When Lincoln rapper HAKIM dropped his mixtape “Young Drifter II” in early 2018, he thought it was the best project he’d put out to that point, the kind of project worthy of promotional treatment on par with the yearlong marketing campaigns of major-label releases.

But HAKIM is independent, and proud to be. He and his team are free to make their own decisions in all aspects of the creative and marketing processes, but that means he’s prone to the inevitable regrets of hindsight when he makes a misstep.

Just three months after “Young Drifter II,” HAKIM released “Young Drifter II Reloaded,” a collection of leftover tracks and alternate mixes that didn’t make the cut on “Young Drifter II.”

“In all reality, we should have never dropped another project,” the 24-year-old rapper said. “‘Young Drifter II’ was a very serious tape for us. That was one that I could sit back and actually enjoy listening to a little bit.”

If HAKIM wants to take his craft seriously — and he does — each move has to be calculated. When “Reloaded” dropped, he said it took the focus off of the mixtape he’d spent months fine-tuning and buried any chance of giving it the promotion it deserved.

“Our motto for this year is execution. We’ve just got a lot of stuff planned. It’s on us to follow through and execute.”

He won’t make the same mistake again.

HAKIM, his manager Don Washington and his producer Marlon Moonie were finalizing marketing plans for “El Morado: The Movie by HAKIM,” the rapper’s 18th project. But, he said he can’t even be sure that’s the right number at this point.

Highlights in the album rollout strategy include a pre-release listening party, packaging homegrown corn husks with apparel from Corn Coast’s mail orders and a Lincoln-based promotion that will generate 90,000 impressions per week for eight weeks. But he wants to keep the details of that investment under wraps until it goes live in late February.

The trio is in their second-floor studio above a string of bars on South 11th Street downtown. A mannequin sporting a new line of Corn Coast clothes greets guests when they walk in. Corn Coast stickers are strewn across a black folding table against one wall, and there’s a TV and couch in a back corner with a Nintendo 64 hooked up. But HAKIM spends most of his time in front of a mounted computer monitor with a pair of studio speakers on either side. He mixes and masters all of his songs here.

“He has this kind of chemistry that [a song] is gonna sound like what it should sound like,” Moonie said of HAKIM. “And, he’s probably as picky as anybody could ever be, so that tests everyone around him to be on their A-game, to push yourself to create something different and try something different.”

Since April of last year, the space has been the home base for Corn Coast, which HAKIM launched in 2017 to supplement his music, and for Our Society, LLC, HAKIM and Washington’s independent record label that releases all of HAKIM’s music. Cars are parked across the street, brandished with Our Society decals on their rear windshields.

This is the scene at Our Society headquarters on most nights. They start a little after dinner time and head home around 1 a.m. after scheming their next moves for the label and Corn Coast or fleshing out new tracks.

“I could work at home, but it’s just not the same as here,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re working. You can’t have that interruption when you’re at work. If you want your dream to be your job, you gotta treat it like that. Show up on time, clock in, put them hours in. You can’t slack or you’re going to get fired, and you’re dream’s gonna be gone.”

Aside from “El Morado,” other projects on Our Society’s horizon are a Marlon Moonie beat tape and a mixtape from Vono, one of the label’s newest signees and a friend of HAKIM’s since middle school.

It’s taken about four years of that routine and dedication to get where they are today — atop the Lincoln rap scene with their most high-profile project coming in the spring.

But, it wasn’t always HAKIM’s plan to be a rapper. Throughout high school, the people around him — his parents, particularly — thought he would follow a basketball career into college. He played at Lincoln High and developed an ice-cold 3-point shot, eventually heading to a North Carolina prep school to be closer to Division I recruiters.

Then, in early 2014, one of his best friends from back home, Eddie Key III, passed away from pneumonia in his Wayne State College dorm room. HAKIM talks openly about Key now, but the death hit him hard at the time and showed him the reality of mortality.

It forced him to do some soul-searching. Should he keep appeasing his parents by pursuing basketball? Or follow his heart to hip-hop?

HAKIM left North Carolina after graduation and never looked back.

“It’s do-or-die for me,” he said. “It’s truly do-or-die for me because I can’t see living my life any other way.”

He recorded his early projects on Apple earbud microphones, and the songs have a predominantly lo-fi edge. But, what ties most of HAKIM’s early discography together is a sincere belief in himself and his craft. On 2014’s “Vibrate” mixtape, HAKIM portrayed the backpack rapper detailing his come up with a chip on his shoulder, a la “College Dropout”-era Kanye.

