G-Eazy: Art of the Hustle

Going back to Berkeley with hip-hop's James Dean

Going back to Berkeley with hip-hop's James Dean
Written by: Carvell Wallace
Artwork by: Lindsay Farrell
Video by: Joe Maziarski

The hotel lobby where I am scheduled to meet G-Eazy is in downtown Berkeley, about 1,000 feet from where, a decade ago, he was a high school student named Gerald Gillum, rocking baggy pants and a fitted cap deep in the Bay Area’s hyphy days. He is running about 20 minutes behind, so I am waiting outside on the corner of Shattuck and Allston on a sunny weekday afternoon. This spot is quintessential Berkeley: one of this weird town’s busiest corners, where gaggles of teenagers from the city’s richest and poorest sections clump in packs through pedestrian traffic, yelling at one another, holding $1 ice creams from John’s. On this corner, in my life, I’ve seen everything from one person beating another with a saxophone to two teenagers throwing hands over an Xbox that got destroyed in the process, and lots and lots of kids freestyling and slinging CDs out of backpacks. Gerald Gillum used to be one of the latter group. Downtown is wild.

Two blocks away is the McDonald’s where G-Eazy got into a fistfight that has become the stuff of Berkeley lore. I first heard about it from a friend who was in high school around the same time as the now 27-year-old rap superstar. The plot is predictable: two rap crews, same school, dis tapes are made. Somebody heard that somebody called somebody a bitch. Now folks gotta go see about it. Legend has it that one kid got tossed over the cash registers, and Gerald’s picture, along with those of a dozen other kids, was posted on the McDonald’s wall for about a year. Later, when he tells me the story himself in detail, he does so without the smirk with which men often spin bygone tales of battle. Instead, his voice has a tone of absentminded grief, almost as if he were telling a sad story from another person’s life.

The SUV that's been carrying G-Eazy and his folks around town is already parked in front of the hotel, but they've disappeared down the block somewhere. But good news: Turns out their driver is an OG I know from my own years about town.

“You had a rapper in this car?" I ask. "Tall white dude?”

“Yeah, some guy,” he tells me.

It seems G-Eazy is back at his old high school, signing autographs. Looking down the block, I can just make out a crowd starting to form at one of the side gates to Berkeley High.

“What, is he famous or something?” the driver wants to know.

“Yeah," I tell him. "He’s got a platinum record. A gold one. Girls love him. You know that song, ‘Oooohooo. It’s just me, myself, and I, solo ride until I die’?”

“Oh yeah," the driver says. "My kid loves that shit.”

I've never met G-Eazy, so I ask what he's like. The driver sighs. “I had my little jazz playing, and as soon as he got in, he was like, ‘Put on some ’Pac, bruh.’ So we had to listen to that all morning.”

A minute later, a small procession comes parading in our direction, taking up the sidewalk and spilling out onto the street. Among them are a big bodyguard-type dude or two; someone holding a camera and shooting consistently; and a small horde of followers and hangers-on, shoving cell phones about the fray to get a picture. In the middle is the 6-foot-5-inch rapper, towering above them in a way that reminds me of Gulliver among the Lilliputians, dressed in his trademark black clothes, perfectly creased and impossibly clean. Not a hair is out of place. His eyes stay down on the phone in his hand, looking bemused by the commotion around him.

Watch the MTV News short documentary on G-Eazy:

His room key is missing when we make it back to the hotel, so the assembled group — managers, friends, photographers, assistants, and me — make hushed small talk in the hallway as it is retrieved. Gerald remains quiet while his two phones buzz in an endless stream of notifications and he deftly switches between them, texting with a measured focus. He is wearing slim, black high-hemmed pants, an Undercover t-shirt, and black suede Gazelles. A thin gold chain, nameplate bracelet, and watch accentuate his look, as does a folded bandanna dangling from his back pocket with military precision.

