Palestinian-Canadian Ahmad Balshe, better known as Belly, has been enjoying a solid run for the past few years. The Roc Nation rapper has released a trio of well received projects that have built him a cult following, spawned a bunch of hits across streaming platforms and as a songwriter he’s contributed his pen to major records for Beyoncé and The Weeknd. He’s just come off an extensive US tour with Juicy J, and is preparing to hit the road playing arenas all over the US on the ‘Starboy: Legend Of The Fall’ tour. But he’s far too busy spending every spare minute in the studio to keep track of his accolades.
“I just lock myself up in the studio,” he admits, taking a breather from his latest session. “People are like ‘Yo, this shit is really moving out here’, I’m like ‘Okay, that’s cool. That’s great.’ For the most part I just love to do this.”
Belly’s sublime blend of trippy melodies and insomnia-fuelled raps paint gothic soundscapes that walk the line between beauty and tragedy. His music is laced with references to angels and demons, ballerinas and zombies, as his world blurs between luxury lifestyle and horrifying hallucinations.
“I think it’s therapy,” he considers, solemnly. “The most success I saw musically, the more fucked up shit was happening to me on a personal level. I was losing friends, six year relationships. Being so deep in this [music] shit, you can overlook things. You get that tunnel vision, and it was a hard balance for me. I’m not somebody that talks about my feelings. I don’t lay in bed and talk with a significant other. Every time a girl tells me ‘You’re not open enough.’ I’m like ‘Just pop in one of my projects. You’ll understand everything.’”
Today is his 33rd birthday, and he intends to celebrate it with “the biggest party L.A has ever seen.” As a gift to his fans he’s released title track from his long-awaited studio album, his first in a decade. ‘Glorious’ is produced by regular collaborator DannyBoyStyles and is a mantra for the current position Belly occupies within a career that’s been over a decade in the making.
“I’m making the best music of my career right now,” he states matter-of-factly. “This is really my moment of glory after all this time. After being put through everything I got put through in this industry to finally get a little bit of recognition now is like, it feels glorious.”
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The song was recorded on the Nashville stop of Juicy J’s ‘Rubba Band Business’ tour in February. Immediately after his set Belly was whisked off in a truck to put in a full nights studio session, where he cooked up the demo for ‘Glorious’, which was later polished off in Los Angeles. The experience of recording in Nashville was hugely inspiring to him, and he now describes it as his favourite city to record in. “The energy in that city is built around music; the monuments are all of musicians, the studios are the best in the world,” he explains. “I’m such a musical person that when I’m around that environment all I want to do is create. There’s a special kind of energy in the air: you know all the legends have recorded there.”
Belly’s strategy thus far, has revolved around bodies of work as opposed to singles. Which songs would be elevated to video treatments and remixes has largely been left in the hands of fan reaction. “I don’t like to depend on one song,” he admits. “I’d rather give the project what it needs; something is going to come out and make some waves.”
With 2015’s ‘Up For Days’ it was his gold-certified ‘Might Not’ which featured The Weeknd and racked up over 39 million views on YouTube. Then last year, in the space of 5 months, he released two projects ‘Another Day In Paradise’ and ‘Inzombia’, which spawned fan favourites ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Frozen Water’ and ‘Consuela’. “It’s not like I was purposefully making these songs to be getting millions of streams,” says Belly. “I was filling voids in [a larger] body of work. Every time I approached it in that way the music gods brought me a hit, but I’m not focused on [chasing] a hit. I’m focused on making the best project I can make.”
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While working on these releases he’s been stashing away the records that will form the basis of his forthcoming album. “The heartbeat of my album is going to sound different to that of my mixtapes,” he reveals. “So every time I got something that was in that vein I put it to the side. I allowed myself creatively to do a lot more: I used to be self conscious about really singing on stuff, I never used to do that. Being a songwriter I used to give all those songs away.”
Beyoncé’s ‘Six Inch’ is an example of this. The Isaac Hayes-sampling track was intended for Belly’s album and was actually sung by him, but it captured the imagination of Warner Chappell Music CEO Big Jon who had big ambitions for it. “Beyoncé heard it and she loved it. She ended up taking it and making this whole movie out of it. But originally it was a demo that I’d intended to use for myself,” recalls Belly. “I never approach a session with [the plan of] catering to something else. I go in there and make music. Sometimes the music suits me and sometimes I'm like ‘So-and-so would sound amazing on this.’”
With ‘Glorious’ he plans to finally put himself out there with the sort of tracks that he’d previously have given to other vocalists. “I feel like I just needed to experiment more and do the shit that people don't know I can do,” he says. “I still rap on the album I still do my little drugged out melodies, but at the same time I got some really musical vocals that people never heard me do before.”
It was working with The Weeknd, who’s XO crew he proudly represents, that taught him to embrace vulnerability. “He was like ‘Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself,’” Belly remembers. “That’s probably the best advice I ever got in music. From anybody.”
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Once birthday celebrations are done with, he plans to lock himself in the studio for the rest of the month to complete two bodies of work that he’ll be dropping this year, then he will be joining The Weeknd on his mammoth ‘Starboy: Legend Of The Fall’ US run which includes 27 arena shows. “Oh man, I’m doing my push ups!” he laughs, when quizzed about tour preparations. “Nah, but for real, Abel is such a meticulous person that I'm just trying to make sure that every detail is paid attention to. I'm trying to make sure I'm in the best shape of my life for this tour.”
He’s no stranger to the arena crowds, having supported Snoop Dogg when he was in his early twenties, although he admits that the nerves don’t go away. “I still get the butterflies, and I think that’s a good thing. They say if you still get the butterflies that means you should still be doing it. Knowing that it’s an XO thing, it’s family in the building, makes it a little easier too.”
The most anticipated song of that tour, is undoubtedly The Weeknd’s 2015 hit ‘The Hills’, which was the show closer across Europe. It’s a song Belly co-wrote, and while he humbly gives all credit to Abel when it comes up in discussion, seeing the way that crowds react to it every night still has him in awe. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he admits. “When it comes to writing, Abel’s his own monster. The kid’s really a genius in every sense of the word. ‘The Hills’ was really his vision. I was blessed enough to [be able to] come in and complement what he was already putting in motion. Being in those arenas and seeing the crowds go up to something that we sat down and sweated and damn near bled to create: it's a beautiful thing.”
While he’s confident that he’s at the best point of his career, it still feels like Belly is yet to reach the pinnacle. With his biggest tour so far and a debut album on the horizon, 2017 will prove a vital year for him. He isn’t sweating it though, and has plenty to be thankful for. Belly is proud to have proven music industry convention wrong; still thriving in this game after a decade, working with the same team that he entered with in the first place. To have Jay Z behind him now, with his Roc Nation deal, is the final piece of the puzzle.
“When Hov tells me he likes a certain bar that I rapped, or Abel will send me a message [about a lyric]. That boosts my confidence through the roof. These guys are the premiere artists of their time rocking number ones, doing stadium world tours and they're hitting little old me about some quotes? That shit puts me on top of the world!” he laughs, still with a hint of disbelief, as our conversation draws to an end and he heads off back into the studio.
“Being able to have [Jay Z] beside me [makes me proud] because he’s been iconic to me my whole life. Being able to pick up the phone and reach out to him, to have him curate my career and give me the gems that I need to keep going; to me that’s one of the most important things ever.”
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'Glorious' is out now.
Words: Grant Brydon // @GrantBrydon