This story appears on the cover of Issue 17 of Highsnobiety magazine.
The undisputed breakout talent of 2018, 070 Shake has made show-stopping appearances on Pusha-T’s ‘DAYTONA’ and Kanye West’s ‘ye,’ catapulting her to stardom. She’s one of the most captivating, enigmatic figures in hip-hop today, driven on by raw talent and a forward-thinking approach that marks her as a true innovator and a crucial voice of her generation.
When 070 Shake mournfully intones, “Tell me who sings to you like me,” on the second track of her debut EP Glitter, it’s unclear whether this is a question or a command. Either way, the proper response would be “no one.” She wields a voice that is strikingly unique — a husky, velvety contralto that flits between angelic frailty and monstrous bellowing, often within the confines of a single verse. At times it is downright primordial, a wail that transcends this mortal coil; at others it’s an intimate whisper, the hushed confession of a secret lover. This dichotomy permeates her work, and it’s no small wonder that such a marvelous gift has carried her from the hip-hop fringe to G.O.O.D. Music-signee and sudden superstar in just a few short years.
“I don’t want to sign to anyone but Kanye West. Two weeks later, G.O.O.D. Music called me.”
I’m regaled with the tale of her signing to Kanye West’s imprint at a dinner party, where she is serving as the guest of honor. “I had labels chasing me and making offers for weeks,” she tells the guest next to her, although by now the entire table has tuned in, rapt with attention. “I said, ‘I don’t want to sign to anyone but Kanye West.’ Two weeks later, G.O.O.D. Music called me” — a dramatic ending that, rightfully, earns murmurs of awe.
It’s a story Shake elaborates on when we chat on the phone a few weeks later. She stands by the claim that two-to-three weeks after feeling she would only sign to West’s label, the call came through. Not that she has any great belief in divine intervention, but she remains in awe of her self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Not to be one of those people — like the fake woke people that smoke a joint and say, ‘Do you believe in aliens?’ — but I believe that we all have a timeline already there for us, and it’s just about walking into it,” she says. “If you stay in the right state of mind, if you keep working on yourself, the more likely you are to succeed.”
There’s an earnestness and sincerity about Shake that allows her to share such sentiments without sounding like one of those people. She’s a deeply spiritual person, and although her lingo occasionally veers into new age hokum territory, which we share a laugh over, her beliefs are rooted not in “spreading vibes” but the very real, tangible power of self-actualization, of which she serves as a shining example. It enables her to tell that same guest at the dinner party, “I don’t believe in goals, I don’t set boundaries,” and act as a living testament to an ideal that would seem, well, shaky from the mouth of anyone else.
Shake was born Danielle Balbuena and raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, a township on the Hudson River that overlooks the Manhattan skyline.
“I love Jersey, it’s what I’m used to,” she says, speaking to me from her hometown. Reflections on her childhood produce memories of being outside at all times with a close-knit group of friends. And writing, lots of writing. “Journals, stories, poems, all of it,” she recalls. Even her earliest musical associations are based more on the written word than melody. She has fond memories of showing her friends the lyrics in her notebook, and them reading them aloud to each other.
Writing proved to be a lifeline during her school years, which she unabashedly hated. “I was a very big troublemaker,” she says with a chuckle. Her principal once told her that no one had gotten suspended as much as her. She couldn’t stay still throughout most of her classes, and even had a doctor’s note that essentially gave her carte blanche to come and go as she pleased. The only class that she could bear to sit through was English, where she was able to write stories and hone her craft.
In spite of the challenges, high school inevitably served as a crucial entry point for Shake’s foray into music. She’d pass time between classes beatboxing in the hallways with friends, and asked her mom to buy her a keyboard so she could practice her budding piano skills. That led her to experiment with beatmaking. While the majority of her school classes bored her, she had no problem diving into her extracurriculars. She looked up how to make beats and began putting music behind the myriad of lyrics she’d already written.
“It sounded pretty good to me,” she recalls. “So I was like, ‘This could really be a thing.’”
Right out of the gate post-graduation, Shake delved into music full-time. It didn’t take long for her to accrue the host of collaborators who would unify as the “070” collective. Her cousin came up with the moniker, which references the first few digits of their New Jersey zip code. The nickname “Shake” came from the days when she played basketball.
