Words by Atoosa Moinzadeh
Images by Braylen Dion
Fashion by Zoe Costello
Production by The Quadri Group
“I swear, I’m not usually this scattered.” I’m sitting across from Lil Durk in the back of Chrisean Rose Studios in Midtown Atlanta, and he’s immersed in a very important text thread with his girlfriend India Royale. “We’re texting about furniture for our new house and all this other stuff,” Durk tells me, his eyes lighting up. His face is framed by blonde braided locs, and a tattoo reading “Angelo” - the name of first son. When he looks down at India’s messages and smiles, his diamond-studded grill reflects back the screen’s glow. “We've been bouncing ideas off each other, and if I don't text back, I’ll lose my train of thought. My bad,” Durk laughs.
Durk showed up to his interview 30 minutes late, effortlessly rocking six chains and two watches, a Celine tee, an open Off-White button down, skinny jeans, and Dior runners. He just got done shooting a music video with emerging artist Coi Leray. “Lots of booze, waking people up, stuff like that,” he says of the “No More Parties”' concept. While the 28-year-old Chicago rapper gave several radio interviews in 2020, this will be his first print magazine cover story, and first photoshoot in some time. “I be real picky with who I do press with, I try to choose magazines that I’m interested in—and when Covid hit, it just made everything worse,” Durk starts. A member of his entourage pops around the corner to check on him a couple of times, but we get privacy for the most part. “It took a whole year,” he continues. “But I’m happy. Now we're here.”
One decade in, Durk just had the most commercially successful year of his career. Just Cuz Y’all Waited 2 debuted at #2 in May 2020 and went gold. A feature on Drake’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” cemented his mainstream palatability, and earned his first Grammy nominations: “I feel like everybody can have a Drake song if I’ve got one,” he told Interview magazine in December. He went from benefiting from “the Drake effect” to showing how much weight “the Durk effect” holds, landing newcomer Pooh Shiesty on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a feature on “Back in Blood.” As one of the pioneers of the Chicago Drill scene—a city he’s characterized as having “too many followers, not enough leaders”—Durk’s impact on a generation is undeniable with the recent rise of artists like King Von, Calboy, and Polo G.
Durk tells me that with the exception of tours halting, the pandemic hasn’t hampered his productivity: his “survival skills kicked in,” and he adapted to the solitude quickly. “It really didn't ever affect me because I was already a studio junkie - I had the studio set up in the house,” he says. “I had in-house producers sending me beats. I have a hard drive full of beats I'll never use. So in the midst of everything going crazy, I still had the sauce.” Durk adds that the conditions of shelter-in-place helped rally his fanbase, too. “Everybody’s attention on. Everyone’s in the house, taking in music, movies, and books,” he says. Durk’s knack for storytelling favors active listening, and he’s the kind of artist you truly get to know if you’re paying close attention. “When I dropped Just Cause Y'all Waited 2, it got this crazy reaction,” he continues. “I had Nicki Minaj and Drake hitting me up. I was like, ‘Oh yes, we’re getting some progress.’” To Durk, who’s six albums and twelve mixtapes in, the recognition feels good. “Just to know you can hit the culture that hard,” he says. “And it's different for me, some people counted me out for ten years … you would think … to still have that effect,” Durk pauses—it’s as if he’s still in the midst of processing just how far he’s come. “I never had that effect, matter of fact. So to see it hands-on was crazy.”
But Durk’s latest album, The Voice, isn’t celebratory in tone. Much of it is a poignant look into the pain, loss, and tragedy that have surrounded his ascent. “I always found my lane was to be soulful, to speak to my past,” Durk tells me. I’m immediately reminded of the song “Refugee,” a collage of various flashpoints in his life. “I’m a ‘what I come from, what I've been through’ type. It made me expose a deeper side of myself.” The Voice’s cover, and much of its content, are in tribute to his childhood friend and Only The Family (OTF) label artist King Von, who was tragically murdered in November, just south of here. I recognize that this is Durk’s first interview since Von’s death—in fact, as I learned 15 minutes before Durk’s arrival, it’s a subject to avoid. “He’s been pretty shut down these past few months,” his longtime manager Ola told me. Durk’s vulnerability on The Voice is as deep as we’re going to hear on the subject—at least for a while. "I knew I needed to talk about this on the mic and see how the fans react to it, see how the streets react to it,” he reflects. “And I recorded a lot of songs that I'll never put out. They were just for me to get me out my feelings.”
Durk’s career has outlasted legal troubles, a hindering deal with a major label, betrayal, addiction, and numerous deaths. For the rapper to have entered what music critic Yoh Phillips recently called his “second act,” in spite of it all, takes a certain level of tenacity—and on charting songs like “Finesse Out The Gang Way,” Durk acknowledges that too. Having just appeared on the soundtrack for Judas and the Black Messiah, Durk tells me the rest of the year promises a full catalogue: an OTF compilation album, two joint projects, with Metro Boomin and Lil Baby respectively, and hopefully concerts. “Baby and I are just recording, just having fun,” he says of their project, which he confirmed just yesterday. “During the recordings, we'll get the names. You'll see what type of vibe it's going to be. We know it's always gonna be the street, club music, talkin’ about females. It's the same thing, but I put my all behind mine.”
When I ask Durk what kept him motivated all these years—beyond India, and his six children remaining top priorities—his answer is unfiltered: “It's a little different for me because I get motivated off of doubt. Hate. I get motivated off negativity from close people who supposedly want you to win. They just be behind your back talking, ‘Oh he ain't never finna…’ I had a friend before tell me, ‘You not gonna start rapping. You should start signing artists.’ I had somebody tell me, ‘You should just make a straight R&B album.’ I went through all the type of phases where it was like, ‘I'm finna prove them wrong. I'm finna prove them wrong.’’ Over the course of an hour, I learn that the most important thing to understand about Durk’s story—and music—isn’t that he overcame the odds. It’s that Durk has remained unflinchingly authentic. “I've just stood 10 toes,” he asserts. “I just stayed me.”
This is a preview of our full interview with Lil Durk, published in BRICK Edition 10.