It’s been seven years since Cassie and her minimalist brand of hypnotic, sinister electro-R&B first burst onto a sugary-pop landscape then dominated by the Pussycat Dolls and Daniel Powter (remember him?). While she’s released one-off singles every few years since her 2006 debut, Cassie, she’s mostly been teasing fans with the promise of her second album.
But the singer surprised fans earlier this month, dropping a 12-track mixtape, chock-filled with features from stars like Rick Ross, Pusha T, Fabolous, and French Montana. RockaByeBaby isn’t an official album, but it might as well be; it’s a fully formed, stellar mixtape that should cast aside any notion that Cassie’s merely a hairstyle icon.
BuzzFeed spoke to Cassie by phone last week about what she’s been up to all these years — and what we can look forward to.
What has the journey to RockaByeBaby been like?
Cassie: The mixtape wasn’t always planned, and [it] came about in a really organic way. I was working — and still am working — on my second album. It’s been, what, seven years since my first? Obviously, for any young woman, over a seven-year period, you do a lot of growing, and changing your mind, and learning new things about yourself. I think there was a lot of that.
I switched labels; I’ve always been with Bad Boy, but I went from Atlantic to Interscope. That was a small transition period where I couldn’t put out any music, so there was some downtime where I’d just be creating. I’ve pretty much been creating music nonstop since the last album, but it just hasn’t been anything that has been a full body of work.
About three years ago, one of the executive producers on the mixtape, Rob Holladay, came up with the idea and brought it to Puff, like, “Why don’t we just try a mixtape? Why don’t we try something that we give back to your fans and still stimulates people and makes them happy with the product, but it’s not coming from the label perspective, so then people don’t have to wait for so many things.” Puff just felt like it kind of wasn’t the right time then, and we were in transition; I’d put out “Official Girl,” “Must Be Love,” and all this other music that was coming out, but it was getting piecemealed, and there was no body of work.
Were you self-conscious while you were rapping on “RockaByeBaby”?
Cassie: I wasn’t self-conscious; I was just concerned about my delivery. I’m a huge hip-hop fan, have been my whole life. I didn’t really expect to even use that record. It was one of those things, like, “OK, well this works, and I love this record. It would be great on the mixtape.” I did it with my labelmate Los, [who] wrote it. I don’t know if I could have done it with anyone else, because it’s really, really fast.
What was the first time you performed it live for Puff like?
Cassie: He heard the record before he heard me do it live, but he was like, “I told you you could do it.” He’s never concerned with me not being able to do something. I’ve always had the relationship with him and the people around us where [it’s like], “If you’re not comfortable, you won’t be able to deliver it, and we don’t want to put you in that position, nor do we want to be in that position.” Everybody’s always been supportive.
When was this all happening?
Cassie: Ten months to a year [ago]. I would be working at the studio with a big producer to do a pop record that would be a real single for me. Then I would leave the studio and go to our other studio and just create things with my friends that we wanted to hear. And then, quickly, over a few-months period, we realized we were creating a sound.
Everybody that came to work on the project was super excited and involved, which really helped. When you throw a bunch of writers and producers in a room that don’t know each other, sometimes it can just be awkward, and you never really know what’s gonna come out of that. Sometimes great things come out of that, though — you never really know.
Interscope will bring in all these great writers and we’ll have a brainstorm meeting, and they’ll listen to my music, and then create [something], but I don’t think it’s the best way, personally, for me as an artist to work. Because at what point did they really get to know me and get to speak to me about my life and the things that I want to say in a candid way, and not so much a setup way? Because I can talk to people about my life and what I want to say in any type of setting.
I feel like chemistry is so important in those kinds of situations.
Cassie: It really, really is. Especially when there’s something to say. You don’t want to jump out there and say just anything, and you don’t want to be speaking for other people. You want to be speaking for yourself.
Is there a statement this release has been building to?