Once we are settled in the room and the interview begins, he is earnest and poised. He comes across as respectfully attentive, even thoughtful, like he’s at an admissions interview for a prestigious private school. He leans forward on the couch, fixes his gaze, and thinks before he speaks. On the surface, the mood of the day is celebratory. He is returning as a conqueror to the city where he was once banned from a fast food restaurant. Yesterday he opened a fashion pop-up in downtown Oakland with a 6-foot neon sign bearing his logo and lines of fans snaking around the corners; this morning he was chauffeured around his hometown, stopping to grab breakfast at a local taco hangout called Gordo while kids peered in through the windows of the SUV and fogged up the glass. It’s been a long decade since he was slinging late-night hot dogs to drunk Cal students.

As we talk, though, it becomes clear that the headiness of the experience has brought him to a trippy kind of overwhelming and wide-eyed nostalgia. One of the first things he does is show me a photo of him and his best friend at the side gate to Berkeley High School in 2005.

“Check this out,” he says. He and his friend pose against the fence, acne hidden by the shadow of their fitted caps, white tees running damn near dress-length over baggy jeans. They look like every teenage boy in Bush-era America who swears he's about to blow up as soon as people hear these dope-ass verses. The difference is, one of these kids actually did.

“The way I talked, the music I listened to, everybody just looked at me like I was an alien.”

G-Eazy's stare drifts to a point in the corner of the room as he recalls being a student at Berkeley High when Fillmore legend San Quinn was spotted near campus one day after school.

“I was so starstruck," he says. "I didn't know what to say, but I was like, ‘Fuck it, I've got to say something.' I just walked up to him and I was like, ‘Respect.' You look up to these people.”

Now, just minutes ago, he was the one causing kids to drop their backpacks and take hella pics. It’s wild. He tells me that his phone is buzzing nonstop with people requesting tickets for the show tonight at Oakland’s almost 20,000-seat Oracle Arena — a culmination of his 30-plus-stop 2016 tour. It’s his first time ever headlining at his hometown basketball arena. There are text threads going back years, he says, consisting solely of people asking him for tickets. “What makes you think I’m going to answer this time? It’s like the sixth in a row unanswered.”

I ask him if he’s nervous in advance of playing for his hometown crowd.

“It’s weird, man," he says. "Sometimes, when you stay so busy ... the nerves don't hit you, because you're just so preoccupied. You go from this to this to this to this. You don't have time to really sit and think. But it hit me this morning when I woke up, and I texted my moms, like, 'Can you come to my room? I just need to talk.'”

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

Gerald Gillum was born in Oakland and grew up on the Berkeley-Oakland border, an area where all of the East Bay’s cultural elements find a way to overlap. Graduating from high school in 2006, he came of age at the precise point when the hyphy sound, Pro Tools, and Myspace converged to make a new set of possibilities for local kids. He admits that he was never much of a student — his preferred course of study was to post up in his bedroom smoking and making the beats for his crew to verse over late into the night. “My favorite teacher was a Mac Dre CD,” he rapped last year on a track with Oakland hip-hop mainstay Mistah F.A.B. He and his friends formed a fledgling clique called Bay Boyz, inspired by the car-bouncing mania of E-40 tracks like "Tell Me When to Go," which G considers the crown jewel of hyphy. (I think it’s Keak Da Sneak’s "Super Hyphy," but that song only exists if you have subwoofers.) A decade later, he still remembers the first time he heard 40's sparse 2006 banger: "I was getting ready to go to school. I was getting dressed, and it came on the radio. I had my little boom box in my room playing, and my whole world stopped.”

Bay Boyz was a local clique with some Myspace fame, and a lot of CDs hawked in downtown Berkeley, but from the beginning Gerald had his sights set on the national scope. You don’t name a group in the Bay Area “Bay Boyz” unless you expect to reach a point where most of your fans are from somewhere else. To that end, he dropped his first mixtape, 2008's mostly self-produced The Tipping Point, soon after graduating from high school. The 10 tracks hit hard even now, with G’s homemade beats delivering a relentless, warped slap straight from his East Bay roots. At the same time, his cadence and wordplay have a surprising tenacity. He has made it clear on more than one occasion that he doesn’t aim to be lyrically elite — but there is a canny ease and accuracy to punch lines like “Mob dolo and get jacked, son, like Michael / That’s just hood politicking, being insightful / It’s me, fucked up like a typo / And with one call, I can change your life in 15 minutes like Geico.” No matter what you think of his style, his early work is characterized by an undeniable charisma on the mic perhaps most accurately described as: “Who’s that white boy talking all that shit?”

