Sometimes the best movies often are the ones where the protagonist is seemingly defeated, gets a second lease on life, and returns in the final act to settle the score. And Palestinian-born, Ottawa-raised rapper Belly is back with a vengeance on his new studio album, “See You Next Wednesday,” which comes out tomorrow.
After going through a tumultuous 2018 marked by depression and PTSD (which he chooses not to discuss in detail just yet) led Belly to take a two-year hiatus from his musical career to focus on himself and his mental health, while still being very actively involved in the career of his longtime friend the Weekend: They’re both managed by Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, who first saw Belly — real name: Ahmad Balshe — rapping on an Ottawa sidewalk in the early 2000s. Within five years, the company they formed, CP Music Group, had become the dominant independent hip-hop and R&B label in Canada, and scored Belly his first gold record and Juno Award (the country’s Grammy equivalent). CP led to XO, the label and management company that reps Belly, the Weeknd and others, and the two also collaborated with Max Martin, Oscar Holter and Jason Quenneville on the blockbuster hit “Blinding Lights.”
But for his new album, Belly decided to savor every moment of his album rollout, even the butterflies he felt before the album’s release. Despite rapping for nearly two decades, he says it took him taking a step away from it all to restore that feeling. “I wanted it to fulfill me again,” Belly explains of feeling the excitement from music. “So I think that the fact that the feeling is back — the nerves and the butterflies — is special because it really feels like my first time putting something out again.”
The album’s name was inspired by one of Belly’s favorite film and music-video directors, John Landis, who would use the phrase as an easter egg in works like the visuals for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Landis chose to use “See You Next Wednesday” because it was the name of a Stanley Kubrick script that never got made. To Belly, it is that script that almost got left on the cutting room floor until he pulled himself out of the trenches of depression and solitude to make music again.
Of course, he didn’t do it alone. The Weeknd appears on the album, along with Nas, Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, and more. In an expansive interview with Variety, Belly discusses the album, getting advice from Jay-Z, and how this project is equal parts a celebration and revenge story.
You’ve dropped a flurry of singles leading up to “See You Next Wednesday,” to a positive response. What has it been like returning from your hiatus?
It’s funny, because even though I make a living off putting words together, it’s hard to express these types of moments. Coming back was nerve-wracking! It was butterflies the whole time, once I knew I finished the album and handed it in and we started planning. I knew I brought my best, but I was also hoping it would be received well, [and when it was], it felt really good.
You still feel that nervousness before releasing a new project?
I think that was the difference. In 2018, when I decided to take a break, I wasn’t feeling butterflies — I wasn’t getting that feeling that you’re supposed to get. That’s what made me fall in love with it and do it for 20 years without making a dollar. It was such a gratifying feeling. When that went away, it just made me look at music in a different type of way, and I didn’t want to look at this thing like it was empty. I wanted it to fulfill me again. So I think that the fact that the feeling is back is special, because it really feels like my first time putting something out again.
Are you a different artist now?
I think I’m different as a person. If you’re a fan of mine, you’re going to notice certain things and understand where the changes took place, but I had to change as me. I can’t fake the funk with music. A lot of people out here fake it, but I’m too tied to my emotions and personality artistically. So as a person I think I became better, and I think my music got better because of that.
The music videos for each of your singles also have their own distinct feel and cinematic energy. Were you inspired by any films in particular when choosing your visuals?
Shoutout to [directors] James Larese and Christian [Breslauer] for killing those videos. I watch movies damn near all day long, and I’m so inspired by film and good scripts, dialogue, and cinematography that I try and take that and put it into my music. With “Money on the Table,” people don’t really put money behind straight rap videos anymore. For me, I thought it was a great rap record, and we needed to have a dope video for it. When I was a kid, Puff [Diddy] was doing $3 million videos. I’m not there yet, but still I really felt like putting some big budget shit behind some rap would be a dope message — a good symbol for the culture.
You love cooking. Do you see any similarities in putting together your favorite dish and putting together a song?
Absolutely. First of all, cooking is very therapeutic for me. I really zone in when I cook, and I think whenever you can find something that takes you away from the world, it’s really important for your mental health. And cooking is like music. You can give people the formula and be like, “Here bro, this is step-by-step exactly how you make this,” and they’ll still find a way to mess it up. Some people don’t need that book, they can just look at something and smell it and taste it and know what to do. And with music, I’m going to do it my own way: “Yeah, this is cool, but I would’ve taken this out or added this ingredient here.”
You’ve known the Weeknd for a decade now, how has your collaboration process with him evolved?
