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Despite the influx in gentrification in Brooklyn, New York, in the last five years, the city is a nesting ground for hidden gems masquerading as dumps. That seems to be the case with the warehouse we’ve handpicked for our video shoot with Philly’s trap soul child PnB Rock. The building of choice, which sits smack dab on the corner of Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue, is a beautiful disaster, with more potential than what meets the ordinary eye.
It takes several steps up the three-story building’s tattered, creaky stairs to recognize all of its potential, but upon entering the primary room on the second floor, a vision starts to align itself. The space is a blank canvas, already drenched in a fusion of aqua and teal greens. The wooden floors are stripped bare of their finishing. The windows, completely boarded up by grids of cement, shield the inside from even a single ray of the day’s natural light, although the brick November air seeps through ripples in the building’s architecture.
PnB Rock is nearly two hours late to his scheduled 1:30 p.m. interview and photoshoot time, which gives ample freedom to watch the warehouse transform into a Cinderella story, or at least a video set suitable for a budding star. As the artist’s approximate arrival time narrows down to ten minutes (stalled by the nuisance of gradual rush hour traffic), the room is remodeled into two halves, split by a line of three pillars. On one side, a white backdrop extends across the floor. The other side is made over into a raw setup with a pile of cinder blocks as the centerpiece.
The man of the hour glides into the now artificially lit studio space, disrobing himself of his black, signature print Gucci puffer jacket. His ensemble beneath keeps with the all-black color scheme — a long-sleeved thermal shirt layered with a button-up and a pair of Dickies pants and seamless Timbs. His ‘fit’s only accents come in the form of accessories: dark-brimmed glasses, a collage of tattoos inked on his neck and a series of gold chains all with the phrase “New Lane” stacked on top of one another, providing a 4D illusion.
Interestingly enough, he’s unfazed by the rugged studio space as the photographer escorts him from one half of the room to the next. That’s probably because he too has transformed the room into his own personal work space. PnB casually squats down on the cinder blocks before motioning to a member of his five-man posse to turn on the tunes (old songs from his PnB 3 tape and new singles from the recently released project Catch These Vibes). As the camera lets off its first round of snapshots, the rapper unveils a wad of 100, 50 and 20-dollar bills from his pocket, delicately sprinkling them on the ground a la the viral sensation Salt Bae.
The first time I got locked up, I was in Walmart stealing BB guns.
The multi-faceted room, which seamlessly evolves from a broken down warehouse to a professional studio to a makeshift club, mimics PnB Rock’s life and career. Blessed with the government name Rakim Allen — which was a nod to one of his mother’s favorite rappers and icons of the same name — he was, to put it lightly, a diamond in the rough. And as he would later determine, he was a troublemaker.
In his household, he constantly heard a playlist of soulful ballads and hardcore rap tunes. His mother introduced him to the sweet vocals of Musiq Soulchild and the power of Jill Scott’s massive lungs. Their sounds would ultimately kickstart PnB’s interest in approaching his own music with melodies and undeniably catchy hooks, but it was his days listening to the rhymes of Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and DMX that likely influenced his early memories running the streets of his hometown in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
He entered the juvenile criminal system at the beginning of his teens, after a slew of petty thefts finally caught up to him. “The first time I got locked up, I was in Walmart stealing BB guns. I got away with it three times before, but this time, they was on me,” he recalls, each layer of chains clanging against his chest with every gesture. “They had secret shoppers. I peeped everybody looking at me creepy in the same aisles I was in, but I didn’t know they was on some cop shit. I had the bee-bee gun in my waist, and as soon as I got to the door, they locked me up and called my mom.” But a sentiment that all Black kids understand shined through his anecdote: “I wasn’t really scared of the cops. I was scared of my mom [and] that a**-whooping I was about to get.”
You might have two years probation and do good for a whole year, and you make one mistake and you got to start over. That s**t happens a lot, and it will f**k you up.
Clearly that a**-whooping wasn’t enough to deter him from a life of crime. Throughout his teenage years, leading up into adulthood, Rakim saw the inside of detention centers and prison cells for robbery, drug possession, and other crimes. His delinquency would eventually get him kicked out of his house, forced to couch hop from one friend’s spot to another. “It’s only a certain amount of days your friend’s mom is gonna let you stay at they crib without feeling some type of way,” he chuckles. “So I’d stay two or three days, then they mom would be like, ‘What’s up with him? He got to leave unless he gonna pay for something.’”
So he’d dip out and slip into model homes equipped with heat, working bathrooms, beds, and an outlet to charge his phone. “For sale to me, means for me,” he asserts. He’d skip from model homes to vacant cars or a friend’s pad for years as he recalls, substituting one residence for jail when he’d get busted for breaking and entering. Perched in front of a camera in Brooklyn, however, PnB Rock’s rockstar image today is a far cry from the kid who once roamed the bitter streets of Philly. Back then, he wasn’t making it rain with crisp Benjamins in a room full of strangers and trusting that no one would steal from him. Instead, this period of his life was a revolving door of theft, other criminal activities, detention, and regulated freedom – a notion he attributes to a lot of men who get caught up in the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania, including fellow native, Meek Mill, who received a two to four-year sentence over a probation violation. “You can catch a weed charge and they give you an option of eight months in jail or two years probation. Don’t nobody want to be in jail, so automatically you take the probation, thinking that’s the easy way out. That’s when they really lock you up,” he says. “You might have two years probation and do good for a whole year, and you make one mistake and you got to start over. That s**t happens a lot, and it will f**k you up.”
