"What is it, it's July now?" asks Makkonnen Sheran, the Atlanta-based singer and rapper who performs as ILoveMakonnen. In fact, it's eight days into August.
Time is passing quickly for the young singer, whose songs miraculously split the difference between The Killers and Lil B. After spending the years after his high school graduation in jail, on house arrest, and making music in his bedroom, the 25-year-old experienced a sudden blossoming in public this spring. In May, he released a tape with beats made by the city's starting lineup of young producers (Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and FKi) and followed that with an EP in June, which Miley Cyrus discovered in July. Soon stars like Young Jeezy, a childhood idol of Atlanta kids everywhere, started calling. Four days after our interview, Drake added a verse to one of Makonnen's most memorable tracks, "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday," hoping that he, even as rap's reigning king, can still assert the song's gusty refrain: "I made my own styyylllle."
I meet Makonnen on a Friday evening in Midtown Atlanta at the apartment of "Tuesday" co-producer Sonny Digital, which is tucked at the corner of a gated community Sonny's mother property manages. Record sleeves are collaged on the downstairs wall, and there's a stripper pole installed outside the attic studio. Stationed on the couch, Makonnen plays with Sonny's German shepherd, Max. "Who made dogs?" he asks no one in particular. "Who was designing 'em? Bruh! How could a dog move from continent to continent?"
Before he was friends with the most successful producers in town, Makonnen went to beauty school. "I was that guy with the mohawk of every color," he says. "It gave me a lot of attention." These days, his hair is its natural mahogany, shaved on the sides and piled in careful curls on top. "I have to make sure it dries or I'll get sick, then I have to make sure the curls don't frizz," he says. This morning it took him 40 minutes to get ready, and he looks great. "Being ILoveMakonnen, it's like geez, I can't do a crazy color right now," he says. "I stand out enough."
Here, Makonnen recounts his story so far:
When I came to Atlanta from California in 2002, I was 13. My mom bought me a keyboard and I started recording beats. My mom would sing on my songs. She was a nail instructor, in the beauty business for 20–30-plus years. She's kinda retired now.
Around ninth grade, everybody wanted to rap and sing. Young Jeezy was the shit at the time. Everyone wanted to be like him and Gucci Mane. I was making beats that I'd want Young Jeezy to rap on. But that never happened, so I started making my own type of music: piano-based songs. A blend of pop, rock, hip-hop, and rap all in one.
I went to North Clayton High School, right by the airport over here in College Park. It was wild. It was a lot of people on campus that weren't supposed to be on campus. They had security teams and fights and riots. In high school I really wasn't weird. I was the funny guy. I was hanging out with drug dealers and thieves and the pretty girls that were popular. The kids thought I was kind of bad. Not reckless, but a badass. A lot of people really look up to me. I kind of represent them. It's like, they'll stand behind me, but they won't stand beside me.
The day after I graduated I got into a big situation where my friend passed away and died and I was blamed for his death. I was in jail for about four weeks, but it was in isolation, so it seemed like forever. It was so crazy for me and my mom. It was like, the highest of our highs when I graduated, and I was supposed to go to the Air Force in 20 days. Then the day after graduation, this shit happened.
It's a story upon a story. One night me and my friends were chilling in the driveway. We had just partied all night — it was, like, our last day to hang out and smoke one last time, say good-bye before I went to the Air Force. My one friend was on the phone and I'm in the backseat like, "Get off the phone! Let's hang out." He was like, "You know, you're really getting on my nerves." So he pulls his gun out and cocks it and points it at me. Everyone else is like, "Bruh, chill out, we don't even play with guns." He takes the clip out of the gun so he has a clip in his hand, and lays the gun on his lap. I get out of the car, use the bathroom, and come back to the car. He had the gun on his lap with the clip. I'm like, this guy's tripping and we're about to smoke, so I'm gonna remove the gun and put it over there by the trash can until we're done smoking. I don't think it's loaded or anything cause I don't know shit about guns.
