Curren$y doesn't appear tired or stoned. He talks like he's doing it on command while in and out of a weed nap. But the New Orleans MC has likely been awake and working longer than anyone in the room. He's been in town just a few days after a weeklong promotional circus in New York.
"I was tied up," he says. "But it's cool. We got a studio down here, so I'll make up for it."
Right — because Curren$y can't go anywhere for any amount of time without recording something, or someone, and adding it to a prolific catalog that would make mid-2000s era Lil Wayne do a spit take.
Curren$y released The Stoned Immaculate (Warner Bros.), his official major label debut, on June 5 to critical acclaim. It debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200. He was quick to drop another. Just a month later, he released Cigarette Boats, a five-track EP, as a free download. In 2011, he released two full-length albums. He's on par so far in 2012, and there's more to come.
In his brief career, Curren$y has released five full-length albums and more than a dozen mixtapes (though some are more like albums, with solid production rather than recycled beats). Then there are EPs, collaborations, singles, and guest spots on tracks with members of his Jet Life Recordings roster (The JETS) and simpatico MCs down with the namesake acronym ("Just Enjoy This Shit").
In the back office of New Orleans Street Customs Motors on Chef Menteur Highway, Curren$y hops on a counter and props his clean pair of Nike Air Jordans on a chair. Curren$y —wearing a gold chain, orange snapback, camouflage cargo shorts and a black Billionaire Boys Club crewneck — doesn't need any work done on his fleet, at least not today. (He added some new rims on a Ferrari a week ago.)
"This time is cool — 2012, the 2000s, the '90s and all that was awesome, but I kind of feel like I was supposed to be an adult in the '70s. Late '70s," he says. "I feel like I would've killed it, or possibly have been killed, because I was way too killing it."
You can see what he means — the artwork on his latest LP features bold disco fonts, and the cars he admires are all of a certain vintage. His beats are slow, but not syrupy, and he has a soft spot for The Doors, particularly Jim Morrison.
"I always want to sound like how a Crown Royal bag looks. There's a time period and everything with that. There's sounds in the beats and shit you're gonna hear like that. It might be the drums from 'Superfly.' It might be like, 'That sounds like the guitar from Hawaii Five-0.' Anything that's gonna make me feel like that."
On The Stoned Immaculate's opening track "What It Look Like," a dreamy harp leads an orchestra as if a door opened to his '70s-inspired kingpin mansion. Curren$y's laid back, near-monotone rhymes are punctuated by puffs, and his all-white leather palace fills with smoke — the orchestral strings start to bend, and by the time the beat kicks in the up-tempo "Take You There," the album lifts off into near-G-funk space symphony complete with throwback horns and big choruses.
The album is peppered with "studio" quality production, from mega-producer Pharrell's ghost gospel "Chasin' Papers" to fellow kush connoisseur Wiz Khalifa, who jumps on "No Squares" and "Jet Life." The album begins as a decadent party and ends a faded all-nighter, with Curren$y delivering his mission statement on closing track "Jet Life." Big K.R.I.T. whispers the mantra ("Jet Life to the next life") over the chorus and a skittering interstellar beat with delayed guitars.
Curren$y's dedicated low-key persona is a far cry from his credentials-listing street rap from a decade ago. On the 2005 track "Shovlin' Snow" with Cash Money honcho Birdman and Lil Wayne, Curren$y raps, "How you gonna go ahead and tell me about me. Curren$y been the G since way back in the G. Back when PNC made 'Pump the Party,' and Soulja Slim laced up his first pair of Rees." In his showboating verse, Curren$y namedrops both New Orleans rap legends Partners-N-Crime (PNC) and the late Soulja Slim, who was killed in 2003.
Now, the rapper has perfected day-in-the-life wordplay, mostly involving women, cars, shoes, video games, weed, his friends and their stories. The same applies to those following the JETS Code.
"The only thing we talked about is what happened yesterday. If I write a song today, it's gonna be about what I did yesterday. That's all I talk about: whatever I did," he says. "People like that, and people want to become successful just by being themselves."
Curren$y, born Shante Franklin, wrote his first rap, a story about Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, in elementary school. ("I think I ultimately killed him," he says, laughing. "I was like in the f—ing third grade.")
He didn't write again until his senior year of high school, where he jotted down a rap with a friend whom he was sure would go pro. Curren$y's older brother, rapper Mr. Marcelo, released the acclaimed Brick Livin' in 2000 on legendary New Orleans label No Limit Records.
"I didn't take (rapping) seriously," he says. "I was like, 'I can't do this. What do I naturally have? I can write songs, I can write raps.' I always knew people — Marcelo already had a thing going with No Limit and shit. I just never said out loud that I wanted to rap. Had I said that earlier then I would've been cool. ... I was in that the whole time. I didn't have to run around with demos or do battles, try and win my position in the game. It was just like, 'You can rap?' And it just so happened it was decent. Even if it would've been terrible it probably would've been all right. 'Oh, it's just f—ing Curren$y.'"
He joined the lineup on Marcelo's Tuff Guy Entertainment, which collapsed when its business partner Doe Doe was murdered in 2001. Longtime friend C-Murder, who would drive Curren$y to school and take him shopping for Jordans on weekends, picked him up for his TRU Records label. That deal fell apart when C-Murder was prosecuted for murder in 2002.
He then caught the attention of No Limit — that's Curren$y swinging arms in an uncharacteristic XL white T-shirt in the 504 Boyz video "Get Back" from 2002.
As Lil Wayne prepped his Young Money Entertainment (later home to centerpiece stars Drake and Nicki Minaj), Wayne tapped Curren$y to join the roster. In 2006, Curren$y had a minor hit with "Where Da Cash At," which appeared on Lil Wayne's Dedication 2 mixtape, released amid that rapper's acclaimed streak of "mixtape" releases. The single hit Billboard (though on the low end on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, at No. 73).
