May 19, 2024

Some people aren’t conversational. Others are. Then there’s the type of person who doesn’t like talking yet is an incredibly thoughtful speaker when given the opportunity. “I swear — I hate doing interviews. It’s really not my forte but I appreciate it, though, bro,” says Central Cee moments after wrapping up our 40-minute Q&A. This gratitude is one that reflects his journey. He’s no longer active in the streets of Shepherd’s Bush where hand-to-hand transactions were part of a daily routine. As we speak, he’s awaiting an international flight – a frequent occurrence in his life these days, though, at one point, these destinations were only seen through the lens of social media.

It’s September 8th, just hours after Queen Elizabeth II was pronounced dead. The West London native is en route for a flight across the pond to Canada – a country that ironically became less British during Queen Lizzy’s reign – to perform at Toronto’s inaugural Rolling Loud festival. The similarities between London and Toronto have become more evident in recent years, especially as artists from both parts of the world began crossing over into each other’s territories. The two cities share more commonalities than differences in culture and slang, both stemming from their similarly diverse ethnic communities, many of which migrated from the same Commonwealth countries.

Central Cee is two years removed from his breakout moment in the UK, but the feeling of being a new artist hasn’t worn off yet. In 2021, he won the award for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards, 10 months after the release of his debut mixtape, Wild West.

Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic
Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic

“My foot never came off the gas [since I put it down] in 2020. I never really [took] my foot off the gas so I still have the same headspace,” he tells HNHH confidently in the midst of another break-out moment on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean following the international success of his sophomore mixtape, 23. Still, his introduction to North America puts him “back at square one… almost.”

“I’m where I was two years ago in the U.K., [but] in America. I understand that I need to do that whole process again, and go through that whole process again — which I’m excited to do,” he says.

I’ve worked harder in the streets for a lot less P’s. That hustle won’t die in me

Central Cee speaks with certainty. He’ll politely pass on questions that he isn’t comfortable answering. There’s a precision in each response that provides just enough context without over-elaborating, similar to his rapping style. He basks in the present moment with tunnel vision on his next accomplishment. This persistence and dedication are what allowed him to take such an unprecedented leap in his career.

“No matter how long the days get in this music thing,” he begins, “I’ve worked harder in the streets for a lot less P’s. That hustle won’t die in me,” he adds. “I just work hard and don’t complain.”

His story goes back nearly a decade ago, and the evolution of his sound has been well-documented. Archived records that have largely been erased from the Internet show a young Cench finding his voice by diving into auto-tuned melodies reminiscent of UK’s Afroswing movement and grime flows. However, his appearance on AJ Tracey’s “Spirit Bomb (Remix)” in 2016, alongside Dave and many others, showcased his competitive nature that he inherited from influences like Skepta, JME, Chip, and other grime legends – all of whom he shouted out on “Gratitude” for paving the way. You could imagine that it would be a pivotal moment in his career, even if AJ Tracey and Dave had yet to release their debut albums. In retrospect, that moment may have had more of an impact than he realized.

“It wasn’t too significant, but maybe subconsciously, it might have put me in a state of mind where I knew I could be like these guys,” he explains. “I saw them go to crazy heights. Maybe that did inspire man in a way to see that it is possible to definitely do the same.”

There’s a rarity in seeing UK rappers thrive in an American market because there’s a one-way translation between the two. Artists like Drake, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and other rap heavyweights have embraced the UK, just as much as it has embraced them. However, it’s not common to see the same love shown in the U.S. for UK counterparts. The prosperous and motivating undertones of rap, originating within the United States, have since resonated across the globe. Hip-hop’s growth was spurred by regionalism, which in turn, has allowed outsiders to dive into worlds they otherwise wouldn’t have known about. As Chicago rapper Joel Q once explained, Chief Keef, for example, became a wild card in the music industry that reflected a brazen generation of Chicagoans who inherited gang ties by birth rather than initiation – the result of decades worth of neglect and government inaction to combat poverty and socioeconomic disparities. The sounds Chief Keef and Young Chop created sent shockwaves through the world, birthing a new movement in rap that went against the status quo and shifted the genre forward.

I know how I am as a person. I’m so content in that I don’t even care what people think about me.