I go over to reach for the gun and he feels it falling off of his lap. As he reaches for it, it fires off and hits him in the head, cause there was a bullet in the chamber from when he cocked it and pointed it back at me. So he's bleeding and I run in the house and get his brother. Then I'm running home crying and telling my mom, "Oh my god, my friend's dead." She was freaking out. It was a big freak-out fest.
That night, everybody's stories corresponded and the police ruled it an accident and said I was free to go. But then my friend who passed away, his mom came back in town. She was raising hell and saying everything, so the police wrote up this warrant and came and got me.
My whole life took another turn. I went to jail, then I was on house arrest for two years. On house arrest I had to pay $171 every other week, but I couldn't have a job. They just drained my life. I was sitting at home and couldn't leave. I'm in the same neighborhood where all this stuff just happened, rumors are going crazy. I was just by myself, and the internet was all I had. I had a Gateway computer at the time, and the Gateway broke cause it went so hard. And I had my keyboard.
I got into Bloc Party, The Killers, Adele. This was 2008, 2009 — the golden years of MySpace. I was talking to Adele on MySpace right before she blew up. She had the song "Homecoming" and I was like, "This is the greatest song ever! If I had a label I'd sign you."
I started doing this blog where I would interview people all over the world: ilovemakonnen.blogspot.com. I interviewed Lil B and Miguel, Tony Hsieh — he's the CEO of Zappos. I was stuck at home, but seeing them I was like, "Whoa, this is doable." So I started putting my songs up on MySpace.
I got off house arrest at the very end of 2009 and was put on probation in 2010. They wanted me to do something with my time so I went to cosmetology school. I was the only guy there and there were so many girls. I really started to understand girls a lot better. It was great. I'd be around those cats all day and have to scrap. So my mouth was getting sassy and shit. That's all you can really do with girls at beauty school is talk shit.
I was doing music for a good year and a half online and people down here were seeing it, but they tried to say it was a meme-y thing, not really serious. There was a big war. People really hated it or they loved it, there was no in-between. So I'd have to go to these places like New York, where my friends do chillwave, bedroom pop shit. I was in this band called Phantom Posse. I wasn't trying to be no hip-hop, I didn't give a fuck about drums. But I knew what to do to get the looks I wanted to get. I know this trap sound and I know this life cause I lived this life realer than most of these rappers — even though I'm far from wanting to represent a thug or a gangster.
I used to be a server's assistant at a restaurant in Buckhead [Atlanta] called Southern Art. It's Oprah's chef's restaurant. But I just literally walked out one day, at the end of 2012. I had a headache and they were like, "Makonnen, can you go downstairs and get the coffee cups?" I went down the stairs and just changed my clothes and left.
I just got off probation this year in May. I'm free free now. It feels so good. Those seven years after high school to now? I went through the fucking storm. I was depressed as fuck. I just wanted to kill myself, honestly. But doing music helped me get out of that deep depression, and now everything is starting to pick up and shit.
It's gotten real weird the last few months. This one girl I've been talking with, she likes it when I'm down and the music isn't going anywhere. I started getting real busy and at the top of June, I couldn't make two dates. She was like, "Fine! Congratulations on your new life. I'm not talking to you no more." I was like, "Damn, I'm sorry. I love you. Hopefully you'll understand one day." Then my songs started going up on all these sites and she's been blowing me up. "Oh my god! I miss you! What's going on?" I'm like, "I've been trying to tell you what's going on!" But now that Miley Cyrus sees it, she does too.
I've seen people in Atlanta switch their jerseys. People are being more open-minded. Still, I'm not too thirsty to sign a deal. Cause a label will really just take all your free music down and you have to be somebody's bitch. So I'm just trying to start some touring in the next couple of months. Touring and making more music. I'm all for entertaining a deal if it's apart of my agenda.
I wanna be remembered as somebody who went out there and made it happen. Who had the odds against him and just kept pushing through. I just want to be a reminder of inspiration to people, to keep going further and keep pushing the boundaries and creating different shit. When they remember me it should be like, "Oh yeah, let me get back to my shit. Cause Makonnen did it."