Cordae on reviving the golden age of hip-hop: “I have a story on every single song”

On new album ‘From A Birds Eye View’, the Maryland rapper takes the baton from the greats. "I'm gonna live some good life," he tells Kyann-Sian Williams, "but mostly I want to help the world"

Music always moves in circles, as the sounds loved in yesteryear are revived by fresh faces with modern takes on a once-popular genre. After we entered a new millennium, the storytelling adored by ‘80s and ‘90s rappers started to dwindle into today’s rap culture, with melodic efforts often succeeding much more than those with more meaningful tales to tell.

READ MORE: Cordae – ‘From A Birds Eye View’ review: confident rhymes and nostalgic hip-hop sounds

In comes Cordae, a 24-year-old from Maryland who focuses more on lyricism than the superficial catchiness of his delivery. Having decided to become a rapper like those he heard in the back of his mother’s car at the age of four, he comes off as a hip-hop revivalist. He’s been widely dubbed the next Nas or Jay-Z, but Cordae isn’t phased by the hype: “There’s not any pressure to be the next anybody. I can’t be a Nas or Jay Z because there’s already a Jay Z and a Nas. I can just be me, and be the best Cordae there ever was.”

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Cordae’s 2019 debut album was a solid introduction to the world, showing that he was more than just another popular artist soon to be lost in the digital ether. ‘The Lost Boy’ hosted confident tracks that showcased his expert lyricism and ability to harness the slick wordplay and addictive melodies of the greats. And Cordae has made magic again on his latest feat, creating a dreamy assortment of high-quality hits of aural bliss. Of the process behind his second, five-star album ‘From A Birds Eye View’, he says: “It was fun. I literally have a story on every single song. Every single song has a story attached to it.”

Take ‘Jean-Michel’, a dark and sombre track about its author’s survival instinct: “I created that in the middle of a pandemic. That’s why it’s so dark. And it feels like despair and hopelessness because it was made in that very beginning of the pandemic. “Brink of Extinction, hell bent on survival / This life’s a continuous cycle” is what I was feeling at the time.”

Album two is a clear example of just how special Cordae’s musical ear is, as he chose awe-inspiring beats and perfectly matched collaborators. Laidback love song ‘Chronicles’ features R&B superstar H.E.R and drill legend Lil Durk, while the booming ‘Today’ boasts YSL signee and trap guy Gunna. It’s safe to say Cordae knew that his choices were a bit odd, but would work so well.

“As soon as I made ‘Chronicles’, I was like, ‘Yo, I gotta put H.E.R and Lil Durk on this, even though it may sound like a weird combination,’” he reveals. “But it’s the perfect combo for this one. For ‘Today’, I got Gunna on there because, at the time, I was like, ‘Man, I need some music to perform onstage’.” Cordae is already thinking of worldwide arena tours, and says: “I would make a song and instantly think of a tone that’s going to be dope and add color to this. It was definitely a blessing to have everybody on this record who I’m really cool with in real life”.

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ordae, it seems, goes right down to the wire with record releases. NME speaks to him a couple of days before ‘From A Birds Eye View’ drops in mid-January, and on our advance stream, album track ‘Champagne Glasses’ sees the Maryland-born rapper go toe-to-toe with Brooklyn’s own Nas. Cordae appeared in the video for Nas’ 2021 single ‘Brunch on Sunday’, and says of the icon: “Nas has been a mentor of mine. He is somebody I text every now and then and stay in contact with pretty often”.

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Yet, curiously, when the album is officially released, Nas is nowhere to be seen, having been replaced by Indiana gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs. Conversely, while our stream bears no trace of Eminem, the version of the album on streaming services finds the Detroit legend gracing a remix of Cordae’s moody 2020 single ‘Parables’, returning the compliment the younger artist paid when he covered ‘My Name Is’ back in 2017. In typically provocative style, Em takes a swipe at hip-hop villain Tekashi 6ix9ine: “I treat the beat like it’s Tekashi.” 

More significantly, though, Cordae’s brother Shiloh opens ‘From A Birds Eye View’ on the fittingly titled ‘Shiloh’s Intro’, rapping artfully over the phone from a Maryland prison, where he’s unfortunately serving a 24-year sentence for armed robbery. “It was only fitting [to let him open the album],” Cordae says, “because he was blowing up before me so why not pay homage to him?” Shiloh’s dexterous, a capella verse is absolutely stellar, sadly underlining the fact that he can’t live out his dreams like his brother.

Asked if he feels any survivor’s guilt about his sibling’s incarceration, Cordae references the album’s languid track ‘Momma’s Hood’: “I made that right after one of my best friends from back home got killed… I was dealing with a definite survivor’s guilt at that time, because I had just seen him three days prior.”

He’s seen as a bridge between the old and new schools of hip-hop, but does the Gen-Z star still believe that there’s true hip-hop in rap today? “It’s a lot of dope artists right now pushing this hip-hop shit,” he says. “I don’t really think it’s something that needs to be revived. I mean, the biggest artists in the world are hip-hop artists that can actually rap they asses off. You know, [Dr.] Dre can actually rap, Kendrick – you know, that goes without saying: [he] can rap. And so on!

“I think there’s a balance of both melody and meaning. There are incredible artists – don’t get it twisted – saying some dope things, and are extremely talented. Melody within itself is a talent, and music is forever has always been emotion-based: What can you do to tap into people’s emotions? The easiest way to do that is melodies. As long as you’re saying something with insight with depth and meaning to it, it’s undefeated. I don’t feel like my music is overlooked or fallen on deaf ears. There’s an audience for everything and so there’s plenty of space for everything.”

“There’s no pressure to be the next anybody. I can just be the best Cordae there ever was”

Cordae seems extremely switched on to everything around him and his journey to success, and the most important thing to this youngster is humility. Yes, he does tell NME that the next time he speaks to us he’ll be “the Grammy Award-winning, multi-Platinum selling, arena-touring artist”, but he is very much aware of the privilege he has to eat off of his creativity.

“I have Hi Level, my [media]  brand and record label – that’s going to be a multi-billion dollar thing in the future,” he says. “But I don’t want to just get super wealthy – I’ma self-indulge a little bit. I’m gonna live some good life for sure, but mostly I want to help the world. I’m enjoying the journey every step of the way from the – you know, the ups the downs of everything”.

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