With hyphy and its kooky eccentricities still the order of the day, Gerald started to build up a zany rap persona, with a gangster nerdcore look: bright skinny jeans, dookie chains, and huge glasses without lenses. (Imagine if MC Chris had grown up under the wing of Mac Dre.) It was in this costume that he arrived at Loyola University New Orleans at age 18, having traveled all the way across the country to study at one of the nation’s premier music-business programs.

While there, he unleashed a flood of mixtapes and EPs — first The Tipping Point, then The Fresh EP (2008), The Sikkis on the Planet (2009), Quarantine (2009), The Epidemic LP (2009), and Big (2010) — on which he honed his writing and production skills and began to attract attention from a few big names. By 2010, he was opening shows for Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg.

Then, sometime in early 2011, Gerald made a life-changing decision: He cut his hair.

“The first time I got a haircut, it was like, Oh yeah, this look's fire, I'ma just rock with this," he recalls. "And it just kind of grew from there and became a thing ... I started dressing a little better … I just started paying a little more attention and just got a little sharper and just kind of grew up."

The new look he was developing — retro-chic, basic blacks, leather and denim — was in some ways a return to his roots. Like most Bay Area kids of his generation, his teen years were influenced by E-40 and Mac Dre, but his early childhood had more to do with local heroes Green Day, whose terse, pop-punk aesthetic and black rebel uniform were widely imitated in Berkeley at the time.

Back home, the grandfather with whom Gerald stayed was introducing him to another, even more timeless style icon. “A lot of Johnny Cash at the house, you know what I'm saying?" the rapper says. "That was one of his favorite singers. He wore all black. He slicked his hair back. Johnny Cash was a badass. I kind of identified with him, his story and what he went through. That's [probably why] I just started dressing in all black.”

“Who’s that white boy talking all that shit?”

A second, more important factor may be the lessons he was absorbing as he continued his studies at Loyola. Not only did he gain a new strategic approach there, but he also hooked up with managers Matt Bauerschmidt and Jamil Davis, who have sharpened and clarified his retro-chic brand to near hygienic levels — try finding a picture of G-Eazy today that doesn’t look like it was shot during the Eisenhower administration.

In a 2013 appearance at the Loyola Arts & Entertainment Industry Forum, Gerald and Bauerschmidt revealed the biggest reason for the image revamp: The other thing wasn’t working. “We, multiple years ago, in a time that won’t be named, had a different image … and we were just pounding ourselves against the wall,” Bauerschmidt said of G-Eazy’s dookie-chain era. “[It’s about] having the balls to really look yourself in the mirror and say, like, you know, ‘Is this working?’” Gerald added. “And if it’s not, go back to the drawing board and reinvent.”

In this case, the reinvention paid off. Hair newly shorn and backpacker vibe completely dropped, G released 2011's The Endless Summer mixtape, a retro rap concept album centered around a reworking of the 1961 Dion hit "Runaround Sue." The video — directed by frequent G-Eazy collaborator and then–relative newcomer Tyler Yee — cemented his unique brand in the public consciousness as, at the very least, “that tall swaggy rapper who looks like James Dean.”

Endless Summer was followed in 2012 by Must Be Nice, a free release that cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop charts. His first major-label studio effort, These Things Happen, arrived two years later on RCA and went gold, largely on the strength of the slow headbanger “I Mean It.” It’s a quintessential G-Eazy boastfest — slick punch lines, a comically disenchanted delivery, and lots of references to taking your girl.

