Armani Caesar’s breakout over the past 12 months is the culmination of the work she’s put in over the past 12 years.
The Buffalo, New York native, who became the first woman to sign with her hometown label – the burgeoning Griselda Records in March 2020, has seen her meteoric rise come after the ups and downs she experienced in the music industry and in her own life.
Caesar’s early days in music began during the mid-to-late 2000s when she was just a teenager; and it started with her having to go bar-for-bar with some of the greatest to ever do it in her city. Convening at Buff City, a recording studio helmed by her mentor and legendary Buffalo hip-hop figure DJ Shay, Caesar says the competition made her tough and stand out early on.
“You would have to make sure your verse was the hottest in order to make it on the song. I would always come up with the most outlandish s**t I could think of,” Caesar said during a conversation with BET.com.
“I like that it was always a wow factor and I wasn’t looked at as the ‘token female,’” she added. “I was just as nice or nicer than them and I was making sure that my verse was always first or I was closing it out.”
The Realities Of the Music Business
Years after sharpening her lyrical chops in her native city, Armani Caesar moved to Durham, North Carolina to attend NC Central. Going to college and learning from legendary hip-hop producer 9th Wonder, Christopher “Play” Martin (of Kid-n-Play fame) and attending their “Hip Hop in Context 1973-1997” class, Caesar said that’s when she realized what was possible with music. Her time in Charlotte, where Caesar moved to and has officially called home for the past four years, also provided her with some of her first exposure to the business of music.
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In 2017, Caesar’was cast in Charlotte rapper DaBaby’s “Above the Rim” music video. It would be a separate FaceTime call though that inspired her to continue to pursue her dreams.
“I remember him telling me to just grind and I would always try to do things all perfect and he said I just need to do some rapper s**t,” Caesar explained, adding that DaBaby suggested she freestyle more in her rhymes in order to expect the unexpected.
In Charlotte, Cesear made a majority of her income through dancing, which provided her living expenses, but also a way to pay for the necessities to record, brand herself and start a business.
“It was a grind, I literally just started from scratch, I didn’t know nobody,” she said. “It was more-or-less me grinding just trying to make the money first-and-foremost and two, to be able to chase my dream and do what I love.”
Years of that grind, including a cameo appearance in Wale’s “Pole Dancer” music video, featuring Megan Thee Stallion, led her back to her roots in Buffalo and some old friends.
When Cesear received her diamond-studded Cuban link chain with matching “Buffalo Kids” medallion from Griselda Records’ co-founder Westside Gunn in March 2020, it solidified her as the first lady to sign to the label. It also posed a question for fans and herself: what would she sound like over the Griselda collective’s distinctive grimey, eerie and boom bap-inspired production?
“At first I was like, ‘Am I going to match well with y’all?” she said of her initial discussions about signing to Griselda, who was nominated for a 2020 BET Award for Best Group. “We grew up rapping over the same beats and stuff, and West said ‘I know you a spitter.’”
Cesear says she was originally conflicted between her Buffalo roots and years of influence she experienced in Charlotte.
“Me and [Westside Gunn] had a conversation about signing and trying to figure out how that was – again, with me being down [in Charlotte] – most of the producers make more trap music than they do boom bap music,” she recalled.
A Change Is Gonna Come
Last year things finally started to change for Caeser. In July, she made her Griselda feature debut on “Lil Cease,” a single off of Gunn’s mixtape Flygod is an Awesome God, that Complex hailed as the 10th best verse in hip-hop up at that point in the year. She was also featured on Gunn’s subsequent project Who Made the Sunshine via the track “Liz Loves Luger,” which got a visual treatment, as well as the posse cut “98 Sabres.”
On her official Griselda debut album The LIZ, which was released shortly after her initial verse appearances, one of Caesar's songs is titled “Ginger Rothstein,” and on it, she raps about what has become of her life and the decadence and luxury that now surrounds her. And to describe her overall brand it wouldn’t be off to compare her to Sharon Stone’s character in the 1995 Martin Scorsese-directed film Casino. Afterall, it’s Ginger who catches the eye of all the big money high rollers in the movie – wielding her allure and misbehaved nature to attract suitors, and their big pockets.
The project also boasted production from DJ Premier, which Caesar says she didn’t initially know was going to be part of the LP. It wasn’t until after she recorded her verse for the song “Simply Done” that Westside Gunn, who executive produced the album, informed her that the beat was made by the legendary producer.
“[Westside Gunn] was like, ‘Nah, nah, we’re going to keep it like it is, it’s perfect. You see, that’s why I ain’t tell you it was a Premo beat because you were going to be nervous,’” Caesar recalled.
“Premo showed so much love and when we dropped it, he was so instrumental in promoting it. It was just an honor,” she added. “I was just appreciative and happy that he recognized me and f****d with my music because that’s rare air. You think Premo, you think Nas, Jay-Z – you think the greats. Still to this day it’s unbelievable.”
A Moment That Exploded
Caesar’s interest in fashion also grew heavily last year. Her brand Armani’s Closet had gained her a significant amount of her social media following. In August, she received a major boost when it was revealed by Fashion Bomb Daily that Megan Thee Stallion wore her multicolored “Get Trippy Dress” and posted it on her IG account.
“It’s almost like a full-circle moment,” said Caesar. “I was not on nobody’s radar at the time I did Meg Thee Stallion’s video, and she was just coming up. And now, to see her rocking my clothes and it being posted on BET.com, was just crazy.”
With all of its professional highs, 2020 wasn’t all roses for Caesar. Busy in the closing stages of completing her album she says it had been a minute since she spoke with her longtime mentor DJ Shay. One of the godfathers of Buffalo Hip Hop, the owner of Buff City studio where Caesar recorded her first raps and her mentor since the start of her music career, passed away just two days before The LIZ was set to be released.
“I hated the fact that I hadn’t really talked to him, and this was a person who literally started my whole career and gave me my rap name, so I was really f****d up about it because it’s like, damn, I’m supposed to be droppin’ and showing him all the work that he put into me and him believing in me, and he wasn’t here to see me drop,” she recalled.
Now Caesar is working on two new musical projects, one of which is The LIZ 2, a sequel to her debut which she describes as a continuation of Griselda’s sound.
“I feel like I have more to talk about,” she said. “I definitely got things that I want to say and more to touch on and go further and expand my talents on those beats because at this point this is my lane. There’s not too many females that look like me that are rapping on those types of beats.”
The other, Caesar says, is “an expansion” of the sound she was creating before she signed to Griselda, which will feature more radio-friendly songs that her original fans are familiar with.
Armani Caesar’s ascension in music and fashion will be on full display in the coming months and years. “I want to be a mogul, that’s my goal. I am going to be a mogul,” she said. For her, being part of Griselda and their movement is also what helps inspire her to grow, learn, and create the best of what’s to come from her.
“It’s amazing what they’ve accomplished and what we’re going to accomplish,” she said. “I’m just super proud of all of us.”
Photo: The Jamison Agency