The most telling moment of my talk with local rapper Leek Lone (the stage name of Malik Malone) occurred after the interview had officially ended and we were about to go our separate ways. I can’t quote exactly, since I had stopped recording by that point, but he said something along the lines of, “Just make it about the music. People don’t need to know stuff about me.” Ironically enough, that moment reveals a lot about Malone both as a person and as an artist. The same message that runs throughout his new album blckboyfromaroundtheway is also clear in everyday conversation: for Malone, music is the means and the end, the alpha and the omega, the journey and the destination. So, in a way, it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the person. I’ll do my best here, though. I’m not including any pictures—they aren’t necessary—and I’m not going in-depth on Malone’s backstory; he’s moved around some, but has lived in Pittsburgh for 10 years and sees it as home. Music is guiding him on a mission to self-realization and self-betterment, and that’s the most important takeaway here.
I came across blckboyfromaroundtheway by chance, while scrolling through hip-hop new arrivals on Bandcamp, and was struck by the album’s mix of insightful lyricism and pure listenability. On it, Malone paints a vivid picture of one man’s life experience and touches on themes like depression, violence, and family without being didactic or dour, due to his ability to portray these situations with a clear-eyed and empathetic spirit. The music helps crystalize his worldview and his feelings; as he put it, “I see music as therapy […] I pretty much try to incorporate what’s going on around me and [my family] and put it in the music […] I’m talking to myself when I do it.” The album’s cold realities are balanced out by warm, woozy melodicism, delivered both by roughly sung hooks (reminiscent of DAMN-era Kendrick Lamar) and a subtly psychedelic selection of beats. It’s an incredibly fully-formed and polished work for somebody who makes his music at home, by himself. I figured out after listening to the project and writing about the track “MINDBODYSPIRIT” that Malone is a Yinzer as well, and we arranged to meet up and talk about the album at Fuel and Fuddle, a bar in Oakland; kind of an odd spot for an interview, but it was my first one conducted in person, so I honestly had no clue how to do it.
In person, Malone is thoughtful, soft-spoken, and serious. He tends to pause in the middle of sentences, clarifying his thoughts to himself before venturing a take on something. He subtly steered most of the more personal questions I asked back toward the topic of music, which shines light on his singular focus and on his preference to remain somewhat anonymous. He feels weird talking about himself and prefers not do to it very often, instead pouring his thoughts and feelings into his songs. As he said, “Me talking into the mic really helps me evaluate and put things in perspective,” as if it’s easier for him to rap about personal topics than it is to talk about them.
Malone’s process when making music is intuitive, laser-focused, and uncompromising. He doesn’t spend a lot of time writing music in advance or planning out songs, telling me, “Everything is really on the fly. I’m never like, ‘This is what I’m gonna talk about, this is how the hook’s gonna sound,’ […] I’m always taking it one line at a time, and then it just comes together, miraculously, I guess.” When summing up his ability to distill his surroundings into concise and moving bars, he said, “I just state facts,” like it was the most natural thing in the world. I’m not sure how one simply comes up with a chillingly creative couplet like, “On this side of the dirt, it’s been deathly scary/Older folks shaking their heads, their shoulders February,” (from “PENDULUM!”), but then again, that’s probably why Malone is doing the rapping and I’m just writing about it. When plucking instrumentals for his songs out of the vast void of the Internet (“I’m surfing for beats all day,”), he just goes with his gut; if something lights the spark, he’ll write to it.
A real sense of urgency and drive comes across in Malone’s description of his own process. About it, he said, “I can’t waste my time. That’s how I look at the music. Not a second can be wasted.” This focus is evident in blckboyfromaroundtheway’s lyrics, which manage to convey some complex thoughts and emotions without becoming bogged down in heavy wordplay or excessively dense rhyme schemes. Malone’s statement also makes sense when considering his own belief that music is not only a therapeutic outlet, but also a way forward in life, “to open doors” down the line. He’s not cutting corners or taking the easy way along the path, though.
He described his discerning ear for unusual beats in the following way: “Whenever I come across something, I’ll think about how many people would go on this track. In a weird way, it’s like, ‘Alright, could I hear a multitude of rappers hop on this and do what I’m about to do?’ If I’m like, ‘Nah,’ then I’ll just hop on it.” This strategy proves fruitful on blckboyfromaroundtheway, finding Malone rapping over mellow, spacious percussion and submerged washes of melody, complex soundscapes that could drown a lesser wordsmith. The instrumental on “NOSTALGIC” is especially poignant, its looped guitar trill recalling a more melancholy Pretty Lights track; it provides the perfect backdrop for Malone to reminisce about a youth that’s vanishing too quickly. The beats less trafficked lead to excellent music, apparently.
Malone holds himself to a high standard. On “BLCKBOY,” he describes blckboyfromaroundtheway as “The album I’ve been trying to make/From 2012 to nowadays/To motivate, to innovate.” Indeed, he considers the recent release to be his long-time-coming debut, the first work that he can truly be proud of. He had an entire mixtape completed a few years back that he ended up scrapping because it didn’t measure up to the bar he had set for himself. Malone said that the right production was the missing element that had kept him stuck in the mud for so long, but once he found the beats for this album, they allowed him to grow into the rapper and musician he had always hoped to become.
When I say that Malone is uncompromising, I don’t mean that his music is unrelentingly grim. Although the undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout blckboyfromaroundtheway is deep, the album spirals upward at the end with closer “BLESS US!” Malone finishes off the track with a benediction of sorts: “Shout out to the Burgh now, RIP to all the legends/Too many to name, I hope your souls under blessings/Black man strive, black woman strive/Perfection is your nature.” One of the track’s final images is “Grandmama yelling, ‘Hallelujah’,” a strikingly joyful snapshot to complete a journey that takes both listener and artist to some difficult places. When asked about his decision to close on such an uplifting note, Malone said, “The bad is not going to be forever. Good things are coming. I wanted to think it into existence, in a way.” Again, a circumstance in which Malone uses music to shape his own outlook and, in turn, his own life.
About the Pittsburgh music scene, Malone says that different regions and styles used to be more segregated from each other, until Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa came along and showed everyone that Pittsburgh could hold its own in the rap game. Now, a spirit of collaboration flourishes throughout the region. When I asked about other local artists, Malone rattled off so many that I had him send me an email later on with all of their names, so that I wouldn’t miss any. I’m just going to list them all here: Benji, Pet Zebra, Clara Kent/Tribe Eternal, PK Delay, Akono Miles, Isaiah Small, Princess Nostalgia, Mars Jackson, Marcus Salvator, Livefromthe7ity, NVSV, Sierra Sellers, My Favorite Color, Fat Corey, BB Guns. As Malone summed it up: “There’s a whole bunch of talented individuals out here […] It’s beautiful right now.”
With artists like Leek Lone up and coming, I have to agree.
Many thanks to Malik Malone for speaking with Bored In Pittsburgh and for putting up with my amateurish interview style!
Check out blckboyfromaroundtheway on Bandcamp: https://leeklone.bandcamp.com/album/blckboyfromaroundtheway