His next album, When It’s Dark Out, debuted in December 2015 at No. 5, and eventually became G-Eazy’s first platinum effort, certified last July. By that time, the post-hyphy kid had managed to gobble up a sizable corner of the pop-rap universe, snagging along the way collaborations with Britney Spears, Big Sean, A$AP Ferg, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, Yo Gotti, Kehlani, and Tory Lanez, among others. A relentlessly prolific worker, he has also kept his local loyalties intact, working on tracks with Too $hort, E-40, P-Lo, Philthy Rich, Nef the Pharaoh, J. Stalin, and Mistah F.A.B. Even so, he credits his willingness to evolve past the Bay sounds of his youth for his success. “That was always my mission, is to cross the threshold," he says. "And, point-blank honest, I don't make a lot of Bay music. There'll always be elements in me that I can't do anything about, but 'Me, Myself & I' is sure not no Bay record, you know?"

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

Young Gerald's time at Loyola saw him beginning to flip his street hustle into a much deeper understanding of the business of stardom. “The business side was always in me, but it was very raw and untrained or uneducated or unrefined," he says. "The energy might have been there, the spirit, but I didn't really have the understanding of, what is marketing? What is a business plan? What's actual business strategy, you know what I'm saying? What's finance? What's any of this shit?”

He's getting fired up, animated, as he recalls his student experience in New Orleans. "These teachers are talking to me about this kind of shit, and it's like, OK, so a brand …”

He grabs a carton of boxed water from the hotel room table and compares it to the basic West Coast bottled water brand Arrowhead.

“I fuck with this water," he says, impassioned. "Does it really taste that different than Arrowhead? I don't know, but it looks tight, you know what I'm saying? It makes you think of something.”

A 2014 Forbes article breathlessly sought to cast G-Eazy as the wunderkind CEO of his own rap start-up. At the time, I read it with something of a jaundiced eye, wondering if it was just an attempt to overinflate a young white rapper’s work with meaning. But hearing him talk branding in this suite, his eyes flashing now that we've stumbled onto a topic he feels strongly about, I can understand it better. He is driven in part by a kind of perfectionism, a competitiveness that drove him to a music-business program 2,500 miles away from home, and kept him putting out endless self-made records even while touring and completing a full bachelor’s program. It is why he speaks at his alma mater’s music-business conference regularly, starting back in 2009. All of this starts to explain how he has managed to go from Gerald the high school hypebeast to G the brand, over a length of time in which another, less business-minded rapper might have faded into obscurity.

As much as Loyola taught him the ins and outs of the industry, perhaps its biggest impact on G-Eazy was showing him just how many people nationwide weren’t on that hyphy shit. “It was culture shock for me when I moved down there,” he tells me. “Imagine me moving into the dorm rooms, and I got the big ole dookie chain that was hot at the time … my Forces and my loud-ass colors. Most of the kids were your traditional, well-off, middle-to-upper-class kids with allowances from their parents. The way I talked, the music I listened to, everybody just looked at me like I was an alien. That’s where ‘From the Bay to the Universe’ comes from. Wherever I go in life, I want to shed light on where I'm from and represent that to the fullest, and always bring a piece of it with me every single place I go."

The question of how much of the Bay you can bring with you is an important one. From 51st Street in Oakland to Ashby Avenue in Berkeley is a heady melange of blue-collar workers, gangsters, organic farmers, and revolutionaries. This is the section where Gerald, his mom, and his brother shared one bedroom in his grandmother’s house for most of his formative years. The area’s current demographic roots date back to when black families migrated west to work on the shipyards and it was one of the few parts of town where bank loans and redlining allowed them to buy homes. The neighborhood became close-knit, community-oriented, affordable, and raucous. But from the time of the crack epidemic in the 1980s to the explosion of gentrification in the mid-2000s, it essentially doubled down on those last two aesthetics. To wit: The first landlord I had in that neighborhood was a scarfaced woman of black and Italian heritage who made excellent enchiladas and also threatened to shoot me when I told her we needed better doorknobs in the building. The second landlord I had was a 67-year-old white woman who frequently dressed as a clown.

One of the reasons artists almost never actually make it from the Bay to the universe is that what makes sense here doesn’t make sense anywhere else. The kids who created hyphy were raised by Black Panthers and hustlers at home, then went to elementary school classrooms run by Deadheads and Ph.D. candidates. Up until the demographic impacts of the tech boom began to reveal themselves, Oakland and Berkeley were — relative to the rest of the country, at least — as close to an actual melting pot as you can get. This was particularly true among the working class, a stratum of well-read, highly political, frequently mixed-race families who were still broke as hell because the struggle doesn’t pay.

