Published Oct 12, 2018On the cover of East Atlanta Love Letter, a seven-month-old Syx Rose is strapped tight to Daddy's chest. A grey baby carrier keeping his daughter close and his hands free, Ricardo Valentine is able to multitask. He has the freedom to cook up breakfast and funnel his feelings through a makeshift kitchen studio; he can do it all without leaving the pull of his daughter's orbit.
"The album cover is a depiction of how I wish things were every day," Atlanta singer 6lack explains on the eve of his new LP's release. "I want to leave something behind for her to make sure she knows why I'm doing this."
For 6lack, a heartfelt if not heartbroken trap soul star, music yanks him away from the other love of his life more often than he'd like.
"Just like that, my life revolves around a new person, and that person is an extension of me. The greatest feeling ever," he wrote in an Instagram post of baby Syx in February. "For so long I've seen the world in a way that was always beautiful, but still I felt like something was missing and now I know what it was."
Fulfilling dad duties while conquering the R&B charts and trotting the globe ain't easy. In a perfect world, 6lack says he'd bring his daughter on his upcoming three-month world tour that will whisk him from South Africa to New Zealand and through every major city in North America. But there are health concerns and sleep schedules and he knows that's not a smart choice.
"It's a pretty tough thing, with what I do and how much I'm gone. I'm definitely absent more than I'm present," 6lack says. "Fatherhood has propelled me to aligning myself with my priorities and making sure I'm working on the things I need to work on.
"It's like a battery in your backpack to get the work done you need to get done on yourself."
Brooding and searing, thumping and honest, East Atlanta Love Letter is a definitively more star-studded and arguably more thoughtful and moodier companion piece to the songwriter's beautifully disgruntled 2016 breakthrough, Free 6lack, a project that sold gold and earned him a Grammy nomination and a boatload of critical and peer respect.
As cool as he is to spill his regrets and weaknesses, his failures and fears all over his lyric sheets, in real life, Valentine cops to a problem with dialogue. He can pour out his heartbreak over 808s, or pitch his pain away through Auto-Tune all day, but staring at someone he loves face-to-face and dishing out truth? That's a different story.
"This project is made in hopes of opening up conversation and communication. That's something I struggle with in my personal life, and I know a lot of other people struggle with. It's a nudge to talk a little bit more. I don't want to intrude on anybody's own shit or command what you do in your own life, but I do know that's stifled me and put a halt on a lot of shit in my life."
Though slower to rev than he'd hoped — blame poverty and "two bad deals" with music imprints — the 26-year-old's career is not slowing.
The early returns on EALL's sales vault him near Billboard's peak, and the 6lack sound, an accessible and clear-eyed twist on early Weeknd, places him firmly in the now. Valentine sounds like the lovechild of T-Pain and Sade grew up rhyming cyphers in Glenwood Park, but got bored and turned to poetry.
Friendships with 2018 radio staples J. Cole, Young Thug, Ty Dolla $ign, Khalid, Offset and Future all led to collaborations in which his guests dive into 6lack's down-tempo realm. Despite luring a fan base of all ages and persuasions, Valentine insists he doesn't step into the studio targeting trophies. If accolades follow? Hey, bonus.
What will make taking EALL on the road and away from both Syx and Atlanta's Zone 6, her namesake and his own, is the ability to connect with other strangers through lyrics and sound.
"Seeing their reactions. Feeling how they feel. Hearing their stories. Knowing what I'm doing is not just falling on deaf ears," 6lack says, are the best parts.
The songwriter credits his pen game to his nascent battles as an MC striving for recognition. There's old video footage of him trading bars with Young Thug.
"Wordplay, metaphors, punch line — in general, with battle rap, you're figuring out how to say the most and get the most across. With songwriting, you're doing the same thing, but with fewer words. I learned as many words as I could write, then I just compressed it into song form," 6lack says. "I don't think I'd have the skills that I have without battle rapping.
"It's where I started, where I come from, and it doesn't really ever go away, [but] I can really say I do love singing and layering things more."
6lack has a theory for what causes the sophomore slump — or, rather, two theories. Flopping on your second album is either a result of lack of confidence or too much. "It wasn't something I really struggled with," he says, frankly. "I felt I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to make sure I was growing musically.
"You see people who don't believe in themselves and they trip and fall, or you see people who get the hot hand and they believe everything's all good, then get their reality check."
6lack's reality has long been checked.
Valentine describes his childhood in Atlanta's more artistically adventurous East Side — a district that's given us both Future and Childish Gambino — as "scattered." He moved solo through the musical hotbed, gleaning street smarts and industry wisdom through trial and error.
"I would wake up, start the day on my own and be out till the sun went down. You can get into pretty much anything you want to get into being in Atlanta," 6lack says. "The biggest thing you learn is finding out where you want to be versus where you need to be."
6lack originally wanted to be signed to Flo Rida's International Music Group, but what he's since called a "shady" deal left him penniless and homeless in Miami, where he'd sleep outside or on studio floors.
"Being broke and trying to figure out how to do everyday normal things and take care of basic necessities when I didn't have money for it, and I wasn't in a position to get me a job. It was just hanging out waiting for something," 6lack says.
"I've wondered, 'Is it really worth it?' but never do I want to quit. It's just weathering the storm. You have to go through the tough shit to get where you're supposed to be."
And for whom you're supposed to be there.
East Atlanta Love Story is out now on LoveRenaissance / Interscope.