They often say that you learn a lot in silence, the crevices of quiet moments make for opportune to reflect on the journey. Storied producer and artist A2 is no stranger to the pensive feels and has provided us with the soundtrack for many late night adventures. His latest LP Just So You Know arrived back in May; a collection of songs that not only find the South Londoner fusing his London roots with his affinity for Toronto (see ‘Torondon’ and ‘No Rush’) they also display the peaks of his prowess. Around the time of release, I got to sit down with one of the most talented artists to come from our shores and discuss a series of topics including his latest project and his favourite track on it, self-care, living between the realms of ego and emotional intelligence and much more. If you didn’t know before, you will do by the end of this much anticipated Cover Story.
At this point in his career, it’s a bit of a tired cliché to refer to A2 as ‘elusive’. He regularly shuns press opportunities and outside of making music, there’s very little he enjoys about the music industry. In between the releases of All Spill and Just So You Know, he had left his previous label situation at Disturbing London right before the world experienced a global pandemic. This led him to withhold his much-anticipated LP and rethink a few things in his life. There was much to discuss and as someone who has been following his music since I started writing, it felt like a full circle moment was about to take place. Ray Fiasco and I prepped the lounge as we await the arrival of Deuce. He is running later than expected but it is no matter as the sun beamed on our location in Pontoon Dock, London.
It’s not long after we finish setting up that A2 arrives, his face painting a picture of relief in getting out of traffic and continuing his day. He is flanked by Rocket, a budding 21-year-old artist and part of his THEM VERSUS US imprint. After a brief interval we enter Ray’s apartment complex, finding shelter from the sun’s toasty gaze. I ask how he’s doing and his response harks at the layered pattern of thought that leads his pen. “It’s [just] the daily battles of a creative. Especially with a pandemic, I’ve had way too much time to think. But I’m still breathing, still creating, so I can’t complain too much.” Whether it’s through his music or his tweets, A2 always comes across as someone with a lot on his brain, and even more to say.
Which makes the title of his latest project even more fitting. Just So You Know is a 10-track testament to his present state of mind that masterfully displays his musings on life, love and everything in between. “I called it that so that people would hear it and know what time it is. Know what my level is and understand that I won’t compromise or step on the quality for charts or anything like that.” Most of A2’s catalogue is self-produced but producers Neenyo, ZACH, Fresco, Kraze, RGGIE and more help to create an atmosphere that allows him to almost vent in the booth. He uses melodies more than raps to get his feelings across on this LP, yet his rapped verses carry the aggression and wit that could pass as affirmations, or even prophecy.
On the topic of the most interesting thing he’s learned during the process of making this album, he is forthcoming in his answer. “It just seems like I’m always in endless pain! And every time I get in the booth, it feels like I’m disgruntled or something’s got man feeling a way. But I accepted it because that’s what gives man energy. If I don’t have that, I ain’t got nothing to give you. I ain’t some wrestler that can give you some fake ting. When its real stuff that’s inspiring man whether it’s a breakup, whether I’m infatuated with a shorty, you get me?” Real life events act as his muse, the fuel that drives his creative vehicle. As we’ve seen over the years, artists that channel their personal experiences so vividly need time to recharge. A2 sees his own experiences as proof of this timeless theory. “Maybe with this one [Just So You Know] I was like ‘shit’ because man was still recovering from whatever has happened. But that was the biggest thing, man’s always going through the motions 24/7.”
For many of us, the pandemic was an opportunity to take a break from the speed at which life was moving at. To learn and unlearn new habits. For A2, it allowed him to get away from the taxing nature of the music. It even allowed him to cut out a habit he reference so much in his music; smoking. “That’s why man had to stop smoking, before it clouded my whole ting. You know when you’re deep in it and it just clouds everything? I put it down.” You’ve heard stores of some musicians using weed as a creative muse, while inhibiting the productivity and mood in others. While he credits the smoke break for making him physically active again, he found his break from music much more beneficial. “That was one of the most important steps of the process. I hate feeling like I’m on the go and don’t have time to rationalise where I’m at, cos it will just roll into one, big never-ending thing. And I hate feeling like that with music so that’s why I took a break. I like to treat it like real life, you don’t go to school for seven days a week. When I go back into it I’m refreshed because I get to come from a new angle. Having a break from All Spill I said ‘let me switch it up’ because I always said after All Spill I’m not gonna give you that purple wave again. I don’t feel like that anymore.”