Central Cee’s acclimation to the UK streets and the music that spawned from it has transformed him into a definitive voice for his generation. However, the awareness of the differences between the UK and the U.S. – or more broadly, Europe and North America – put him in a unique position where he can bridge that divide. His latest hit, “Doja” became the crossover hit to capitalize off of the strength of 23. The record was propelled by a viral TikTok snippet released days before that passed the 1M mark just as the song hit streaming services.

Earlier this year, $NOT similarly “paid homage” to Doja Cat but the response from the Planet Her creator wasn’t necessarily favorable. The song essentially felt like $NOT was airing out dirty laundry rather than divulging his fantasies, leading Doja Cat to shut down rumors that they slept together (on Sept. 14th, $NOT posted a picture alongside Central Cee and tagged Doja Cat in the caption). You might think that the negative connotation of the song would prevent anyone from mentioning her again but it seems that Central Cee found a sweet spot that won over her appreciation to some degree. Doja hopped on Instagram weeks after its release where she drunkenly giggled at Central Cee’s pronunciation.

“I wasn’t going to say anything about the Central Cee thing but it’s really funny that somebody just said, ‘I’m not trying to indulge in that.’ I’m too fucked up to not mention that it’s very funny. ‘Indulge in that’ is funny. I’m sorry,” she said on Instagram Live. “I wasn’t going to say anything… I was going to be superior, I was going to be above it… but then I saw that and it’s actually great.”

Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic
Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic

“It wasn’t really like an in-depth reaction. I couldn’t really get how she actually felt,” says Cench in response to her brief mention of the song on Instagram Live. “I don’t really care, to be fair.”

Though Cee might have difficulty understanding whether Doja’s comments were an actual stamp of approval, he admittedly hoped that it could get on her radar one way or another. “Doja” speaks to his innate talents to craft a hit record but more than that, it’s exemplary of his understanding of marketing. For lack of a better description, the song is an SEO-friendly anthem that would’ve gained international traction on Google Trends one way or another. He explained to Genius that Doja Cat was likely on his mind after going down a TikTok rabbithole, and the song was practically created with the social media platform in mind, at a minute and 37 seconds in length. 

“I would’ve hoped so. Not really land on [Doja Cat’s] radar. I don’t really think that but I definitely had high hopes for the success of this song,” he says when asked if he expected the song to catch her attention.

“Doja” was bound to make an impact, from the boldness of the hook, the ode to the intergenerational impact of hip-hop’s leading ladies, and a Lyrical Lemonade video (the first for any UK rapper). The song took on a life of its own, one that earned fans among Polo G – who was spotted with Central Cee in the studio earlier this year. Doja Cat can’t escape it, either. In mid-September, a video emerged online of Doja Cat appearing to be flustered once the sample of Eve’s “Let Me Blow Your Mind” hits. Though the clip is rather unclear and the camera is shaky, it was a candid look at Doja’s reaction after admitting that she had no intention of acknowledging the record. 

Although I was getting so big, it didn’t feel like it ‘cause it was just numbers on the screen. So then, when I went outside and actually got to do a show and see real-life people singing my lyrics, it was an indescribable feeling.”

“Me knowing how small the world is and how the internet is, that success would’ve gone hand in hand with her coming across it or fans sending it to her. I would’ve thought that, ‘yeah, she woulda probably seen it — she should see it’ if it went to plan, which it did. That might have even excelled my expectations. I expected it to do well, basically.”

With a remix of the song on the way, which will likely include a major American artist, Central Cee is moving tactfully. “Doja” debuted at #2 on the UK Charts – marking his fourth top 10 and highest debuting song to date. While the song is evidently gaining more traction as the weeks go by, the next sign of commercial success would be landing on the Billboard Hot 100, which it seems on pace to do. The song debuted in the top 20 of Billboard’s Global Charts and hit number 13 on the US Bubbling Under Hot 100. Consider the fact this feat was accomplished independently. Not too shabby for an international voice.

Still, the opening bars are tongue-in-cheek that could have easily been misconstrued. He described the influence that his girlfriend, who identifies as bisexual, had on him while he simultaneously denounced homophobia in all of its forms in the same Genius interview. On one hand, it would seem like a sly PR move to combat a narrative of punching down on the LGBTQ+ community. On the other, it was also a moment to uphold his creative license. 

