Photography by Sirui Ma
Fashion by Bridi Foden
070 Shake is telling me about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, a theory about human perception and truth, as Travis Scott’s DAYS BEFORE RODEO buzzes on the speakers of the central London apartment. The main takeaway is to always question your reality, think for yourself, find your own solutions - a sentiment from philosophy that the rapper says “gives her peace” as she pursues her current path. From scraping quarters off of her North Bergen, New Jersey apartment floor to first laying her poetry on free ‘Drake type’ YouTube beats, getting recruited by GOOD Music, and jumping on tracks and stages with Lil Yachty and Pusha T respectively, she’s forever thinking of how to do her, at her best. Or, as her merch reads: “shake the world”.
Shake’s latest 6-track EP, GLITTER, is an axis-spinning moment for the 20-year-old artist. Working with frequent collaborator, producer Kompetition, it follows 2016’s breakout “Trust Nobody” – a ferocious, bass-pulsating track that, along with an array of punchy Soundcloud tunes, caught the ears of Kanye West’s label. She’s a welcome shake-up for GOOD, a queer woman cutting through the haze with caustic yet considered rap.
Glitter showcases an expansive lyrical talent that swirls across R&B, neo-soul and rap, while delving into her difficult coming of age through bouts of depression and personal conflicts, tales of addiction and sexuality - cavernous highs and lows. It is fierce in its fragility, acrid when taking on the world, yet vulnerable when exploring her own inner workings. “I had to shoot up to my brain to become the person that I wanna be,” she spits in evocative spoken word on the opening track, “I Laugh When I’m With Friends But I’m Sad When I’m Alone”. The honest and effervescent “Mirrors” is a cinematic unpacking of personal demons, “Glitter” a throw-inhibitions-out-the-car-roof banger, and a pummeling Jersey club-nod comes in the form of the lustful “Lost in Love”.
Real name Danielle Balbuena, this latest work is delivered from deep in her belly, an ambitious, intricate illustration of what she says was “escaping from a dark place”. “I was figuring out what my mind - what I - could do. You can take any situation and burn it down, or you can make it rise. I can shut myself out or lift myself up at any time. I’m working it out.”
“I like being dark sometimes, I feel like I help people find the light that way with my music. They can relate to the dark I write about,” she continues, pausing often to think about what she says before pushing onward with a gravelly, just-above-whisper. “It brings out the light in them, like a cleanse.”
We sit half in, half out of the patio doors, an unusually sunny day in March and one of few she’s seen on the 10 days she’s been in Europe, with Paris next. Shake is wearing comfy clothes, her hair long framing her face, and as the stylist from the BRICK shoot says a quick goodbye, Shake smiles brightly.
Catharsis is at play as much in the Greek myth and theory Shake likes to explore as in her own music. “I have to do it for myself, to heal. It’s as much for the people as it is for me. When I write I feel like I’m helping myself. All my life I’ve liked to write as therapy, rather than just smoking or getting high - yeah, I still did that, but writing’s the thing that always helped.”
Coming into her own as an artist came late enough at 18-years-old, when she stepped into a friend’s brother’s recording studio with her own poetry to sing and rap over a beat. This first foray into music became then heart-stinging teen rebellion anthem “Proud”: “Everything started to come up at the exact time I started to take it seriously,” she says.
North Bergen is engrained in the fabric of Shake’s identity, tagging herself and her crew with the 070 zip code. As she asserts in her stunning short film I AM SHAKE, she wants to “bring Jersey up like Jay brought up Brooklyn.” Her Jersey collective 070 inspire her most creatively, all swerving the current music chart’s preoccupation with excess and consumption to make music about their own realities. “It's just a whole wave,” she says in praise. “We're just defiant kids that have a vision of more than just making it - we think past making it, we think past getting rich. It’s like, okay, what happens next? Nothing is ever satisfying.” As a creative collective that features wildly talented burgeoning artists - Phi, Ether and J Sebastian are just some names to drop - Shake emphasises the power of working together. “You just lift each other up, help each other do better because you can’t do it alone. The greatest people always have someone behind them, beside them.”
