EARTHGANG's 'Ghetto Gods' looks for divinity in Atlanta's dichotomies
"Got a $20 bill? Get your hands up / You survived last year? Get your hands up." This lyric, from EARTHGANG's new sophomore album Ghetto Gods, is conceivably how the Atlanta hip-hop duo can hype up crowds on its upcoming tour. But it also highlights a central theme of the new record: how committed EARTHGANG is to representing and celebrating its greater community, especially given how challenging the past few years have been.
Members Olu and WowGr8 realize how privileged their lives may seem, since the duo signed to J. Cole's Dreamville imprint in 2017, toured with Billie Eilish and Mac Miller, and released its lofty fantasia of a major label debut, 2019's Mirrorland. Last year, when New Zealand was thought to have eradicated coronavirus, EARTHGANG was the only U.S. act billed on a music festival there attended by 20,000 people. Yet on Ghetto Gods, as ever, EARTHGANG's mind is on how resilient their parents, cousins and childhood friends have had to be, with the pandemic being just one factor.
The primary setting in the duo's music remains its native Atlanta. Ghetto Gods, out on Feb. 25, features three affiliates of the generations-spanning Dungeon Family collective: Future (on "Billi"), CeeLo Green (on "Power") and Kawan "KP" Prather, whose group Parental Advisory was the collective's first, before OutKast and Goodie Mob. The hunger to transcend their city's income inequality (the nation's highest) and become a shining example of how Atlanta functions as a Black mecca still looms large. Olu opens the album with "Got so many memories that I made on Cascade Road," as in the corridor at the heart of Atlanta's historically Black neighborhood West End. He compares those memories to the redevelopment he sees in West End's immediate vicinity.
"You got Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but a couple of blocks away you've got fires in trash cans, people trying to stay warm," Olu tells NPR. "There's still that dichotomy; the more things change, the more things stay the same."
But Ghetto Gods also depicts how surreal the past two years have felt in particular, especially since Georgia was among the last U.S. states to shut down and the first to re-open during year one of the pandemic.
The album's lyrics speak on how Olu, WowGr8 and their community reckoned with their morals, values and lifestyles amid the pandemic's widespread existential crisis. Hermès might have ended 2020 with a profit, but in the uneasy "Birkin," the status symbol loses in sheen, with how it adds to this "perception of perfection" in the age of influencers. EARTHGANG recorded the reggae-inspired "Smoke Sum" literally amid citywide marches protesting the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. ("We're really closing Pro Tools out and meeting these people outside," Olu says, describing the recording process. "I can't believe I'm still living this s***. In the midst of a pandemic, I can't believe that I'm still dealing with racism.")
And in the tender "All Eyes on Me," where the group toasts those who "survived last year," you can hear WowGr8 reevaluate his priorities in real time: "Momma, I ain't made it til you quit your 9-to-5 / I was on the road when I found out my uncle died / lost a lotta sleep, I know we should have talked more / I work so hard, I can't forget what this is all for."
When Mirrorland arrived three years ago, its sprawling depictions of Atlanta as inspired by The Wiz didn't seem that far-fetched. But, as Georgia's governor continues to push back against mask mandates, Ghetto Gods comes across as more grounded in Atlanta's realities. "This is literally like The Office," Olu says, "where we actually look into the camera every once in a while being like, 'Do you see what's going on?' "
Co-executive produced by management SinceThe80s and Prather, a music executive who also DJs as KP the Great, Ghetto Gods is more immediate and straightforward than EARTHGANG's past work. If those artistic ambitions — to be more introspective lyrically, yet at home among the hustler's anthems that typically rattle from Atlanta's car speakers — seem at odds with one another, that's precisely the point.
"That right there is Ghetto Gods," Olu says, "the fact that we're still able to make music that feels like outside music during this wild a** time is a tribute to Atlanta."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Christina Lee, NPR Music: What conversations or stories were at the top of mind during the making of Ghetto Gods?
WowGr8: Usually when I make stuff, I don't like to say too much, because I like when a listener gets something totally different from what I was thinking. But as far as stories, I'm telling my story and my family's story. I'm telling the stories of a lot of my homies I've reconnected with since I've been back home and honestly, more folks from my childhood than ever, from over the past two years. Everybody ain't have the same ride that I've had to get to this point. I'm the only person from my street, and probably within a good 20- to 30-mile radius, that's been the places I've been and done what I've done. I'm sharing those stories, and they're telling me that so-and-so died, so-and-so got locked up, they had a baby, they got married.