The ‘purple wave’ that A2 alludes to spawned two projects in Purple EP and the aforementioned All Spill. The former was his last release under Disturbing London Records before becoming fully independent. Though the two projects demonstrate the moody yet confident side of artistry, Purple felt brief, stifled. All Spill is darker, more potent in its execution and contains some of his best work to date. A demand for more followed, and then COVID-19 gave A the perfect opportunity to get out of his purple bag. “Green just felt refreshing. I don’t feel like I’m in the same space mentally or even when I’m making music I don’t feel it’s the same thing. So that break influenced that whole start of… everything. I feel like ‘I Must Admit’ was the first riddim I made on Just So You Know.”
Led by eerily-sounding synths and a drum pattern that entices like a siren, Deuce laments over mistakes, trust issues and rumours with a surgical precision. His wit and use of prose allow him to his the right pockets on his self-produced work. “Let me get the gas lit for the bridge / it’s disco inferno I burn it / yeah, won’t get no love till you earn it / I can’t give you trust and this lust ain’t enough / we should cut cos we’re doing disservice”, it’s clear that he went deep into his bag. I wonder what provoked this record. “When I made ‘I Must Admit’, someone said something to provoke me and they were right! They said that my shit don’t sound spooky like it used to sound. That’s why ‘I Must Admit’ is sounding rather spooky, I was tryna tap into that A again, man. The spooky brudda was a maniac, still. All these things that people say to me get me started on my projects, more time. That’s my personal favourite. Because I was sour with shorties as well *laughs* mandem, myself. I was there speaking honestly, speaking clarity on bare things.”
Taking a break from music doesn’t mean an artist just stops making music… unless their name is Robyn Fenty. Learning more about the art of music was always in the plan for A2, he even learned to mix and engineer songs, taking even more of an onus on himself. For someone who started off wanting to be a “madman producer”, this was the natural progression. We hope to see a fully actualised project from the Croydon-based artist – that’s if he decides he wants to release music again. “If I’m ready and I say ‘yo, this is man’s album, man really honed into this one’, it’s probably gonna be all man [self-produced]. I really want you to feel like this is from my brain. So I wanna drop one where everything is done by self, mixing by self, everything. That’s the most fun part for myself, just being able to create.”
To fully step away from the purple wave, A2 had to go back to the fundamentals. As NBA Hall of Famer Tim Duncan displayed over his decorated career, focusing on the more mundane parts of the process and combining well in a team led him to championships and MVP awards. For Deuce to get into his bag on Just So You Know, he had to go back to basics. Though not referred to by the colour of its album art, his latest effort is dominated by a small image of him against a streak of light that exposes hints of green – a colour associated with renewal, calm, and nature. This was important to him as we dig into what the album represents for him. “You touched on it, it was kind of like a grounding kind of thing. This is really me getting in touch with the original state of A. The uncut, no lean… getting back to how I was doing things. But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s more to let them know this is where the level’s at now.”
His Instagram stories are random and can display just about anything from art, to memes and everything in between. With self-care in mind, he offers a glimpse into what he does to nurture himself away from music. “I don’t really have specific things. Those are my moments where it’s just a reminder that this is what I do outside of that. I might play PlayStation, I might shoot hoops with the mandem. I just wanna laugh and run jokes all day. I don’t take myself too seriously because if I do, I’ll start overthinking this life ting. Books that I’m trying to dissect slowly. But really it’s been a health ting. I cut out bare things. Even smoking, I just dropped it straight away. I wasn’t tryna do it gradually.”
At this point, A2 and I are engaging in flowing conversation, his attention never waivers as we dive into topics. His writing process and how his music resonates with male and female listeners alike have always intrigued me. Yet his admission that he doesn’t write isn’t surprising to hear from a man that keeps his cards close to his chest. “I haven’t wrote a bar since… maybe 2011-2012. I don’t write nothing down. Like when I buck most artists and I say that, they think I’m lying. More time it’s the cadence or the pockets in a beat that will let me know how I approach it. Writing reminds me of grime – back when I was in that mode I used to write all the time.” In a recent interview, I heard Tennessee born rapper Isaiah Rashad say that learning how to record freestyle made rap fun for him again. For A however, I feel that being in a constant state of processing can take its toll, and shows up in how raw his delivery is at times. “Even then, it’s like man are waiting from me to articulate what they’re going through, but at the same time I’m still processing however it is I’m feeling. When I listen back like I’m on the outside it’s like ‘woah… did man really just say that?’ I just say some wild shit man. That’s why I don’t write shit.”
