New Sensations

Fivio Foreign: ‘Pop Smoke was my brother – I have to keep his name alive’

The Brooklyn rapper has worked with Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and Drake to usher the controversial drill genre into the mainstream. He speaks with Annabel Nugent about the legacy of his predecessor Pop Smoke, sitting down with mayor Eric Adams to discuss the city’s gang warfare, and changing his lyrics to please Beyoncé

Sunday 08 May 2022 08:06
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<p>Fivio Foreign’s debut album offers a softer side to drill, with talk of guns and gangs kept to a minimum </p>

Fivio Foreign’s debut album offers a softer side to drill, with talk of guns and gangs kept to a minimum

​​Fivio Foreign isn’t in the mood to chat. It’s morning in New York City, where the rapper grew up and continues to live, and he was up late last night in the studio. Never mind that his debut album dropped only a week ago; relaxation isn’t on the agenda. After all, collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Drake, Alicia Keys, and Kanye West don’t materialise through rest. They’re the product of day-in, day-out grinding. “I’m in the studio every day,” he says over Zoom, his camera off. “I just woke up.” His baritone voice, typically heard growling over a club sound system, is heavy with sleep.

“Crazy” is how Fivio describes the release of BIBLE, his Kanye West-produced debut. Offering a softer side to drill, the album trades in catchy choruses and R&B inflections, which make it accessible to masses beyond the genre’s most hardcore demographic. It might be just the thing to finally take drill mainstream. The 32-year-old, real name Maxie Lee Ryles III, is in a similar state of shock over the fact West wanted to work with him. “I didn’t believe it at first. But then, the way my career is going, man, anything is possible.” BIBLE is the latest chapter in Fivio’s fast track to hip-hop’s upper tier. In short order, Fivio found his feet with the 2019 ad-lib “Big Drip”. He then went viral on a remix of “Body” by UK rappers Russ Millions and Tion Wayne. Over the next few years, he released tracks with Nas, Drake, and French Montana. He held his own on West’s “DONDA” and Nicki Minaj’s recently released “We Go Up”.

Along the way, Fivio has emerged as the new voice of Brooklyn drill, a descendent of the Chicago-born rap style with links to gangs and violence. Melding punishing drum patterns with hectic basslines, the genre’s sound is just as ominous and menacing as the lyrics.

Drill, named after the Chicago slang for “kill”, made its way to New York via London when British producers began uploading their take on drill beats to YouTube, free for the taking for burgeoning rappers such as Fivio.

Up until recently, Brooklyn drill was associated with another name: Pop Smoke. The 20-year-old big-hitter – behind tracks including “Dior” and “Christopher Walking” – was poised for an international breakthrough when he was killed in February 2020. Although Fivio was around a decade older, the pair were good friends. Pop tried to convince the label that signed him to sign Fivio too. After he died, Fivio was one of few potential successors to the throne. On BIBLE’s lead single, he proclaims that coronation complete: “Welcome to the city of gods/ Pop was the king of New York/ Now I’m the n***a in charge.” Fivio sees the album as a tribute to his late friend and teacher. “I definitely want to continue his legacy. That’s my brother, so I got to keep his name alive,” he says. “I learnt a lot from him. I might not have asked questions but I’m always watching.”

It helped that Pop and Fivio were on the same side of the Brooklyn gang war. Their music, at least to begin with, was tightly bound to those violent roots. Lyrics in drill – the brutal threats and the hyperlocal specificity of those threats – have been linked to real-life acts of violence. Law enforcement and politicians in cities like Chicago, London and New York have connected the rise in popularity of drill with a surge in knife crime and shootings. Fivio is on a mission to sever that association. Though vague on the subject, he is passionate about ensuring that his chosen genre is not reduced to a monolith. “Think about it. It’s the violence that comes first, not the music. It’s the same with anything. Heartbreak comes first, not music about heartbreak,” he says. Like any musician, a drill rapper takes inspiration from their surroundings. For the lyrics to change, ultimately the surroundings need to as well. But in the meantime, Fivio is working tirelessly to prove that drill is not inherently violent.

‘I’m a strong person. I don’t like to depend on anything, even if it’s drugs’

There is evidence of that aim all over BIBLE, a drill album notably lacking in the genre’s typical idiom of guns and gangs. The Fivio who once penned bloodthirsty threats on tracks like “Blixky Inna Box” – a “blicky” is a gun, and “Blixky” (the x is silent) is the name of a rival crew – is no more. “Those days are definitely behind me,” he says. Outside of the studio too, Fivio is making inroads. In February, mere days before Pop was killed, Fivio was one of many rappers to meet with New York’s mayor Eric Adams to discuss the role that drill plays in fanning the flames of gang rivalry. While it was reported that Adams had organised the summit, it was, in fact, Fivio who reached out to him. “I mean, I just feel like I got a responsibility so I gotta let it be known, ya know?” As for what was said in the meeting, Fivio is characteristically opaque but says that the mayor “didn’t want to ban drill music as much as people thought he did”.

It helps that this aim of Fivio’s goes hand in hand with his other ambition: go mainstream – or to use his favourite catchphrase, “go viral”. On his debut, creative decisions have been made with crossover appeal in mind. There is a feature from the young R&B artist Chloë Bailey; a collab with Ne-Yo; and a radio-ready Destiny’s Child sample on “What’s My Name”, which Fivio needed to change the lyrics to in order to clear (“Beyoncé thought it was too vulgar”). The “City of Gods” chorus comes courtesy of pop duo The Chainsmokers. There remain some references to Fivio’s controversial past (“Left Side” nods to his affiliation with the Crips), but they’re sparse and subtle. And while the rapper says he is “inspired by everyday life”, he clarifies that any illegal activities featured in his rhymes are “of course, not true”.

Out of necessity for work and life, Fivio is making a quieter life for himself. He has a smaller group of people around him and has hired a professional security guard. He also relocated with his three children to the far side of the Hudson river and has eased up on the partying. “I’m saying I want to focus up more. I’m saying I want to be more natural,” he says. “I’m a strong person. I don’t like to depend on anything, even if it’s drugs.” Is it hard to maintain part-time sobriety in an industry renowned for partying? “Nah,” he says nonchalantly. Although admittedly too busy to go to church, Fivio stays in prayer. Speaking about his career, and the sometimes unbelievable path it has taken, Fivio says, “Whatever happens, that’s God’s plan-type s***.”

From the outside looking in, Fivio’s rise seems to have happened overnight; a Cinderella story helped along by some of the most powerful co-signs in the industry. But to Fivio, success has felt gradual and hard-earned. “I worked every day and I felt it every day and I thought about it every day and I went through the s*** every day so this s*** don’t feel sudden to me,” he says. “To me, this s*** felt like a real thing.”

BIBLE is available to listen to on all streaming platforms

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