Show & Prove
Words: Paul Thompson
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It is jarring to learn that NLE Choppa was born on Nov. 1, 2002, more than a year after the 9/11 attacks and about 10 days before Jay-Z’s seventh album, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, hit stores. Choppa’s younger than the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, Lil Jon crunk music explosion and Beltway sniper story. He can’t vote, buy cigarettes, or go as a patron to many of the venues he packs in ways that torment fire marshals. Even as Spotify charts and major-label release dockets skew younger and younger, the 16-year-old shooting star is unique among 21st century rappers for how new, raw and kinetic his early work has been, like a coiled snake that learned how to smile as it points rifles at the camera.
On a hot afternoon in early August, Choppa—born Bryson Potts and raised in East Memphis—is lounging on a couch in the new Warner Records offices, which are on the east side of Los Angeles. The floor is empty, except for a publicist playing pool. There are images of other Warner artists plastered on walls and glass doors. None depict Choppa, though you could imagine those are coming. This is less than a month after NLE Choppa and Warner announced an agreement to not only release his solo music, but also give him his own imprint, No Love Entertainment (represented by the first half of his moniker). “Being able to invest in myself and my company, I can make more money,” Choppa says, leaning back against a plush couch. “It’s why I started music, to have my own stuff happening—something that I can say is mine, something that I have ownership of.”
The business acumen might be impressive, especially for someone so young, but it’s not as captivating as the music. Choppa is like a perpetual motion machine, rattling off hard, percussive flows with enough personality that they never feel like technical exercises. His breakout single, “Shotta Flow,” is his whole thesis distilled into three minutes, goofy and menacing in equal measure. He’s an acrobatic rapper with enough camera presence to convincingly wave heavy artillery and stage a faux-breaking news skit in the middle of the song’s video. In conversation, certain words—“jewelry,” “views,” “February”—betray a deep drawl, but on record, he bends his voice around phrases in unexpected ways; listen to “Blocc Is Hot,” on which he pronounces “We connected with the Mafia. We cook it like tilapia.” Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Choppa’s music is that he’s chosen a style that leaves no place to hide. His songs live and die on the momentum and creativity of the verses themselves.
At the top of 2018, Choppa had been releasing some formative recordings under the name YNR Choppa. But with the name change came a creative leap. Within a month of its January 2019 release, the video for “Shotta Flow” crossed the 10 million YouTube view threshold, leading to a remix with Blueface and an industry bidding war. One of the first famous artists to make contact with Choppa when he began to blow up was Memphis legend Yo Gotti. Gotti has been at the center of the movement that has seen the city’s scene become more central to hip-hop this decade and Choppa represents its new, cutting edge. As does BlocBoy JB, a fellow next-generation Memphis talent who hopped on “ChopBloc” with Choppa earlier this year. Even his mother, Angela (who is also serving as Choppa’s manager), is fascinated by the way he’s representing their hometown. “Watching him grow from a small artist out of Memphis into a revolutionary artist across the United States and beyond is breathtaking,” she affirms.
One major figure who reached out to Choppa early on was Birdman. The Cash Money Records founder impressed Choppa by not only citing his most notable work, but by doing a deep dive online to find scraps that the young rapper thought had slipped through the digital cracks. “He had a video of me freestyling to my mom for Mother’s Day,” Choppa recounts of his first meeting with Baby. “From way before I blew up…I blew up the next year [after the video was filmed], in January. He showed me the video that was still in his phone from all the way back then.” In March, Birdman included Choppa on the climactic song of his excellent collaboration album with Juvenile, Just Another Gangsta. Choppa speaks reverently about the experience, and about Birdman and Juve, but he eventually cracks into a broad smile: “I wish Wayne was on that muthafucka, too.”
To say Wayne was Choppa’s favorite rapper as a kid would be a gross understatement. He was “pretty much the only rapper I listened to when I was young,” Choppa professes. He sought out new songs on YouTube, studied the vocal patterns, absorbed the charisma. While Choppa doesn’t sound like a direct descendent of Wayne, you can see hints of the influence in his cackling one-liners and the sheer joy he takes in some of his punchlines. There’s one major difference between Wayne’s peak period and Choppa’s career thus far: pace of output. Despite rapidly rising numbers on every distribution platform, he’s so far declined to release a full tape. Choppa says the full-length project is coming, but it has to be perfect. “I wanna drop a tape, but I’ve got so many good songs that I want all of them on one fucking tape,” he shares. “I want that one hard-hitter that everybody just remember forever.”
For now, Choppa remains in Memphis, though he says a move to Atlanta could be on the horizon. His parents are a support system: They’ve traveled with him to Los Angeles and seem to be involved in every aspect of his career (Choppa says that his mother’s career “doing taxes” is a major part of his financial outlook). At one point, in front of both of his parents, he rattles off a line from a yet-to-be-recorded song about trust falls and making opps fall. Later, he speaks on whether it’s strange to play his parents music that includes profanity or other risqué content.
“When I first started, I would play it for my pops and play it for my moms, and they’d say ‘You sound good, I just wish you didn’t have all that cussing,’” he remembers. “I’d be like, ‘Man, I ain’t trying to be no damn Kidz Bop rapper, no damn Oprah rapper. I don’t wanna be on Oprah TV show. I wanna be as gutter as possible.’”
Things have just started.
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