“I was Shake because I used to shake peoples’ ankles on the court.”
“Me and my friend, we were on a team and we’d call each other ‘Shake’ and ‘Weave,’” she explains. “I was Shake because I used to shake peoples’ ankles on the court.”
The 070 team came from disparate circles of friends in Jersey and Brooklyn, but Shake likens their joining to stars in a constellation. It began with two of her friends, Ralphy and Hack, and then they’d recruit people they linked up with and brought to the studio. This free-form approach to creating music led to plenty of wild moments with real repercussions.
“We were just fucking everything up,” she admits. “One time, we woke up from a party and the whole floor was destroyed, all the tiles gone. It was just bad. And then we got kicked out of that space.” Clearly they found enough time in one studio or another, with the collective unveiling the compilation tape The 070 Project: Chapter 1 in 2016. According to Shake, they didn’t even know they were making the tape until she was putting together some of the songs. Upon getting the tracks in order, she recalls thinking to herself, “Oh, this shit’s pretty fire.”
But even before its release, Shake was moving up in the world. A clear standout from the group, she started receiving attention from major labels around this time, culminating in that fateful call from G.O.O.D. Music. It was a steep but rewarding learning curve.
“It was the first time I experienced cooperating in a different way,” Shake says, comparing her early days with G.O.O.D. to participating in a relay race. “Helping out with someone else’s stuff taught me a lot about how to work on my own stuff, and how it’s cool to use different people’s opinions and ideas to form a masterpiece from that.”
These are, of course, the very same qualities that are associated with her mentor and the founder of her label, Kanye West. Shake takes a few moments to ponder a response when I ask what she thinks West sees in her, before answering purposefully, “Everything he’s done, how he does it, and how he’s perfected his craft — it’s a level I want to be on. And I think he believes that I’m able to get there. I don’t think he’s the type of person to work with people he doesn’t believe in. If you’re working with Kanye West, you know that you have something special.”
It took next to no time for the world at large to reach the same conclusion during the Kanye-orchestrated, blockbuster rollout of G.O.O.D. Music albums over summer 2018. The first of these, Pusha-T’s well-honed DAYTONA, featured Shake’s haunting, scene-stealing hook on the track “Santeria,” delivered entirely in Spanish.
The buzz her appearance generated increased a hundredfold exactly seven days later with the release of West’s eighth studio full-length, ye. While ye wasn’t nearly as well-received (critically) as the Pusha record, Shake received near-universal praise for her guest spot on album highlight “Ghost Town,” delivering a vocal performance that begins as an airy refrain and evolves into the record’s volcanic climax.
“It was awesome,” Shake says, reflecting on the now mythic process of recording the albums at a ranch in rural Wyoming. “We were so high up on the mountains that it kind of felt like heaven. We were really close to the sky and everything was so far below us. It was euphoric.”
As idyllic as their surroundings were, she was still subject to the last-minute flurry that marked each of these releases. Her vocal for “Santeria” was recorded in under an hour the night before it was unveiled to the world, while she wasn’t even aware of her inclusion on ye until hearing it for the first time at its launch party.
While gratitude for her elevated circumstances appears to pour from every fiber of her being, Shake has her sights set firmly toward the future. When I ask about the Glitter EP, released just a few months ago, she is immediately dismissive. “I don’t even want to talk about Glitter because I’m so over it,” she says easily but firmly. “I’m on a whole different level musically and I don’t even listen to it. I’ve grown so much in such a short time, and the quality of the music I want to make has to be 20 times bigger than that.”
“We were so high up on the mountains that it kind of felt like heaven. We were really close to the sky and everything was so far below us. It was euphoric.”
She agrees with my suggestion that she’s a perfectionist, a trait that should serve her well as she tinkers with her forthcoming debut full-length, tentatively titled Yellow Girl.
Our dinner party concludes with a jostling cab ride to an afterparty, during which Shake insists she plugs in her phone, much to the driver’s vexation. It’s there, as we literally knock knees while speeding through the empty streets of Berlin, that she plays a set of demos fresh from the studio at full blast. Even if they end up on the cutting room floor rather than on her first album, they demonstrably show a sonic maturation, a refinement clearly indebted to her hands-on, once-in-a-lifetime experience working with the industry’s best, and that’s not just because some of the demos feature vocals from West. Shake sings along to every word and bobs her head to each thrumming beat, embodying an infectious enjoyment of her art that feels not prideful but instead filled with a true joie de vivre.
