ALYPH looks calm and collected. When he meets NME on a rainy day in December, the Singaporean rapper – dressed in a grey windbreaker and a black mask – seems relaxed, but deep down he’s nervous. It’s a bit of a surprise, considering his decades-long discography is filled with confident club bangers.
Even on his most recent single ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’ (‘Are You Listening?’), released at the end of last year, ALYPH sounds unabashed. “Rejection got me thick-skinned,” he raps in Malay. “Cheques everywhere I put my feet on.”
Yet here, sitting on the opposite end of a giant table in a board room, the artist is at first a little reserved. “I’m always nervous,” ALYPH admits, before looking up and confessing, “I always feel like puking. Always.”
Thankfully, nothing of that sort happens throughout this sit-down because as soon as ALYPH is nudged about something that he’s passionate about, his shy demeanour slowly fades and his face lights up with excitement. The rapper starts the chat by raving about Waze, a GPS navigation app that he claims is more reliable than Google Maps. “I can’t believe you’ve never heard about it,” he looks at me in disbelief. “You have to download it.”
“It really helps that I know myself and I know what kind of artist I want to be”
This eagerness in his voice intensifies when the 31-year-old moves on to a much more familiar topic: music. Having debuted as part of SleeQ, the hip-hop duo he formed with his cousin Syarif in 2005, ALYPH – whose real name is Alif Abdullah – has always had music in his veins. He wrote and produced most of their songs, including hits like ‘Untuk Dia’ and ‘Cun Saja’, which found success in Singapore and Malaysia.
SleeQ steadily conquered the Malay pop charts during their run, and in 2013, the pair relocated to Kuala Lumpur, moving in with Malaysia-based Singaporean actor Aaron Aziz, who signed them to his entertainment company Aaron Aziz Productions. Later, SleeQ founded the music production label, Magic Potions, to expand their work behind the scenes.
After SleeQ split in 2015, Syarif pursued acting and returned home, but ALYPH continued making music. He stayed in Malaysia to further his career before officially joining Def Jam Southeast Asia’s roster in 2019, putting him alongside artists like Malaysia’s Joe Flizzow and fellow Singaporeans Yung Raja and Fariz Jabba.
But in those five years since going solo, ALYPH has only released a handful of mixtapes. His last single was his debut, ‘Buat Selamanya’, which dropped in 2017. Instead of immediately jump-starting his solo career, ALYPH spent more time focusing on collaborations, building his repertoire as a producer and teaming up with the who’s who of Malaysian hip-hop: Flizzow, K-Clique, De Fam and Kaka Azraff. In April 2019, ALYPH joined forces with SonaOne for their collaborative effort ‘Detail’, a richly produced compilation whose tracks shine with a Drake-like gloss.
It was only months later when ALYPH had an epiphany: that he should put himself first, a decision that was equally nerve-racking and liberating. “I decided I should take a break from other people. But to get back into the groove of producing for myself was just so tough because I’ve been so clouded with other people’s sounds and producing for them,” ALYPH admits. “It really helps that I know myself and I know what kind of artist I want to be.”
This new freedom to rediscover himself and create whatever he wanted led to ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’, the first preview of ALYPH’s comeback project, ‘III/III’. According to the rapper, the EP will be part of a “three-pack” trilogy of projects that he plans to drop throughout 2021 in the lead-up to his first album. “They’re just music projects with three songs each,” he explains. “I love making projects rather than releasing singles. So I’ll drop these EPs first and then I’ll drop the album.”
“This past whole year has been a discovery of [this three-part concept and its sound]. To me, ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’ is not just a single. It’s a message to say, ‘Hey, everybody, I’m making music for myself again’.”
ALYPH says he never lets his music get too “personal”, but his songs are always inspired by a “mood” from a specific moment in his life. ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’ was inspired by one of his pre-pandemic trips from Singapore to KL, when he was travelling alone and holed up in hotel rooms before he got to enjoy the high of performing at shows. “It was an emotional journey,” he recalls. “Not to be too dramatic, but I was just feeling some type of way.”
The idea of putting out a creation into the world has always made ALYPH nervous – or as he puts it, “gut-wrenched”. But even more so with ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’, which he wrote and produced himself. The track opens as a haunting piano ballad before it takes a leap and nosedives into a whirlpool of booming trap drums and gooey synths.
It’s an unexpected hybrid with a slick and ominous second act, placing ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’ in a different class from ALYPH’s past, lighter offerings. “I was nervous to a point whereby [I’d think fans] would either be like, ‘What is this?’ or ‘This is too alien, a bit too foreign’. But I love the song,” he declares. “There is no other song I would like to start off a new era again with because it says something about who I am as an artist.”
Here, the rapper is taking risks to push the boundaries of his craft, unbound to any formula or rules but his own. Its storyline is mesmerising too, capturing the turbulence of life, from feeling lost and upset to experiencing the sudden rush of euphoria and hysteria. As ALYPH describes it, the song is like a “sonic Instagram Story” of someone’s day. “It’s following what that person is going through. It’s like life, it goes up and down, nothing is linear,” he explains. “I didn’t want to create a song that focused on just one narrative.”
Undoubtedly, the beat switch and grittiness of ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar’ has attracted comparisons to artists such as Travis Scott and The Weeknd. ALYPH takes it as a compliment. “I mean, they’re not wrong. There will always be a comparison, you know? I have no issues with it. I kind of appreciate it because these are artists that I listen to also.”
The idea, ALYPH asserts, is to emulate, not imitate. “I don’t want to do exactly what [they’re] doing, but to recreate how their music makes me feel. I want to make something else that makes me feel the same emotions.”
“I love ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’. There is no other song I would like to start off a new era again with”
The music on ‘III/III’ is the product of an artist who has taken years to smoothen out the rough edges of his own sound. Now, he’s finally ready to make a record that he’s been craving for. ‘Show Me Colours’ and ‘Kejap’, the other tracks on the first EP due out in February, are radio-friendly cuts that don’t feel out of place in ALYPH’s diverse catalogue.
This musical journey to ‘III/III’ began as early as 2015 when ALYPH started writing the demo for ‘Kuasa’, a gripping political anthem that eventually became a Joe Flizzow single. “I was going to release it as my own but I let Joe hear it and he was like, ‘Fuck man, this is my next song’,” ALYPH recalls.
“I was initially on the hook but Joe searched for a proper singer who could carry a song like that and he found Azlan [Rosle of Azlan & The Typewriter].” ALYPH was satisfied with Flizzow’s final take, which was released last July and ended a two-year hiatus for the Malaysian hip-hop vet. “I was happy with the end product, and it’s a song that holds a dear place in my heart.”
Will we ever get to hear his version of ‘Kuasa’ in the future? ALYPH thinks it’s unlikely, but as he says so himself, never say never. What he is sure about, though, is the release of his full-length album. “I really want that to be out,” he grins.
And what other prospects are ALYPH excited for in 2021? “I can’t wait to meet people and travel again,” he adds. “But first, I think I wanna take the vaccine.”
ALYPH’s ‘Adakah Kau Mendengar?’ is out now