Cassie: I think it’s been a difficult time in trying to keep people focused on me as an artist and focused on my music, and not what I’m wearing all the time, and who I’m dating. This was kind of an opportunity for me to really get people to hear my music and respect that. And even people at the label itself, when I finally went and played it [for them], there were certain records — there’s a record called “RockaByeBaby” where I’m rapping, or even “Bad Bitches” with Ester Dean — where some people stopped me, and were like, “Is that you?” Well, yes, it’s my mixtape! I think there was a disconnect with me as an artist, so [this] was my way of representing myself and gaining some respect to the extent of, “I’m here, this is the kind of music I like, this is what I sound like now.” I’m 26 years old; I’m not 18 anymore.
What was the actual recording process like?
Cassie: I recorded the majority of it in our studio [in L.A.]. It’s small and very intimate; it’s mostly me and the boys all the time. So, I’m in my sweats, on the bean bagchair, sitting around, writing, having a glass of wine; whatever it is to get into the vibe.
[I was] able to command the things that I wanted to hear, as opposed to having to cater to other people or worry about what’s radio-safe. I feel like so many people [now] are taking chances, and not really being concerned about politics. When I realized that this is what I want to listen to, this is what my friends would want to listen to, this is what we all want to listen to, and we’re creating that? And we get to just give it away, which everybody thinks we’re crazy [for]? It was an exhilarating idea and experience for me.
Is pop music something you’re interested in doing as well?
Cassie: Oh, yeah. Recently I’ve been working with wil.i.am and we’ve been trying to play around with some new sounds and fun stuff that is pop, but still urban. [And I’m working with] Toby Gad, who did [Fergie’s] “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “The Boys” record that I did with Nicki Minaj. All of those records are more pop-leaning. I have a lot of those under my belt that people haven’t heard yet.
Do you think the album will be veering more in that direction?
Cassie: I’m still getting reviews back and reception back from this project, so we’ll see.
How do you like L.A. so far?
Cassie: I like it; it takes some getting used to. I’m originally from Connecticut. I grew up there and moved to New York as soon as I turned 18. It’s been a transition going to the West Coast. I like the more laid-back nature, and I like that I get to come home too, so I have a balance. I’m getting used to it.
Do you feel like that reflects in your music at all?
Cassie: Definitely. Especially with records like “Paradise,” which has Wiz Khalifa on it, I specifically wanted it to be shot in L.A. and not in Malibu. I’ve been super inspired by living out there. It’s kind of an oxymoron, with the tape being [called] RockaByeBaby, a nod to New Jack City and being in New York, but everything has taken place in L.A. My transition — moving to L.A., making music, and being in one place for a long period of time, which hasn’t happened to me in years — I’ve definitely been inspired by it, for sure.
You’ve mentioned the mixtape having a specific “vibe,” which is sort of a vague word, but the mixtape really does have a cohesive feeling and mood to it throughout.
Cassie: We couldn’t really find a word for it. I was like, “It’s just a vibe, you know? You’re gonna just have to listen to it to understand it.” I always say, it’s a “turn up or turn down” [record]. You can have it playing low in the background when you have friends over, when you’re out hanging out, drinking, having dinner; or you could turn it up at a party. It works both ways.
You were actually ahead of the curve with your sound when you first came out. When this recent wave of dark, brooding bedroom R&B came out, did you recognize yourself in it?
Cassie: My first record was in 2006, and it did have a very distinct tone that I think I recognized over time people [were] changing it and doing their own thing with it. I’m not saying that I started it — [it] was definitely a great accident that I fell on that record. But I know that I have a very specific tone, so I wanted to maintain that, because I know that was part of the excitement about my voice in the first place. I didn’t want to lose that. So that’s kind of what I came back to with this project.
[Earlier in my career], it just wasn’t my time. I don’t know that now is my time, either. It feels like good timing. I definitely worked hard, and I hope that that’s accepted and people see that now. There was an artist always in there, whether or not people wanted to accept it.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.