“That’s just what the beat made me say. That’s just how I was genuinely feeling,” he admits over our phone call. In hindsight, he recognized how infectious those lyrics were but he also faced some pushback along the way. “I didn’t even see it really, like, controversial, at first. Then I sent it to someone, they said, Ooh, like, are you sure you wanna say that? I said, ‘Of course, I ain’t saying nothing wrong, bro.’ But then I realized from that reaction that it was controversial.”

Still, the same level of sureness that he exudes in his response is a character trait that comes across on and off wax. “I think, to be fair, I don’t mind if my words get misconstrued,” he explains. “I know how I am as a person. I’m so content in that, I don’t even care what people think about me. Like, if they do happen to misconstrue something, I never feel the need to clear something up.”

You can sense that this sentiment is similar to his work ethic – the stakes involved with maneuvering through the streets to make ends meet are much more harrowing than anything cancel culture can throw in his direction. 

The momentum he built up extended through his latest appearance on LA Leakers, where he dished a two-minute freestyle over a sample of 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper.” It was an opportunity to “bridge the gap,” as he mentions at the top of the verse. The disparity between UK and US rap largely boils down to dialect and lingo. However, another sign of his marketing brilliance was using the platform to formally explain these differences, down to the synonyms of a bathroom. “If a man violate, say, ’a man boyed it’… We both whip crack the same, we fill up the Pyrex pot and boil it,” he raps in his deep, clear-cut voice.

“Like, I’m on an American platform. I’m from the U.K.. I know the stigma a lot of American people have and — I don’t know. I just thought it would be a good idea,” he explains. The verse became another viral moment on the Internet that led new fans to deem him a “genius,” but in Cench’s words: “I understood the assignment.”

Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic
Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic

He’s a student of the game in all facets, from understanding social media algorithms to his marketing strategies, and even his approach to records. His dad played a pivotal role in developing his keen palette. Music surrounded him, from old-school artists like Biggie and 2Pac – whom the 24-year-old rapper counts in his top 5 – to dancehall, reggae, and jazz. He explains the inspiration for his L.A. Leakers freestyle came from Smiley Culture – a Jamaican artist that immigrated to the UK in the 70s – who recorded “Cockney Translation,” a vibrant and infectious breakdown between “proper English” and Jamaican slang. 

“I thought it would be a good idea to do the same thing with Americans. When I had the idea to do the Leakers, I thought, ‘yeah, why not?’ I should probably try to practice that idea I had, and bring them together,’” he recalls. “Then I heard the ‘Window Shopper’ sample type beat that I rapped over, which is the 50 Cent sample, and I just thought, ‘Yeah, makes perfect sense.’”

There’s a science to his method. Central Cee draws parallels between worlds that might seem far apart. Smiley Culture’s influence allowed Cee to provide a comprehensive yet palatable breakdown of UK slang to American audiences, who the rapper believes aren’t as forgiving as the American artists he’s met. 

His approach to his business strategy similarly isn’t sourced from a singular influence or one specific industry. Whether it’s corporations or multi-platinum artists, he explains that he identifies success as if it’s a variable in an algebraic equation, working backward from the results using his own theories. 

I wanna make sure I do what’s best for me at all times.

“In business, in general, I think there’s a lot of similarities no matter the field. It’s almost always the same traits or characteristics or, like, moves or strategies that take people to the top. It’s probably pretty simple, really and truly, then. You don’t have to think about it too much,” he says.

The results speak for themselves. Footage of his Rolling Loud performance in Toronto proved that his international hype wasn’t solely a product of stellar marketing but quality music. There’s a legion of fans who are singing back his lyrics word-for-word in places like Portugal and New York City, whether it’s his latest hit record, “Doja” or his 2020 breakout hit, “Day In The Life.” 

These days, Central Cee is making up for the lost time in the pandemic, when he had his first charting single and the rest of the world was inside. The international Still Loading tour will bring Cench across Europe and Australia in November, and North America in February 2023, where he will be able to see the payoff of the years of labor he’s put in. Cench spent the majority of the lockdown in the studio or in the house. There was no way to determine if the online support actually translated into ticket sales. 

“It never felt real to me,” he explains. His numbers shot up in 2020 – millions of streams and YouTube views while his Instagram page crossed a million followers. “[The pandemic] was a blessing and a curse ‘cause I reckon that panic kept me grounded. It slowed everything down for me. Although I was getting so big, it didn’t feel like it ‘cause it was just numbers on the screen. So then, when I went outside and actually got to do a show and see real-life people singing my lyrics, it was an indescribable feeling.”