More than most American cities, the working-class Bay Area toward the end of the 20th century defaulted to a shared culture first before dissipating into racial separation, and hip-hop was at the core of that culture. Locals say that Filipino rap, dance, and DJ crews were making waves in San Francisco as early as the mid-1970s; in the 1990s, Chicano duo N2Deep repped Vallejo and peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the party rider anthem “Back to the Hotel.” More recently, there was Richmond collective HBK Gang (which counts Sage the Gemini as a member), a clique whose diversity is almost an afterthought. It’s never been unusual for all types of people to rap in the Bay Area, so the idea of a club rapper who dresses like a rockabilly is less weird here than it is anywhere else.

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

Music is important in the Bay, but the real pastime is and always has been the hustle. Too $hort, the undisputed godfather of the game, could have never become a legitimate MC, much less a venerated elder statesman, anywhere else on the strength of his X-rated nursery rhymes. But his status in the Bay has been eternally conferred precisely because he sold tapes out of a trunk and made his first million doing so, all while smooth-talking the shit out of everybody. ($hort, a frequent stage guest of G-Eazy, has granted the young rapper the Town Stamp of Approval on a pair of tracks: 2014’s "Show You the World" and 2015’s "Of All Things.") East Oakland’s Stanley Burrell, also known as MC Hammer, was a teenage batboy for the Oakland A’s when he charmed the athletes into giving him enough money to make homemade tapes he could sell hand to hand. Nationally, he’s the butt of Hammerpants and “can’t touch this” jokes, but locally he’s known and respected for going from the projects to the hills on nothing but sweat and game. These men enjoy permanent Bay respect not because they are so dope, but because they hustled so goddamn well.

But this is the second reason Bay rappers stay underground for so long. The game here almost always defaults to DIY. If you were a rapper coming up in the late ’90s — post–Digital Underground, after major labels shuttered their Bay Area outlets — you “moved units” one at a time, hand to hand, from your backpack or trunk.

“I got on LimeWire to find a bootleg copy of Photoshop, and I figured out how to make a mixtape cover,” Gerald tells me. “Then took that to a print shop in downtown Oakland, and they printed up my mixtape covers for me, and [I] bought jewel cases, burned CDs, put the sticker on the CD, and would sling them.” His first years in the game were spent doing this: making beats, writing rhymes, pirating software, standing on corners, persuading passersby to buy them.

Around the mid-aughts, social media began to organize web content in a way that allowed the internet to officially start breaking acts. When his Berkeley High classmates The Pack went from local to national overnight with “Vans,” without having to hand-glue 15,000 CD labels, G’s world was forever transformed.

“I remember when ‘Vans’ came out," he says. "I remember that night. I remember going to school the next day and everybody was talking about it. Girls had it on their profiles on Myspace. That was the first time I witnessed real virality … a song really just, like, exploding like that.”

In some ways, The Pack’s “Vans” was an essential distillation of East Bay youth culture: four black kids rapping about a shoe synonymous with white skaters and BMX’ers, plenty of weed talk and a passing reference to guns, all whispered over the stifled mania of an off-hyphy track from an album called Skateboards 2 Scrapers. It was the surprise hit out of the Bay that year, dominating airplay for much of the summer, and blessing the world by giving us Lil B. Rolling Stone named it the fifth best song of 2006. Nonetheless, time would reveal “Vans” to be, in essence, a novelty song. It got by on a fidgety, headbangy slap, but like a lot of hyphy-adjacent tracks, the lyrical approach ("Since 1966, Vans had set a trend / Got a blue pair on, yeah, in a size 10”) was watery by comparison.

This may well be the third reason that music from the Bay has had a hard time, historically, sustaining its hold on America’s fickle attentions. With some notable exceptions, mainstream Bay stuff tends to be more about vibe than content. For all of his lyrical potential, G-Eazy is solidly set within this tradition. “A lot of my songs, I'm really just talking shit," he says. "I'm just creating a vibe."

