Elzhi Drops First Visual Dose of “Lead Poison” & Describes Deeply Personal Inspiration
In the nearly five years it’s been since Detroit MC Elzhi has released a full-fledged solo project in the form of his Elmatic mixtape, Heads have been eager for his return. So eager, in fact, that many gladly contributed to the rapper’s Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise the funds necessary to record a new album. That turnout was no surprise, considering how celebrated an artist he is despite having released only one solo album and one mixtape. Considered to be one of the most talented – albeit underrated – writers in the game, his extended leave began to lend some serious wait to the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But for some, the truer adage was that too much of something is never good and reports began to swirl that some of his campaign backers were threatening to sue his camp, alleging a lack of a return on promised perks to those who contributed to his Kickstarter. However, official word of next month’s Lead Poison finally emerged, and with it has come Elzhi’s most honest, unflinching, and spiritually invested project to date. Its lead single “coSIGN” is an unapologetic with no time-consuming hook as filler – a characteristic present throughout the 16-track project.
The album’s announcement was released in conjunction with Elzhi’s revelation that, for many years, he has been embroiled in the anguish of depression, which he calls a “fucking black cloud that I can’t seem to shake.” And while much of Lead Poison seems to be inspired by that ongoing struggle, it is in fact a joyous and triumphant record whose content can be easily appreciated by casual fans or those dissecting his bars. And dissect one must, as it is an Elzhi album, after all. Despite the smattering of negativity surrounding his crowd-funding campaign and the inherent darkness in dealing with perspective-altering mental health issues, Elzhi spoke with Ambrosia for Heads at great length about his recovery, his hometown, meeting Nas, and more.
Ambrosia For Heads: Lyricism is a term that gets thrown around a lot in our industry, but it’s rarely defined in absolute terms. To you – arguably one of the greatest lyricists in the game – what does it actually mean?
Elzhi: Lyricism is when you take the time to carefully craft what you want to say. The meaning behind a bar you put together – or how you put a line together in a pattern. I’m really into patterns and playing on words, flipping different styles. But on a broader level, it’s somebody really taking the time to craft something where they don’t just expect the beat to carry them. They want people to actually listen to what they have to say.
Ambrosia For Heads: That word play is evident in the title for your upcoming album. Was Lead Poison at all influenced by the ongoing water crisis in Flint and the lead poisoning of the city’s water? And if not, what does the title mean to you?
Elzhi: Lead Poison is a title that I had for like, three years. What it means to me is a struggle – the struggle for me to get out what I wanted to say. When I think about what’s happening in Flint, I see the struggle in that, too. And it’s crazy because I was overseas kicking it with my manager and we started the promotional campaign for the new album and have been telling people to use the hashtag #LeadPoison and then it was like, “hold up, wait a minute!” I mean, we knew what the hashtag meant to us, but then when I found out what was happening in Flint – which is fucking disgusting – it still didn’t click that certain people can think, like, “is he naming his record that because of this?” So, I don’t think nothing is by coincidence. And so, I feel like me naming the record Lead Poison is pretty much a way for people to connect to [the crisis] and it a tool for me to talk about it, because I think people need to be put up on it. I feel like on a spiritual level, I feel like God is allowing me to become a small puzzle piece in the bigger picture of, you know, shedding some light on what’s happening and making people aware that might not be aware that just see the headlines. And maybe I can inspire somebody to want to do something, send some water or whatever. But the title and what’s happening in Flint doesn’t have anything to do with each other.
Ambrosia For Heads: Speaking of that struggle of yours, I’d like to commend you on the bravery in coming forward about your experience battling depression and for exposing the issue of mental health to your fans. I’d love to hear your thoughts on depression in the context of Detroit, a city that is far too often thought of as being an abandoned, bleak, crime-ridden, and corrupt place. What role does being from there have on your depression, and what role has the city played in your ongoing recovery?