The fanfare doesn’t necessarily phase him but there are a few co-signs that caught him off guard. Cee’s earned a supporter out of Drake early on, leading the British MC to become the face of a NOCTA campaign. Aesthetics aside, Drizzy recently offered high praise for an unreleased verse on “Doja” that Cee previewed on Instagram Live. Cee is rather nonchalant of the public adornment from hip-hop’s luminaries but the mutual respect exchanged between the Canadian heavyweight and the budding Brit is a full-circle moment. Drake’s Take Care was the first physical CD Central Cee ever got his hands on. “When Drake hit man, that was really like the first time somebody had hit me and it kinda made me think, like, ‘Yeah!’ It was cool to see that.”

His L.A. Leakers freestyle also received a round of applause from Travis Scott. “I’m from where the Jack Boys gets active/ Fam don’t sleep with your window open,” he raps, a quote which was reposted to Scott’s Instagram Story. Between that and a viral clip of Travis listening to “Doja” in a U.K. club, Internet sleuths concluded that Central Cee may have joined the Cactus Jack roster. However, Cee says that they don’t necessarily have a relationship the way the internet believes they do.

“I met him in L.A. when I was there the first time last summer. I went to his office. It was cool to see. He got a cool office. We chopped it up,” he says, clarifying that it was on a “human ting” rather than inquiries about his label situation. “He showed a lot of love to the ‘Doja’ record when he came to London. They filmed him playing the song in one of the U.K. clubs. It went viral out here, and then, he showed love to the freestyle yesterday but we haven’t spoke business or anything really.”

These accomplishments, whether garnering attention from A-Listers or selling out venues on the other side of the world, have happened with a tight-knit team. As his profile grows in the public eye, he hasn’t closed the doors on major labels. He’s currently affiliated with Atlantic Records, though he denies that there are any concrete arrangements to release his next project with the backing of a powerhouse label. 

“I wanna make sure I do what’s best for me at all times. Up until now, it had been good for me to be independent because the U.K. and Europe were probably easier to conquer, almost, by ourselves and without having to have the pressure of a label on us,” he explains. “Now, as more and more ears and eyes are on me, I feel like signing wouldn’t be a bad idea. So the conversation is back open and we’re just trying to figure out how to maneuver.”

When I’m looking out the window or we’re looking around seeing just some tourist sh*t or seeing some different change of scenery, I know how I’m feeling and it’s making me feel like it’s opening my eyes up to something.

He has recorded new music since the release of his sophomore mixtape, including “Doja” and collaborations with a few artists. And he launched his own imprint, LIVE YOURS, in October with an official YouTube page where he dropped the “One Up” music video. Still, he says he’s not “consciously thinking about a mixtape or album as of yet.” His current tour schedule hasn’t necessarily provided him with an opportunity to lock in and focus.

Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic
Via Warner Music Group/ Atlantic

However, fans were treated to new music in mid-October when he released his four-song pack, No More Leaks as unreleased music began surfacing online. But for someone who only experienced his success in the midst of a global pandemic, it feels like he’s largely making up for the pivotal moments he lost out on and touching the fans who’ve propelled him to this point. He’s bringing his friends along with him, who went through similar hardships with him over the years, to experience a world that’s well beyond the confines of West London.

On the song “Lil Bro,” where he trades bars with the eponymous rapper – Cee’s actual younger sibling – Cench shares a cautionary tale of the lawlessness of the roads and the slim percentage of survival. Neither of them traveled beyond London as children, although Cench visited other parts of Europe when he was 16 years old. The newfound demand for Central Cee has given him the opportunity to explore the world.

“It’s a blessing that the music has been able to do that for me really cause a lot of my friends have never even left the country… Show them something different to the small environment of where we’re from,” he says with a burst of enthusiasm in his tone. It’s easy for an artist in Central Cee’s position to get lost in the chaos of it all but just the simple change of environment is having as much of an effect on him as it does on those surrounding him. 

“We’re all in the same boat. When I’m looking out the window or we’re looking around seeing just some tourist sh*t or seeing some different change of scenery, I know how I’m feeling and it’s making me feel like it’s opening my eyes up to something. I know that they’re feeling the same. It’s a good feeling to just be able to share it with the people I grew up with and relate to and love.”

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