His early work — punchy, rhythmic, and clever — suggests that G-Eazy has, buried somewhere within him, the heart of a lyricist. Perhaps if he had come up in New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Atlanta, he might have defaulted to honing his skills in that area. But operating in the Bay tradition means setting a mood first and foremost, and for Gerald the mood is partying endlessly and fucking other people’s girlfriends — he talks more frequently in his music about stealing your girl than anyone this side of Trey Songz.

“Music is important in the Bay, but the real pastime is and always has been the hustle.”

It’s true that G's visual appeal is the cornerstone of his brand. Even my female friends who claim to hate his music half-jokingly asked that I slip him their numbers when they heard I was going to interview him. His content with regard to women ranges from slightly mawkish confessionals like 2014’s “Tumblr Girls” (“I’m in love with these Tumblr girls / With skinny waists and drug habits”) to the downright crude (“You lie on pussy, that’s weak shit / We pass pussy ’round, that’s G shit,” from "I Mean It"). And yet it cannot be denied that his primary appeal is to young women and girls. “Understand, to these female fans, I am sex,” he rapped in 2015.

His natural looks — tall and rangy; sharp-faced, doe-eyed, and square-jawed — are no doubt partly responsible for this, but even if some of his ladykiller status came by way of genetics, he and his team have certainly leaned into it as a central element of his brand. While many rappers flex primarily for street respect, G-Eazy and his “wayward poet from the wrong side of the tracks” look seem primarily geared toward the people who want to fuck him, and only secondarily toward the people who want to be him.

But like a lot of rap and R&B artists who appeal primarily to women, from Drake to Justin Bieber, G-Eazy rides the line between playing the bad boy and the sensitive alternative. He’s the one your mother warned you to stay away from, because he’ll only break your heart. But then he’s one of the only significant rappers to shout out this January’s Women’s March on Washington. This kind of hurts-so-good dichotomy is the stuff male sex symbols have historically been made of, but the relatively wide spectrum of G-Eazy’s approach to women made me reflect on his parentage. He was raised in liberal Berkeley by a single mom, an artist and teacher, whose long-term partner was a woman. In a story that has become public property since he rapped about it on “Everything Will Be OK,” his mother’s partner suffered from severe depression. It was Gerald, at 15 years old, who discovered her almost lifeless body just moments before a suicidal overdose claimed her.

I ask him how he reconciled such a layered and sensitive background with lyrics about signing “a thousand titties.” It is a question he broods on for some time before answering.

“There’s definitely a contradiction," he says after a while. "I think sometimes in music you’re desensitized to some of it … I grew up on Mac Dre. At the same time, my mom is a liberal, artsy hippie lady who smokes hella weed and dated a woman while I was growing up, and raised me with these principles. It’s a strange balance when you break it down, the weight of your words and what does it mean to people …”

I tell him that my son once made a video for a middle school project in which he asked girls in his class to listen to some misogynist lyrics and share their reactions. A handful of G-Eazy verses about women were on that list.

The rapper leans forward expectantly. “What did they think of them?”

I can't imagine that he doesn't already know the answer to that question, but he seems genuinely concerned and hopeful. So I tell him: My son's classmates largely liked the music, but said some of the lyrics made them uncomfortable.

“Yeah …” He pauses, seemingly turning this information over. “Trying to reconcile that is like … a man coming of age and having this responsibility of, OK, I release this song tomorrow and it reaches hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, you know what I'm saying? It's played millions of times. It's kind of crazy …”

Here he fades off.

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

G-Eazy is 27 years old, but he's still coming to grips with the scale of his fame, and the social responsibilities implied therein. How does a person whose brand is all about VIP vibes and boasting about money address issues of politics, race, and misogyny with the depth and nuance they are due? There is always the option for a celebrity, especially if he’s a dude, and especially if he’s a white dude, to basically just stay lit and fuck everything else. And there’s plenty of room in Gerald’s hyphy musical pedigree for him to take cover in that. And yet you get the sense that he’s pondering more.

This is abundantly clear when I ask him how his appearance last year on a remix of YG's protest song "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump) Part 2” came about.