I saw real killas singing.
For PnB, the options were clear: you can either let the system f**k you up, or manipulate it to your advantage. Young Rakim always knew he had a singing voice, although he never actually sang anything publicly, due the misconception that singers were “soft.” He had heard Musiq and Jodeci on the radio growing up, but their melodies were the only thing that spoke to him, not the subject matter of the music. It wasn’t until he visited upstate Pennsylvania that he met vocalists who broadened his perspective. “I saw real killas singing,” he remembers of his trip up North. “They weren’t singing about love or they heart broken; they were singing about the struggle and pain. And ain’t nobody mad at these n****s or looking down on them. I was like, I can do that, or at least try.”
Luckily, he had enough life experiences to set the foundation, so trying wasn’t all that difficult. And with the power of social media catapulting into the mainstream, it wasn’t long before his attempts at previewing his music began to show results. The moniker PnB Rock was born on Instagram, his account and stage name paying homage to the street corner near where he grew up, Pastorius and Baynton. It was through that platform, that he first promoted his 2014 debut mixtape, Real N***a Bangaz, which he penned while he was still incarcerated for a 33-month sentence for drug possession and an outstanding warrant. Looking back on it, his first project was an ode to the 30-year-old “real n***a” singers from Upstate who introduced him to the matrimony of emotionally rich lyrics and sultry vocals. It was also what got him signed to Atlantic Records one year later, establishing his sound as what he labels “R&B trapped out.”
His 2016 hit “Selfish” solidified his diverse sound selection. The single proved to be as sincere and vulnerable as an SWV track, while introducing a modern-enough twist to the production, engineering and vocal arrangement to help it climb the Billboard Hot 100. As the industry would tell it, vulnerability and masculinity do not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they are presented as repellents against one another. But in PnB’s case, he’s always believed in the coexistence of more than one emotion and sound. “There’s a place for [everything],” he says. “You can’t be serious all the time. You got to mix it up. I’m not always feeling down about a girl or sad about somebody who just got killed. Sometimes I’m happy… I’m still blessed. So I can’t really be stuck in [one emotion]... You got to make your own vibe.”
If any problem comes around, they going to look at me to resolve it. If somebody get killed, I got to pay for the funeral.
PnB Rock’s debut studio album, Catch These Vibes (CTV) sets the precedent for the type of energy he’s on at the moment. Today, he’s rather restrained with his body language and politely obliges any direction given, even when he’s asked mid-conversation to readjust his body mic that has fallen in the creases of his black shirt. But on the 18-track project, which he says he had more fun making than his past bodies of work, he’s taking command. It is indeed one infectious wave, fluidly rolling from Caribbean-fused tropical flavors (“TTM” featuring Wiz Khalifa and NGTMRE) to modern-day love songs (“Feelins”).
The project, while sticking true to the “new lane” he so proudly wears around his neck, is a departure from his previous work. It builds from the blend of hypnotic trap beats (produced largely by Donut and Remy), paired with addictive choruses –– a combination he previously explored on the mixtape series, Rnb 1-3 and Going Through the Motions ––but he says his creative process was much more organic on CTV. He didn’t write any of his lyrics prior to stepping into the recording booth, a skill he most likely picked up from his influences, Biggie and Jay-Z. Instead, he hopped in the studio and punched in when the beat moved him. “It’s easy for real for real, but you got to be on point with the s**t you saying.”
The album’s thirteenth track, “Pressure,” is undoubtedly his definition of “saying some s**t.” The reflective, slow-burning track illustrates the challenges he faced with the loss of his brother, the various headlines about him in the media (he was recently accused of having some affiliation in the altercation between Lil B and another rapper) and transforming into the hometown hero his friends and family need. “I’m the superhero now,” he insists. “If any problem comes around, they going to look at me to resolve it. If somebody get killed, I got to pay for the funeral. If somebody go to a prom, I’m getting the cars or the suits. That’s pressure. Everybody think that I’m lit right now, but I’m in the growing process.”
There’s a thundering noise coming from the floor above. It’s an awful, invasive thump in the otherwise stimulating flow of PnB’s thought, but it's also a sonic demonstration of the weight he carries on his shoulders. By contrast however, this pressure doesn’t apply to PnB creating his own version of trap R&B. It’s in his blood. He may be making more distance between him and his past street endeavors, but even when something evolves, the scars of its truest form always stick. And those scars, like the spots of peeled paint on the warehouse walls, are what ultimately makes the artist and their music real.