I think it’s always been such an easy thing because that’s my family, that’s my brother, so we get in the studio and it’s a comfortable vibe. We’re joking, eating food, and whatever comes of that energy is what we put down. The chemistry in real life will translate into whatever you’ll do with somebody musically, at least for me.
I like to feel like artists are in the booth together when I hear a collaboration — it’s very easy for two artists to be on the same song and not sound like they’re in the same space. I’ll never do a collaboration just to do it. They can’t be like, “Yo, put this pop star on your album because she’s the hottest out right now.” If I like it, I’ll do it, but if it’s not my cup of tea, then I’m not sipping it.
You connected with Nas after hearing your 2017 project, “Mumble Rap.” How has that relationship evolved?
I have the utmost respect for Nas — he’s definitely a bucket list collaboration for anybody, although I don’t really have a personal relationship with him. When I put out “Mumble Rap,” he came to my old crib and he listened to the album at the house, and he’s always shown love anytime I put something out. Even as a kid, I used to listen to so much Nas — even though I was the biggest Jay-Z fan. I didn’t care about [their earlier, since-resolved] thebeef. He was always such an inspiration to me, so it was a dream come true for me to work with him. And for me to do that and have my brother [The Weeknd] on it at the same time, that was super special.
When you sent your album to Jay-Z, and he sent it back with notes, what feedback stuck out to you the most?
First of all, it’s hard for me to listen [to advice], especially when it comes to art. I have to really respect you, so I always send Hov the music when I’m sure I have 90 percent of the songs I need. I don’t want to completely finish [the project], then send it to him and feel like I have to go back in on something I already finished. So when he gets it, he’ll start giving me sequencing advice: “This song comes in way too late. You’re killing it. It needs to go earlier.”
For this project, I sent him a collection of songs, he hit me back like, “Everything you need is there. Now, make this a movie. It can’t just sound like great records, it has to sound like an intentional thing.” I always think back to that because that’s really my main focus and effort on an album. I know I said all the right stuff, but did I say it in the right way? Did I say it at the right time? So just to hear him reiterate that was really dope because it also showed that there was a certain confidence that he had in me. For somebody who grew up as a student and learned so much of what I do from him, things like that mean a lot to me.
Was it hard being back in the studio after taking a break from music?
I always say making music is not like riding a bike. It’s something that, if you get away from it for too long, it really feels like you’re almost lost. For me, my system is chaos; no structure is my structure. So, I get into the studio and do what my feelings tell me to do. I’m not going in there with a specific purpose, I’m just making music.
When I was making this album, there are certain things that I’m still working through, so it’s hard for me to speak about personal things right now, there are things that really affected my life in a way that almost stopped me from doing what I love to do. I’m in a much better place than I was but I know that if I try to talk about some things too early, it’s going to affect me negatively instead of positively. I think those things will be reserved for my next album.
In the Black and brown community, therapy is heavily stigmatized. How major was taking that step to seeking therapy, and have you seen that vulnerability reflected in your music?
It was an amazing step because there’s nothing more convincing than going into something with skepticism and leaving convinced. I grew up with those [reservations]: I’m Middle Eastern, from a Black and brown community, so those were the [attitudes toward mental health] I grew up around. When I first went in there, that indoctrination was still in my brain like, “Man, what the hell is she going to tell you that you don’t already know,” and when I first sat down I was almost in debate mode. I almost wanted to prove wrong whatever she was trying to tell me. But she was right way too much. I found the right therapist right off the bat, so I lucked out in that sense, but it’s amazing. When you’re locked in your own mind for so long, you can’t see it from different sides, and she showed me that things are much more complex than we think they are. She just taught me how to work through stuff, because I was really good at getting around it. I was just running away from all my problems, and it built a bad culture within myself. I decided to at least give therapy a try, and I was skeptical, but she literally turned my skepticism around in two sessions. Then I came back with open arms, ready to learn what to do next.
Would you call “See You Next Wednesday” a redemption story?
It’s definitely a celebration of me figuring it out. It just feels good to be able to make music again and share it with the world. There are a lot of things that I’m still working on, but I think this album is really me celebrating the fact that I’m back.
If you were to compare this album to a film, what would it be?
“The Count of Monte Cristo” because that’s my favorite revenge movie. The villain, for me, is almost like the old me. That’s who I’m getting revenge on because I’m showing him how it’s supposed to be done. This is definitely my revenge story as well.
I just want to say, if you’re going through a moment that I was going through three years ago, don’t think about giving up. The effort it takes to think about stopping and giving up — put half of that into thinking about making yourself something better.