Olu: You start to see how the last two years have drastically changed everybody. With a lot of the people I grew up with, they look at us like, You guys are still doing what you've been doing since before the pandemic. But on the flip side, I'm finding that they are getting more in tune with themselves. It's not just like, I gotta get a job or I'm scrambling. What do I really want out of life? Who am I? That's the 'god' aspect of this project. And that has helped me find my true self. That has been a really cool thing to find among my people. I feel like everyone has been forced to look at the mirror and find the god within themselves if they look long enough.
How did y'all connect with KP, and what did he contribute as executive producer?
WowGr8: Originally we met KP years ago on tour. It was one of them things where you go meet the OGs; he was still working at Atlantic. I don't even think we were signed to anybody. And it has always been like, I see y'all. As we got closer to doing this project, I know we were very clear about wanting to have a coach for this one, not necessarily to pick the songs and tell us what to do, but just have a consistent person to bounce things off of. We're a duo. We got two managers. It's often a 50/50 split in decisions. We needed a person who hasn't been here the whole time to bring a perspective that's uniquely their own.
Olu: Him being a DJ, it's really inspired us. Most of our music we made, with Mirrorland and the EPs, were stuff that we made in the house. Our environment was getting high and just hanging out with the guys, having people come and kick it. With KP, with all the projects he's been a part of, he understands the vibrations that get people moving. It's weird with us doing these concerts, because the music is so different even though the message is the same. "Let's take two minutes to get to this part, have a three-minute intro or a four-minute outro." It's not like that. It's more in your face, slamming the plate down on the table.
Which song off Ghetto Gods are you most proud of, and why?
Olu: With "All Eyes on Me," I specifically remember that we needed two or three more songs to finish the album. I remember writing in my journal, I want to write something that is honest, that people can feel, that people can toast to, before the studio session, before the beat was made. I really love all the songs on this album; I was backed into answering this question. But I feel like all the songs are very raw and honest. In my opinion, it's less "let's be creative" and more "let's be honest."
WowGr8: One is "Billi," because we made that song in 15 minutes. It was a freestyle, and I love when freestyles get hooks. And I've got to say "Strong Friends," just because of what it became. I didn't even think it was going to be on the album, to be honest. For 90 percent of the album's creation, I just knew it wasn't gonna make it. When you say "proud," I'm thinking about s*** I can play for my mom.
Olu: I played "Strong Friends" for my mom. I played "All Eyes on Me" for my mom. I played "Power" for my mom. Most of the time, the first thing she hears — or the only thing she hears — is curse words. But with these records, we wanted to say what we wanted to say, but also curse and do what we need to do to speak to people in their language.
To that point about "let's be honest" versus "let's be creative": What does that look like as far as the writing process or production?
Olu: During a lot of the recording process with KP and us, I remember we would be in conversation, and people would be like, "Yo, say that." We would speak to each other and be like, whether it's a verse or extra music: "Is this needed?" Not, "Let me go in here and dumb it down." But, "What drives the point home?" The best way is the most intentional one.
WowGr8: Personally for me, towards the end of Mirrorland, I don't know what snapped in my mind to where I started compartmentalizing my overly functioning cognitive brain. When I function day to day, I'm the taskmaster, I'm the cognitive guy. But when I get in the booth, I don't think at all. And the less I think, the realer I am when it comes to music. That has been a big thing for me — just letting go, being free.
So much of Ghetto Gods seems entrenched in the past two years of unrest and reckoning with the pandemic. Were y'all at all concerned with the album's timing, considering national pressure to return to normalcy?
Olu: [Laughs.] The reality is, Atlanta never really shut down. We've been outside. But also, I mean, s***. I don't know about you, but I'm still processing the pandemic.
WowGr8: I'm going to be processing this for a while.
Olu: I still get my years mixed up.
WowGr8: COVID could end this year, and I'll still be processing it.
Olu: I don't think there is a time limit on that type of honesty. There's music that was made 40 or 50 years ago that you can still play today and be like, "Goddamn, how they know what I'm dealing with right now?" That's just because they've been honest.
What do you hope listeners take away from Ghetto Gods?
WowGr8: I hope they get the whole point, of why we're operating the way we're operating, why this is a journey versus a destination. I hope they get the value of a long career.
Olu: I hope each of these songs allows them to find something new about themselves. Each of these songs deals with some growth aspect, whether it's being vulnerable like "Strong Friends" or understanding what true abundance and wealth is, in "Billi." Maybe it's not a billion dollars to you. Maybe it's what you do with the money you got. I hope that each of these songs helps them get to the next level in their lives.
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