Elzhi: First of all, I’d like to say thank you. I appreciate what you just said. As far as Detroit, for me personally, growing up there as a kid I felt like I was trapped in a bubble. It’s hard to make it out, even my mom – God rest her soul – would be like, “What makes you think you can make it outta here?” And I say that because she was trying to push me with that, but at the same time I think a lot of people think “all you need to do is get a good job at the [auto] plant and just, you know what I’m sayin’, provide for your family, get married.” A lot of people weren’t chasing dreams like me when I was coming up. Detroit is still the drive in me. The people I was around are still the drive in me. And it affected the way I looked at life and affected my craft, you know? Like, the beauty comes out of the struggle all the time. I mean, think about the Bronx and how Hip-Hop was birthed. It was birthed because, you know, they didn’t really have any music classes like that. So it’s like they made their own music and created their own genre. And so I feel like – when you think about J Dilla – Detroit’s music might be dirty. The D is dirty and beautiful at the same time. When you hear the music that he sampled, it’s really a representation of how I see the city. And when you think about depression, it’s like man…you talk about people that can’t find jobs or whatever, and you know, just getting by check to check. Bills that they can’t pay, and it can be stressful. But at the same time, there’s that overcome aspect and the drive that Detroit gave me. When people said I couldn’t get into the game because of where I was born…I take that with me no matter where I go.
Ambrosia For Heads: It does seem that there’s a sense of “getting over it to get through it” in the D.N.A. of artists who come out of Detroit.
Elzhi: Yeah, it’s kinda like…feeling that because we never had any major labels out here. So, as artists from Detroit, we feel like we gotta come 110% to actually get looked at. And we do that with everything that we do. Whether it be making beats or writing songs or performing.
Ambrosia For Heads: Royce 5’9″, a fellow Motor City artist, sat down with us for an interview recently and addressed questions from fans, many of whom asked when he was getting into the studio with you and Eminem. How does that idea strike you?
Elzhi: Ah, man. I mean I’m saying…my relationship with Royce [5′ 9″] extends like, years. We was doing songs when we was like 16, 17.
Ambrosia For Heads: Oh man, I’d love to see footage of that…
Elzhi: [Laughs] I remember being introduced to him through Proof. I remember Proof calling me up and having Eminem on the line and he havin’ Eminem spit for me. And Eminem is one of the best to ever do it. I remember [Eminem’s manager] Paul Rosenberg had me, Eminem, and Royce in the same place once and he said to us “Man, you three are going to run the city.” He believed in all of us. And we all have a mutual respect for what we do and, you know, I was just in the studio with Royce and we were playing each other’s albums to each other. And, I think we’re going to have a surprise later on this year, you know what I’m sayin’? I mean, I’m not going to put specifics on that but we should have a surprise for y’all, man.
Ambrosia For Heads: That’s not gonna be fair to anybody else in the game.
Elzhi: [Laughs] Man, I mean. We supposed to have been knocked some things out but like I said, I was going through my thing and he’s doing what he doin’ but yeah. I think the time is right.
Ambrosia For Heads: “INTROverted” is my favorite track on the new album –
Elzhi: Wow. Good lookin’. Wow, that’s crazy.
Ambrosia For Heads: – and in it, you mention eating when you’re depressed. Knowing who you are as an artist, that isn’t just a cut-and-dry reference to food, is it?
Elzhi: It is true, I mean like, at one point in time that’s how I dealt with my depression. You know, food. A lil’ drink and there, a lil’ smoke here and there. But I see a lot of people getting caught up in the illusion of – whatever the issue may be – doing things to make themselves feel better. For me, if I’m taking something in, or someone in like a friend or whatever, I want that person to be as real as possible. I want somebody that I connect with, that’s real folks, on all different levels. I guess what I’m trying to say is, like, at one point I fed into certain things to make me feel better but once you get your eyes open, you see that you may need to cut off certain people, you may need to cut off certain habits. Like drinking or eating to get over something, because all you really need is to be spiritually in tact with positivity and a free spirit. Instead of just trying to feel good at the moment and then after a while you feel depressed again. You gotta start feeding yourself spiritually, and if you do that you’re more likely to feel good for a longer period of time. But we all stumble and binge, but I’ve learned to feed myself spiritually and overcome bouts of depression.
Ambrosia For Heads: When the new album drops next month, a lot of comparisons are likely to be made to 2011’s Elmatic, your most recent solo project. That record is discussed in conversations about the greatest albums of all time, despite being a mixtape. That’s pretty remarkable, considering it’s a project done entirely in honor of somebody else’s work. Whether you intended to or not, I think most Heads think of it as an album – did you ever expect such a reaction?
Elzhi: Not really. It was just me paying homage to a great record. And it wasn’t even my idea.