Early home life for Shake oscillated between New Jersey with her mother, divorced from her father, and stints in the Dominican Republic and Colorado with relatives when money got tight. Her household wasn’t particularly musical, and if there was something playing it was usually Christian.
“My sister was a singer in high school Chorus and Band. I was a basketball player in school and I always made fun of her. Like, ‘you’re such a dweeb’ - then of course I ended up being the one that makes music,” Shake laughs.
“I did listen to a lot of Paramore though. RIOT is an amazing album I listened to like crazy. Anything by Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill too, always,” she adds. Her early influences in female-fronted alt pop and neo-soul is testament to the innovative young mind behind GLITTER, where Shake glides cross-genre to carve out the complex emotional bends and near-breaks that punctuate the work of idols like Hayley Williams, Keys, and Hill through the lens of modern rap.
With these artists in her earbuds, Shake’s turbulent adolescence was stomped out on local basketball courts and in a high school where, though she admits it’s “very cliche”, she “actually sucked, really sucked”.
“I’d hear my name getting called to the office every single day,” she says with an incredulous exhale. “I got suspended for 10 days for stealing a dead frog from the science labs and telling people I was selling cookies, then showing them the frog. Just stupid stuff, you know. At school I couldn’t find any depth to what I was doing, I just had to find my way into the things I wanted to do myself.”
Across those teen years, Shake battled a dark, depressive abyss, working hard to accept her own identity, tripping to escape when she felt she needed to. One of the biggest challenges was gaining her mother’s acceptance of her sexuality. “She’s so totally supportive and awesome, but she’s one of the people that I had to open the mind of so that I could be more open with myself,” she explains. “Telling her I was gay, it’s just been a whole growing process for me and for her.”
Shake speaks with warmth of the woman she calls her best friend: “She's learned that all she has to do is love. You can't say you care and love someone without accepting them, or trying to understand at least. I think that's the basis of everything. You don't even have to love me, just understand me and then we won't clash.”
Shake shouts out her girlfriend as someone who’s been present through it all, an “angel” that’s been there to pluck her out when she feels like she’s drowning.
“I think without music I wouldn't be able to get in tune with that real part of myself,” she adds. “When I write, I'm basically putting myself on blast and confronting emotions I would probably have ignored.”
Hip-hop and rap are certainly going through an emotional, morality-unpacking renaissance, with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Brockhampton, and the late, great Lil Peep shaping a new sound. Peep, a celebrated artist snatched too soon by a drug overdose at 21-years-old, was in Shake’s mind when she wrote GLITTER’s stark opening track, “I Laugh When I’m With Friends But I’m Sad When I’m Alone”.
“I wrote that when he passed,” she says. “I had this friend who was bashing him, saying ‘you do that to yourself’, but I just thought… you’re tryna feel something, because sometimes it’s empty inside you. I’ve really felt that. If people understood more, maybe they would love more, and want to help more. I wanted to show people what it feels like being held under this situation, and to invigorate people’s hearts at that time.”
When Shake reflects like this, it feels psalm-like and calming. She asserts that she’s probably more spiritual now that she was when she had to go to church every week as a kid. “It has to come from inside of you, not because you’re following rules, like anything,” she ventures. “I just feel like man fucks everything up, and you have to trust what comes from you and not a system.”
Still, Shake believes that her biggest hurdle is herself. “It’s all a battle with your mind. You can do whatever you want to. I realised that because... I'm not even supposed to be here talking to you, you're not supposed to be here asking me questions. I come from a place that said I was never supposed to be here. I told myself that I was gonna do it, and that's why I'm here. It wasn't really supposed to go down like this, but I have a plan and I’m doing it. When you’re working on yourself, it’s like you’re working for the world, for everybody around you, it’s all one.”
Shake’s solo album YELLOW GIRL is also touted for release this year - building on the visceral, style-obliterating GLITTER, it could accelerate a soon-to-be stratospheric rise. But has that pinch-me-is-this-real feeling happened yet? “Nah,” she smiles. “I’ll feel like that when I've done something real. Like Malcolm or Martin Luther King - when I get that 'I have a dream' moment.”