreverence for musical convention. Three months later, Drake hopped on Makonnen's Grammy-nominated "Tuesday."
Though Makonnen's influences and energy are constantly evolving, his creative process has remained consistently intuitive. "I don't write physically, I keep it all in myself mentally and channel it out like a freestyle when I do my songs. I'm observing and living, writing inside subconsciously every day," he explains. When he steps into the booth, that's when those internal diary entries take shape. "Within the first 10 seconds of hearing a beat, I should know whether I can make a freestyle to it or not. From there, it's about whatever the beat or the music is invoking to my emotions and feelings."
For Drink More Water 6, Makonnen teamed up with a trusted trio of architects: Danny Wolf ("Trust Me Danny"), Richie Souf ("Flippin All Night"), and Sonny Digital (his longtime collaborator who, in tandem with Metro Boomin', masterminded "Tuesday"). But notably, the project has no vocal features. The decision was partly due to his recent collaborative work (think the woozy opening verse on Santigold's recent single "Who Be Lovin Me?"), but more a product of his desire to fully own his sound. "I feel like I'm a new artist still," Makonnen explains, "and as a new artist, I need to prove myself just by myself. If people are into me, they'll like my songs. But if they're not, they can say, 'Yeah, I'm not into him.'"
He's definitely got one person in his camp: Alexander Wang. After a late night run-in outside Katz's Deli around the time of Wang's Hooters-catered anniversary banger last September, the downtown design legend asked the rapper to enlist in his #WANGSQUAD. Makonnen's spring/summer 16 campaign images were unveiled last Friday between Molly Bair's and Travis Scott's. "We shot my segment at my apartment with Aluna Francis and Baauer," Makonnen says. If the crew had superlatives, he and the AlunaGeorge front woman should be voted most chill -- she's sippin' while he's rolling up some green in Wang's most enviable overalls. "I'm compelled by Alex's clothing because he's from New York and it has this urban warrior aspect to it."
The campaign's release on Friday marked something of a new chapter, and not just in fashion. That afternoon, Makonnen moved out of the apartment Steven Klein photographed him in and has yet to sign another lease. "Right now, I'm just gonna be homeless for a while, bounce around and try to be a part of the world," he says. "I'm tired of renting a place and never even being there, of wanting to do things and people telling me I don't have any money because I've been paying rent for a place that I'm never at. This year, I don't want to pay rent; I don't want to live anywhere except for where my work is calling me to." On his horizon: a series of sets at American colleges before dates with G-Eazy, his first trip to Ireland, a summertime vacation in Amsterdam, Berlin, and hopefully, Australia. If he has nowhere to head, "I'll just go home to my mom."
For now, though, he's just hoping we can find something on the record to connect to and celebrate, no matter where we're at. "I hope people take a message of loving yourself, as always, and accepting yourself for who you are. Of course, there's gonna be negative times because real life happens, but just remember to go back to that positive light and spread it whenever you can," he says. "If you want to change the world, change yourself, so that you can be the change you want to see."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen