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Stuck in Limbo With the Inimitable Aminé

  • Words: Danny Schwartz

  • Photography: Christian Lanza

In this edition of FRONTPAGE, we catch up with the inimitable Aminé, who has just announced his new album Limbo, out August 7. Though not without his signature affable, low-key charm, the Portland rapper's latest finds him in a more reflective, nostalgic frame of mind.

Watching Aminé’s “Caroline” music video can evoke vivid high school memories of the days when a freshly minted driver’s license conferred upon its holder the freedom to meet up with friends and do anything — or nothing. The video, like the song, is bubbly and carefree; it documents Aminé and his friends riding around town in a Honda Sedan stocked to the gills with bananas, lounging around in the grass, and watching each other play video games. In that 2016 summer of #BlackBoyJoy in hip-hop (when Chance the Rapper, Lil Yachty, D.R.A.M., Anderson .Paak, Rae Sremmurd, MadeinTYO, and Desiigner also flourished), “Caroline” went quadruple-platinum and helped make Aminé the first rapper ever from Portland, Oregon to become a national star.

The video for “Shimmy,” the lead single from Aminé’s forthcoming album Limbo, is a collage of Portland-specific flexes, a tribute to how far he’s come. He cheeses for the cameras while flanked by a phalanx of lawyers and dances midfield at Providence Park. He stands, perhaps symbolically, on the roof of Mike’s Drive-In (the burger joint where “Caroline” was shot) and trades the Honda for a speedboat zooming up the Willamette River.

Just as importantly, “Shimmy” is a subtle homage to the heavily gentrified areas of northeast Portland, where Aminé — born Adam Daniel to Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants — grew up. In the video, he meets up with other members of the Portland rap scene plus Yosief Berhe and Jonathan Ressom, his two friends who co-star in all of his videos, to bike en masse down NE Alberta Street. He stops by Kee’s, a popular soul food truck, and heads to Woodlawn Park, his old stomping grounds located a few blocks from his childhood home.

“Woodlawn is the neighborhood that I grew up in,” he tells Highsnobiety over Zoom. “It used to be very much a part of the Black community. It's kind of turned into a hipster park now, but it's definitely the first place I got jumped. The first place I had my first fight in. Woodlawn represents a lot of good memories for me and my friends. Like our innocent adolescence.”

Rapid gentrification continues to gut Portland’s Black community, which accounts for less than six percent of the city’s total population. Aminé alluded to the transformation of Woodlawn on his 2017 song “Turf”: “Flipping through my past like I used to flip the phone / They kicking out the Blacks and all the houses getting clones.”

“The gentrification is insane,” he says. “I used to have only Black neighbors. And now my parents only live next to white people. The only reason my parents are still on that block is because, you know, I pay for everything. But it's not the same for a lot of Black people in Portland.”

His friends Yosief and Jonathan echo this sentiment during a phone interview: “You're getting chains of dispensaries on the same corners where police would try to nail people for weed,” Jonathan says. “I can go in there, and it's gonna be a girl in a skirt giving me a dub. Meanwhile, no lie, like six, seven years ago, homies getting locked up doing the same shit on that same corner.”

“People in Portland sometimes have the right intentions,” Yosief adds. “But it really irks my nerves when I go down Mississippi or Albina or through historically Black neighborhoods, and it's 85 percent white. All the houses have Black Lives Matter signs on the lawn but displaced a bunch of Black families to be there. It's unfortunate.”

Limbo arrives four years into Aminé’s tenure as a major-label rapper, at a point where he’s established himself, but is still unsure of where to go or how to proceed with his career. “The title came from where I'm at in my life,” he explains. “There are two meanings behind it. I feel like I grew up thinking that once I achieved one level, the next level would be easier to achieve. But as I've grown, I've come to realize that with every level that I achieve, every level gets harder, just like the game of limbo. It just doesn't seem to change for me, and it's honestly made me feel like I'm completely in limbo. I thought the older I get, the wiser I’d get. But I'm figuring it out.”

Bittersweet nostalgia for high school and college years has been a recurring theme in Aminé’s music. In this sense, Limbo picks up where his 2017 debut album Good For You left off. Co-executive produced by Aminé and “Caroline” producer Pasque, it features one song that is entirely dedicated to Woodlawn Park, another to Aminé’s mother. Other songs, including his recent release “RiRi,” wistfully revisit past romances that sputtered. That era, which saw the first, fitful yawns of Aminé’s music career, is fertile terrain for storytelling. “I miss being naïve. I miss hoping, not knowing what your future was looking like,” he told Pigeons & Planes earlier this year. “Just being in your room in college, broke as hell.”