Curren$y grew restless, bouncing from label to label with no album of his own in anyone's plans. He went independent in 2007, releasing mixtape after mixtape, including 2009's acclaimed This Ain't No Mixtape and Jet Files, and he cracked into XXL's coveted "freshmen" issue, the hip-hop magazine's annual kingmaking list. (Also on that year's freshman list: current rap radio staples B.o.B. and Kid Cudi.)
In 2010, Curren$y inked a deal with former Roc-A-Fella Records mogul Damon Dash through his BluRoc Records, distributed by Def Jam, which released Pilot Talk — making it his first "studio" album, released to critical acclaim.
The album was produced nearly exclusively by Curren$y regular Ski Beatz, who overdubbed tracks with live instruments and a full psychedelic soul band, fleshing out Curren$y's hazy visions of "fuzzy herb trees" and "money, bitches, Testarossas, viva, clink a few mimosas."
It also gave proper introduction to his war chest of signature catchphrases, namely "eah" (as in "Yeah," without the "Y"), and his love for things with four wheels or wings (the album art features three jets circling a green-lensed cartoon view of a swirling New Orleans cityscape).
Curren$y showed off his recruiting skills — not just a sampling of soon-to-be Jet Lifers, but heavyweights like Snoop Dogg and Mos Def drop verses on the album. Its follow-up Pilot Talk 2, also released in 2010, is similarly heavy on the horns and psychedelic guitars.
Last year, he inked a deal with Warner Bros., which distributed his independent album Weekend at Burnie's, and backed and released his first "official" major label debut, The Stoned Immaculate.
"You can be mainstream, you can be underground — as long as you don't get caught up. It's attractive. It's way cooler to not be in the mix," he says. "A slow burn is better. That pop — I say that about a lot of shit. It pops — it pops! — that means it's not there, like a bubble, like, 'Yeah, we about to blow up, we about to pop,' pop.
"All right, now there's nothing to talk about. There it went. I don't want to do that. That's not what I want to do."
Curren$y avoids fanfare and commercial blasts before and after album releases. (He told Complex magazine earlier this year, "I don't want f—ing airplanes flying with banners because I did something.")
Instead he celebrates his whole catalog, past, present and future — and the future is booked solid. In the pipeline: a live album with Wiz Khalifa, Live in Concert (out Aug. 9); follow-ups to Pilot Talk and Covert Coup, another Jets crew album; a project with Big K.R.I.T.; and whatever else creeps onto his schedule. He's also shooting videos for every track on The Stoned Immaculate, having already released four videos; a fifth, for "Armoire," is forthcoming. The five tracks on Cigarette Boats will be a short, five-part film.
It's guaranteed none of these tracks will play on rap radio or on MTV. Curren$y is kind of planning they don't.
"People always ask me about oversaturation, like if I'm concerned because I put out too much stuff, that people get tired of it," he says. "That could kill you if what you're doing is not real. What happens is, people get on with the unreal, a gimmick situation. The system eats that shit up, as far as media, what they're going to give out to (audiences) — video, radio, blahbity blah. Mainly radio. Once (audiences) get that and keep you on the air with it, they rebel against it. ... First, they're brainwashed, then they realize they're brainwashed, because someone shows them and pulls them into The Matrix.
"It creates a yin and yang," he says, drawing a circle in the air. He points to the bottom. "It's tight. I'll always be on this side. ... You can put out as much music as you want. That's not oversaturation. Fluff is oversaturation."
(As he raps on "Fashionably Late" from Pilot Talk 2: "editing room, hours of clips, a man of many hats in this new era, nurturing several smaller businesses under my umbrella" (though almost under his breath, he adds, "on the low low").
"I can't switch that up," he says. "People's attention spans are short. They're used to seeing me. If I fall back, someone else will gladly just ... I'm not having it."
Under his Jet Life Recordings umbrella, he's planning a weekly event at House of Blues, where he celebrated the release of The Stoned Immaculate on July 4. The "Jet Lounge" series kicks off every Wednesday beginning this month. The event is meant to mimic some of the organized hip-hop showcases in New York that helped break Curren$y. He wants to bring that level of exposure to New Orleans artists.
"This is how it's supposed to be," he says. "We will have shown a group of people that think like us, at home, in this city, that they're going to be able to pull it off. Because it looks weird — I left No Limit, I left Cash Money. To lose everything, then get it back. That means whatever you want to do you can probably pull it off because I just did the crazy shit. If all you talking about is doing this, go do it. Because I just, like, did it the worst way. ...
"I could be telling you, 'You don't have to play this game. Don't drink the Kool-Aid. It don't have to be like that.' But if I'm not proving that, I'm standing against that and I'm living just as well as the people who are playing the bullshit game, then I'm just an empty wagon. I got to prove it."
Current Jet Life artists include Young Roddy, Trademark da Skydiver, Street Wiz, Smoke DZA, Mikey Rocks (of The Cool Kids), Nesby Phips, Corner Boy P, and the former No Limit star and velvet baritone Fiend.
In 2011, Curren$y released Jet World Order, a sampler of his Jet Life roster and its stable of producers, namely New Orleans' Monsta Beatz, the duo (Dee-Low and Jean Laphare) behind much of the Curren$y catalog.
"I'm a pretty good judge of character. I'm not in the company of people I shouldn't be," he says.
"They have ideas, I have ideas, and when you feel safe around a like-minded person, you're going to do whatever you can do for them. That's what I've always been able to flow off of, just the fact that I try to be what I am."