Ambrosia For Heads: What? [laughs]
Elzhi: [Laughs] Yeah. I thought it was clever and dope. This person knew how much I loved [Nas’] Illmatic and was like, “You should call it Elmatic” and I said “wow. That’s a great idea!” [Laughs] And so I just went ahead and took it a step further. I think my man who gave me that concept was thinking I should rap over the instrumentals, but I wanted to go ahead and hollered at Will Sessions and brought him into the studio and we just created the joint. It was really just a labor of love. You know, I thought it was cool, we made some cool records. But the reaction to it, I think it really did surprise me. And, you know, there were people out there saying they thought it was better than the original and I was like “whoa, I don’t wanna say all that.” The original was the original. That album was that joint. But people were coming to me and expressing that opinion. I never thought I would hear anything like that. It’s all a blessing, man. Illmatic is still number one in my book.
Ambrosia For Heads: Was there ever a time when you were with Nas and talked to him about it?
Elzhi: Man…I went to some kind of event that he was at, and it was so much going on…and this was around the time I was going through what I was going through. I felt kinda out of place, and then there was just a bunch of things happening so I wasn’t able to actually say what’s up to him and really like show him the respect I think he deserves, you know what I’m sayin’? How he changed my life and being one of the artists that I’ve listened to and admired. I wanted to let him know that I appreciate what he’s doing for the culture but I never got that chance. But I did hear, when I was in Australia that somebody snuck backstage and asked Nas who he should be looking out for, and this guy told me that he mentioned my name. And before that, the dude had never heard of me before so then when I was there performing at the same venue, the dude snuck backstage at my show and told me the story. I don’t know how he keep sneaking backstage [laughing] but it was cool hearing that story all the way in Australia. Through little things like that I knew that he knows what the project was and that he thought it was dope.
Ambrosia For Heads: As I’m sure you know, it’s Dilla Month and this year marks the 10th anniversary of his passing. Are there any anecdotes or reflections on J Dilla that you think fans need to hear?
Elzhi: Just seeing the way he creates a track. Just how I’ve seen him create a beat in five minutes is amazing. The way he did it was so scientific. He was going through his mental Roladex and laid the drum and just think for a second and then go into a pile of records and just grab something and go directly to whatever part of the record that he wanted and then just sample that and then boom, that was done. And then he’d think for a second again and go into another pile of records and lift up something and put the vinyl on the joint…it was almost like he could actually pinpoint on a record a song and a part of a song that he wanted to sample before he sampled. He knew the record, so it was like…it wasn’t like he just would take a vinyl and would listen to the whole record and kinda just drop the needle wherever and then find something by accident. It was just amazing to me to see him, like, recall parts of different songs to go with something that he created and go straight to that little piece of the song, knowing exactly where it was at. Working with him was like magic. It was never a headache. It’ll never be another like [J] Dilla. Dilla was a true scientist in every sense of the word. I wish you coulda seen him.
Ambrosia For Heads: Man, who you tellin’?
February 2016 has been a densely packed month for Hip-Hop and beyond. With this year marking the tenth anniversary of the death of J Dilla, the annual moment of reflection on Black History, and a leap year, it’s provided plenty of time for studying where we’ve been and how far we’ve gotten – something Elzhi is doing much of on his forthcoming album Lead Poison, set to drop next month (March 25). His much-anticipated return after several years spent addressing personal struggles, the new LP is replete with both solemn introspection and celebratory messages, a combination perfectly embodied in “February.”
Produced by fellow Michigander 14KT, the song serves as an ode to the month’s momentous occasions from Elzhi’s vantage point. With references to the dreary weather, the death of a friend’s parent, to memories of childhood when the depths of winter meant snowball fights and frolicking with friends, the song’s lyrical content plays like the pages of his own personal journal. “February”‘s accompanying video – directed by Jae – serves up some intense conceptual storylines which star Elzhi in the role of a neurological study fashioned with brain-scanning technology. Reciting the song’s lyrics becomes part of his recovery process, as if unloading the words becomes a form of catharsis. He rides a bicycle too small for him as he transports himself back to life as a young boy (both literally and figuratively), and a clear allusion to J Dilla appears in the form of a man in a studio rocking a Detroit hat and an MPC, two inclusions which speak to the thoughtfulness and meaningful execution of what may prove to be the most important album in Elzhi’s career. A special appearance from a particularly symbolic presence in the last frame makes for a beautifully understated moment.