‘Akolades’ is the first track on Just So You Know and another self-produced one that follows his statement of intent theme of intros such as ‘Marble Flaws’, ‘Solo’ and ‘Flex Luthor’. Jaded by the lack of wider recognition of his talents, despite being able to name Drake and Adele as people that listen to his music, the intro’s title needs no explanation. “On Akolades you can just hear the ego cutting through. That’s me coming out of chill mode. When I stopped burning I started thinking rah… you need to stop being so nice! Man owe you flowers, man owe you everything right now, you know. Ackolades is literally me getting onto man. Like every time I drop a record, it’s like I’m invisible. When I drop it’s always at a certain level, so I’m like come on man. I already told them last time, man ain’t getting no radio play, man ain’t doing thought about features. It’s just me cheffing from the base.”
Ultimately, he’s not happy with the recognition he gets but he is looking at it from a place where he was feeding the streets with EP’s and quickstrike songs, even post BLUE. “It’s good because I’ve given it to the ears and stuff but when I look back on it, I know I’ve influenced people. But then when I see people they act blind! Like I know you used to thump me in uni when you were going through it with your shorties and that bro. So when you see me just pay a little homage cos I would do the same.” I chuckle as I recall the amount of times I have listened to A2’s music following a dispute with a lover or close friend, so I understand the impact of his music first hand. And why he’s been flirting with retirement as of late. “Sometimes you just have to wake them up cos it’s a case of you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Because if I do throw in the towel, man are gonna want it even more. But when it’s here, I feel man are definitely taking me for granted. And I feel like I’m in such a unique space in what I’m giving to people it’s like, this ain’t your everyday ting and it’s been consistent. Even before COVID started, man were on me! I dropped at least 1-2 projects every year.”
‘Midsummer Misery’ appears later on the album and was one of the very first songs to be teased in the run up to Just So You Know’s release. But I opt to drop the temperature in the room with ‘Torondon’, a clever portmanteau to pay homage to the Toronto influence supplied by producer ZACH and guided by A2’s frosty recollections of London living. He recalls the chance link up. “One thing I hate is when I’m on Instagram and I’m getting random requests like ‘yo bro, I got beats for you’ because it’s like Russian Roulette. And I don’t know why but one day I gave him my email to send it direct. He sent me like five riddims and once I heard Torondon I was like ugh, this one is icy. I saw a vision for it, video, everything. It’s just the best of both worlds. Him living out in Toronto where it’s cold. When I done it, it was already winter over here. I just had to pay homage to both cities, it just sounds like cold… winter time.”
Upon hearing the song, you could be forgiven for thinking that the lyrics are about a woman that he once took for granted. But this is not the same A2 that made ‘Love Songs About Nobody’, as he lays out how he wants this track to be interpreted. “The way I construct these riddims, you might not understand it but you’re gonna feel it. Torondon is a weird one because I didn’t write for it to be about a shorty. It’s more about the game – you should’ve loved man more.” His repeated hints at retirement feel ominous, but his love of creating music will always remain. Recent collaborations with the gifted producer Emil and Leicester-based rapper Sainte in ‘Own Pace’ and ‘Summer Is Blue’ respectively show that the fire is still there in spite of the mental fatigue that comes with being a musical artist.
On the eve of the 2021 Europa League Final, A2 being a Manchester United fan and a tease dropped a tweet that suggested Just So You Know could be Young Influential’s last contribution to music. The quote tweets alone show a mix of sorrow and understanding that an artist so talented can go under appreciated. In the same breath with labels trying to make good on their investments, you can understand how the art can get compromised for sales and viral existence, things that A2 has always shunned in favour of a more lasting memory in the game. “This shit is with them for life. I’ve always said when I made music, I want you to feel like you can listen to this in 15 years’ time, it’s going to be nostalgic and you’ll remember moments when you listened to these records. I’m a legacy kind of man, I wanna say that I’ve left a legacy that you can look back on and say yeah, his ting was proper.” He references Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean as artists that inspire him as they’ve dropped modern classics on us and managed to fade to black without a care.
If Just So You Know is how he chooses to bow out, then he can have no regrets as it is easily his most personal and polished work to date. As we wrap up this extended conversation, I consider the run that A2 has been on and credit him for being one of one in a scene where chasing sounds is commonplace. I also point out that Jay-Z is one that teased retirement only to spin the block once agaiin. He laughs as he considers life away from being an artist. “I’m still pondering. It might be my last contribution to music. I might just hand over the baton and get involved behind the scenes. I’m just a soundman, so it’s not even about me. It’s bigger than me.”
Just So You Know is out now on all good digital vendors. Catch A2 live at Oval Space on 2nd October.