“I mean, our president-elect is a bigot," he says. "[He] is a racist, is a terrible human being that's used fear and spread hatred and manipulated the people through lying in the media to create what kind of story line he wanted.”

It’s the first time all interview when he has not had to search for words, and it catches me slightly off guard. He is clear on what he wants to say.

“I'm not inherently the most politically or, like, socially conscious rapper, you know? You're not just going to wake up tomorrow and be Common. But what can you do that is in your voice?" When YG approached him about appearing on the song, he says, "I just thought about how important that could be. It was a no-brainer.”

At the moment, G-Eazy has found a quality hustle that is also a fairly accurate expression of his ambition, creativity, and hunger. And he’s reaching some pretty lofty heights doing it. But I think of those verses in his early tracks from when he was younger — the wordplay, the sense of a lyricist's approach. I wonder if it bothers him that for all his success, he doesn't get more critical respect. “I've never been critically acclaimed," he says. "I've never been nominated for no Grammy. I've never been on no magazine cover. It's almost taboo to say I'm actually good.”

Then again, the question of whether he is actually “good” is, in many ways, a moot point. He could probably be a 50-syllable-per-line flame-dropper if that was his wish, but right now he’s running a business, one built on mood tracks, party bangers, Top 40 rags-to-riches stories, the occasional confessional — and, of course, a white dude styled like an Yves St. Laurent model serving up a fully accessible and completely genuine hip-hop swagger.

In a 2016 interview, Gerald identified The Beatles as one of his most admired bands, specifically for their balance of lyrical and artistic quality with mainstream appeal. I ask him which song from his catalogue he thinks comes closest to that goal.

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

“Maybe 'Random,'" he says. "Not that that's, like, a big commercial record, but that's just the kind of principle I try to live with: The music has to be digestible. If you go so weird or so niche, it just shrinks your audience. Even if you have something to say, it's like you're not reaching nobody. If you go so watered-down and so pop without any kind of respect for the actual craft and the technique that goes into it, you're never going to be respected as somebody who really gave us something. That's in the back of my mind any time I'm in [the studio].”

"Random," from 2015, is the track that most nakedly exemplifies his ambition, and one in which he lashes out at the perception that he was handed a music career by label execs. (“What, you think I’m paid for nothing? / You must be mistaking someone / I had to go make that fundin’ / I’m trying to be great at something.”) On it he is fiery with emotion, several orders of magnitude above his usual unruffled vocal approach. It’s important to him that you know his success is not random, but, in fact, earned.

“Random” goes legitimately hard, in both beats and verses. But listening to it again later, I wondered if I was holding back on my enthusiasm because of the way G-Eazy looks. If these same lyrics were spat by a black artist, would the track’s heat be celebrated unreservedly by critics? The truth is that if there exists something of a taboo against treating G-Eazy like a good rapper, it is because he is not operating on equal footing. It’s simply not possible for him to. Too many other venues in life see handsome white men held to standards far below everyone else's. Too many women and people of color have found that they have to be twice as good to get half the opportunities. Hip-hop was founded as a space for those whom society has offered no other shelter.

Or, as Russell Simmons put it so sharply in the 2016 Netflix docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution, “Rappers represented the voices and aspirations of broke niggas who were not salable to white America, or black America, or anybody else.”

Despite the passage of four decades, multiple generations, and billions of corporate dollars, aspects of this cultural ethos have remained remarkably intact. A white rapper does have to tread with more care, jump through more hoops, balance more adroitly the need for swagger with the call of humility, aggression with sincerity, in order to be taken seriously by other rappers and hardcore fans. Part of what accounts for G-Eazy’s avoidance of the kinds of missteps sometimes made by successful white purveyors of black music is that he seems to genuinely understand this.

One quick way to tell the difference between a nonblack person who grew up in the culture from a nonblack person who just claims it is that the former is usually pretty quick to realize they're not playing on an even field. They know that they must work harder to be taken seriously within rap, because it is much easier for them to be taken seriously everywhere else.