A first glance at Shake belies this sense of unbridled energy. She moves with an almost ethereal sense of slowness, as if passing through a field of gravity greater than Earth’s own. It certainly doesn’t seem like the pace of someone who recently turned 21 years old, a birthday she celebrated before the G.O.O.D. Music album rollout had finished. Not even when hearing her revel in her newfound ability to head “to the liquor store, slam my ID on the desk, and tell ’em to give me my shit” — let alone the wild stories of the early 070 days — can I successfully tie that image to the graceful figure before me.
It’s only through music that her dynamism suddenly appears, casting a palpable radiance in the back of the cab hitherto unseen. Until now, it had only existed in relation to her art; it can be heard clearly on her songs and is aired frequently during her magnetic live performances. Playing to a crowd — letting loose and connecting directly with others — is one of the joys of her work. “It’s like playing catch with a ball of energy,” Shake tells me. “It’s definitely an ecstasy, like a drug in a way. It’s very important to both parties.”
Energy, in and of itself without a specific motive, is perhaps the one artistic through-line in her work. Energy coiled or energy expended, its presence courses through much of her music, and yet it’s tinged with a distinct air of darkness and melancholy. This is evident even on an aesthetic level, and seemingly confirmed by details as varied as her preference for Morrissey of The Smiths over any rapper and lyrical references to hard drug use as a teenager.
It’s also an unmistakable attribute in her music that any reference to an object of desire or romantic partner comes with feminine pronouns. This is no secret. “Yeah, I like females,” she tells me rather bluntly, but our exploration of the topic delves into a raw, emotional current that is channeled in her art, whether it’s a conscious decision or not. While her preferences have been evident from the get-go, Shake makes an explicit point of rejecting labels.
“I don’t call myself anything… I don’t call myself queer — I am what I am and I like what I like. The more normal you make it, the more normal it becomes. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
“I don’t call myself anything,” she says. “I don’t call myself queer — I am what I am and I like what I like. The more normal you make it, the more normal it becomes. That’s what I’m fighting for. I don’t want it to be this whole separated community. The less words you use to represent something, the more everything becomes one. It makes it easier to love one another.”
Earlier in our conversation, Shake mentions her closeness with her mother, who has supported her musical pursuits from the beginning. While respecting Shake’s decision to avoid adopting a specific identity, I broach the subject of how her preference was accepted growing up. She admits it’s something she’d had to hide most of her life, and it was initially hard for her mother to come to terms with it.
“At the time she didn’t understand, which is not her fault, but it’s the way she was raised,” Shake says, taking time to organize each thought. “The world that she was living in, that’s all she knew, so I kind of had to help her understand. It took a lot of time, but I can’t be mad at her. Nobody ever tried to open her mind about it.
“If you want people to understand you, you gotta help them understand. You give people a chance to learn something new and they’re not so bad.”
I’m again struck by the pureness of Shake’s idealism. She is unbelievably young, but these thoughts don’t ring with carefree naivety. Much like her bravura voice, they are rich with wisdom well beyond her years, and heavy with worldliness without the sense of resignation that so often accompanies it. I can only attribute it to a mode of thinking shared by her mentor, one that is relentlessly, if not impenetrably, forward-thinking. Although it’s another label she shirks, one can’t help but think of Shake as an alternative hip-hop star, the hybridized future of the hodgepodge that constitutes today’s pop music.
Shake tells me she makes music “to inspire people, to change people for the better.” In her mind, the idea that one would make art without that intention is “pointless.” Music is far from an escape in her capable hands. It’s a catalyst. It’s a pursuit of radical empathy, of exuding understanding and letting it latch on to others, drawing us to a place where — as she belts out so beautifully in her star-making “Ghost Town” cameo — “nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free.”
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.
- Words: Jake Boyer
- Photography: Vitali Gelwich
- Styling: Atip W
- Executive Producer: Klaudia Podsiadlo
- Hair & Make-up: Berenice Ammann using Charlotte Tilbury @ Fakepr Berlin
- Photography Assistants: Eli Zaza Moysiopoulou & Lukas Wenninger