Aminé’s rap career began in the booth of Benson High’s radio broadcasting program, where he and his friends once rapped over Flockaveli beats. “Then we actually realized that Adam was pretty good,” Yosief tells us. He spent summers in New York, working youth camps in the Bronx and holding down internships at Complex and Def Jam — staying with his aunt in Harlem, eating plain leftover rice out of her fridge when food money inevitably got low. After high school, he started putting out mixtapes into a localized scene that Pasque describes as “stuck in the golden age.” Casual co-signs from Damian Lillard (who came to a show) and Kaytranada (who sent free beats) were good omens that also helped him stand out. All the while, he matriculated at Portland State University and lived at home with his parents. PSU is where he met Pasque, and where they made “Caroline.”

“We found out about this classroom inside of the music building that was always left unlocked,” Pasque says. “We had a schedule. I would go to work, and then after I clocked out, I would go immediately to school and work on music all night, basically. And it was like that for about five or six months. And then, eventually, it got to the point where we had a good amount of music, and our manager, Justin, was like, ‘You guys gotta put something out.’ We decided to put out ‘Caroline.’ And after that, it was no looking back.”

“I remember him putting out these little mixtapes, trying to get stuff retweeted, putting freaking fliers on corners, and [getting help from] all our friends in Portland,” Yosief says. “The slow grind. I remember Adam was trending [on Twitter] just in Portland, and it was like a big-ass deal. I remember him having like 1,000, 2,000 views on SoundCloud, to him going like, 'Hey, this song got two million plays on Spotify, we're about to make a music video for it.’ All of us still broke.”

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Highsnobiety / Christian Lanza

Weeks after “Caroline” came out and started racking up gaudy streaming numbers, Vevo offered to fly Aminé out to New York to record a video performance of the single. He was in his senior year, and the video shoot conflicted with a finance final, but he decided to go anyways.

“I literally was told that if I failed this final, I would fail the class. So, I was like, 'I don't give a fuck.' I just didn't care,” he says. “I hated college. I knew it wasn't for me, but I still kept doing it because I have strict African parents that I lived with. There was no other alternative for me to live under [their roof] without going to school.”

Aminé’s affable, low-key charm and new deal with Republic Records facilitated his smooth entry into the mainstream. The summer after “Caroline” blew up, Malia Obama requested to meet him after his set at Lollapalooza, and Young Thug called him a “young legend” backstage at a European music festival. “I didn't even know if [Thug] knew who I was,” he says. He relocated to Los Angeles, where he has lived a charmed life, ensconced in a network of the city’s coolest, smartest, and most famous young artists. Late last year, Issa Rae — who co-starred in his 2017 “Spice Girl” video — asked him to guest star in Insecure as a dumb guy named Darnell. “I moved to LA just because, like, half of the features I get are just because me and the homies are in the studio,” Aminé explains. “Like, I can text Vince [Staples] and he'll pull up to the studio. Money can't buy timing. That's pretty much the only reason I'm here.”

Still, to a great extent, Aminé strives for anonymity rather than celebrity. “When people want to go to, like, 1 OAK, or the club, I'd rather just go to a small bar with a couple of my good friends and chill,” he says. He adds that “normal things” have helped him stay sane during quarantine — like meeting friends in the park with food, or his morning ritual of smoking a joint and walking his 11-month-old goldendoodle Oliver.

This aversion to the limelight extends to his relationship with Portland, where he is something of a modern cultural icon. He doesn’t go out to restaurants with his parents anymore, for the sake of their privacy. He expresses his hope that he could signal boost Portland’s Black businesses and the city’s overall profile in the music industry, rather than don the cape of Captain Portland: “I'm just such an indoor person, and I don't love that kind of pressure on me. Like, I was never really prepared for this type of career.”

Aminé intends to eventually build a massive compound in Portland, with a studio and acres of land. It’s likely to happen one day — just don’t hold him to it. Public expectations can be dangerous. “The main thing to take away from [this album] is, I'm still just a guy figuring it out,” he says. “I don't have the answers. And I don't want fans to look at me for every answer. I'm just a guy, literally. I'm just in limbo.”

Limbo is out August 7 via Republic. Pre-order the record here.

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