G-Eazy couldn't have gone national as a backpack rapper or a Bay Area hyphy dude. His decision to look like James Dean while rapping like Drake was a creative masterstroke — but it could only work for someone who could actually pass for James Dean. Regardless of his roots, it's his looks that allowed him to pass seamlessly into a classic American image of heroic maleness. And, on top of that, it just so happens that he has bars. This means that he is able to simultaneously present two of the things with which America is most relentlessly in love: black culture and white men.

I ask him if he still gets a lot of shit for being a white rapper, if he thinks people underplay his work because of it.

“I don’t know," he says. "Do you think so?”

When he turns the query back on me, again, I realize that some of his asking questions is not because he doesn’t have an answer of his own, but because he’s open to a better one. So I explain to him that, yes, I think his whiteness definitely plays into the public’s perception of his work.

Here, again, he retreats into a brief, thoughtful silence.

“I've never been critically acclaimed… It's almost taboo to say I'm actually good.”

“Please let this not be mistaken for a second of trying to complain about some kind of disadvantage,” he begins. “Because that's not at all where I'm coming from. That completely needs to be avoided at all costs, because I don't — I would never try to suggest that for a fucking half a second. But when you look at somebody and here's this skinny, tall, handsome white male who looks like he could have just stepped off a Saint Laurent campaign trying to rap? Nah, that's not your place. Of course your music's not good.

“But do I give a fuck? When I go into the studio, is that what I'm thinking about? I've been in love with music since I was old enough to establish my taste. That never wavered. I just fucking love music.”

It occurs to me here that I’m talking to someone who has basically been writing and recording a song a month since 2005. Even for nothing more than the sake of expediency, that level of output requires that you put your faith in something besides critical opinions.

“What I actually do put much more weight on, in all honesty, is not being critically acclaimed — it's being respected by my OGs. When I talk to E-40 on the phone, every time I talk to him, I'm like, you know, if he tells me I'm doing good, I'm doing good. That means so much more to me than what — and, you know, no disrespect, but, like, what a writer in any kind of magazine or blog would say about me.”

None taken.

photo: Lindsay Farrell/ MTV

Later that evening, I am at G-Eazy's sold-out show at Oracle Arena. Lil Yachty has completed opening duties, and the crowd is sufficiently charged. Onstage, Gerald bounces around incessantly, his lanky arms and legs flailing, exhausting himself to will the masses into a frenzy. He is an impressive showman: generous, humble, aggressive, relentless. His persona up there is almost unrecognizable from the soft-spoken, thoughtful dude reminiscing about high school rap crew battles, hoping to just get a chance to talk with his mom.

Still, he's saved something extra for this hometown crowd. In other massive performances I’ve seen on video, he seems to be at work, gamely delivering on his contract but still somewhat removed. Tonight, there is a sense that he’s legitimately putting on a show for the tens of thousands of fans packed into the arena where he and his mom once watched the Golden State Warriors play from the nosebleed seats they could afford. In those years, Oakland was a forgotten town, faded and unkempt, the Warriors an obscure franchise from which most NBA fans couldn’t name a single player. In the past decade, pretty much everything from the East Bay has become cleaner and more expensive.

For most of the show, he is joined by just a drummer and a percussionist, but after he switches from red smoking jacket to custom A’s jersey, from suede ankle boots to Retro Jordan 1 Fragments, he calls forth a song-by-song parade of seemingly every single artist the Bay has ever loved: Too $hort, E-40, Keak Da Sneak, P-Lo, Iamsu!, Nef the Pharaoh. Even Mac Dre’s mom joins the gang for a rambunctious, dread-shaking version of “Still Feelin It” that gets the crowd hyped, even though most of them were in elementary school when Mac Dre was martyred outside a Kansas City club in 2004. From my spot by the side of the stage, the sea of faces out in the arena seems to extend forever and into a void. There are so many kids — teenagers, mostly girls, in dad caps and chokers, bathing in the white light from G-Eazy’s vast logo, rapping along to every word, making hand gestures like they themselves are spitting the illest rhymes of all time.

Gerald, with his bandanna hanging out of faded jeans, his long, slim frame silhouetted against a colossal wall of light from the screens behind and above him, can command a stage from the center. He looks like a rock star. Exactly like a rock star. And yeah. The shit is not random.

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Creative Director: Rich Sancho