But, late 2016 was when HAKIM realized he might actually be able to attain a career in hip-hop. He started brushing shoulders with ascending rappers like JID and Mark Battles and noted how closely his pursuit mirrored others on the cusp of stardom.

“I remember just one day thinking, ‘Yo, this is really possible, for real. It’s not far-fetched. It’s really not,’” he said. “You just gotta make plans and follow them.”

Around the same time, he said he and Washington cut five or six people from the Our Society and Corn Coast staff.

“They stop caring about what we’re doing,” Washington said. “They stop seeing the bigger picture and get lazy-minded.”

“I gotta be reminded that everybody’s not going to be built like me, mentality wise, and everybody’s not gonna take this seriously,” HAKIM said. “But, if you’re not serious about this, I don’t want you around me. I just don’t. Because if you’re contaminating what I’m doing, you become a cancer to my team.”

Since then, he’s gradually watched his goals come into focus. Some of them are quite lofty — when I talked with HAKIM in 2016, he hoped to be in XXL Magazine’s Freshman Class within the next three years — but he likes setting his sights high.

He released “Young Drifter II” in early 2018, and instead of humbly rapping about his long-term vision like on mixtapes past, HAKIM spits like he’s conquered his haters already. Some might call it arrogance, but when he raps “They on Xannies, I’m just tryna win a Grammy,” on “Not Juice,” it’s not just hyperbole to him.

“I always constantly remind myself, [life] is like a movie to me,” he said. “And, in all reality, if I stop now, literally the next scene could be what we want. I just know if you work hard, the universe is going to return it back to you. I tell myself all the time it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

He’s no longer the local opener used at Lincoln shows as a hype man for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or Tech N9ne, legacy hip-hop artists with entirely different audiences from HAKIM’s. He said he expects respect from promoters and music industry stooges now. He sells out his own local shows. He feels like he’s earned it.

If there are still people he’s yet to convince of his talent, he thinks “El Morado” will be the project to do it. It’s the most personal he’s gotten on a record to date. He said he’s always been reflective, but revealing his reflections to others has been the challenge.

“It was just like, ‘What is my dad gonna think when he hears this? What is my brother gonna think?’” he said. “I learned to say ‘forget that.’”

The album is 11 tracks of HAKIM’s personal experiences and moments that left lasting impressions on him. The title track, “El Morado” — which translates to “The Purple” — is a 10-minute narrative on which HAKIM spits over a sparse, piano-driven instrumental about a paranoia-inducing experience he had last summer on a trip to the Dominican Republic. The story is densely written, like a vignette within “El Morado’s” movie, that explores trust issues, going with one’s gut feeling and putting personal interests aside in favor of others.

More than ever before, HAKIM is realizing hip-hop’s original purpose — to tell stories about life. Or, as he likes to call it, his drift.

“I’m always on this drift of finding myself,” he said. “I feel like sometimes I lose myself … but I feel like I’m at a time where I’ve found myself. But, also, I store feelings and keep them in a vault for purposes of creating so I can dig those emotions up and write about them.”

Of the songs HAKIM played for me, the most introspective was “Nine,” a meditative G-funk-inspired confessional about his family upbringing and his unstable relationship with his parents and six siblings. He opens the song by calling his family dysfunctional, and he later expresses certainty that his parents would have divorced if he and his siblings weren’t in the middle of it all.

But, the song is at its most emotional when he describes the frayed relationship with his older brother, James, whom he looked up to for most of his youth.

He said they started to grow apart as HAKIM became more entrenched in hip-hop and after a heated argument when James misinterpreted some of his brother’s lyrics to be about him.

HAKIM played “Nine” for James recently, and it didn’t sit well with James when HAKIM admitted in the song that he idolized his older brother.

“But, throughout the night, he gradually opened up to it,” HAKIM said. “So, I feel like that was a turning point, possibly, in our relationship. Since then, he’s been a little more consistent, so we’ll see where it goes.”

HAKIM closes the verse about James on “Nine” by rapping “Success don’t mean a thing if we end up losing each other/I know we’ll get back on track even if there are some hurdles/I love you, bro.”

When he thinks about his mother, though, he doesn’t see an optimistic relationship. He struggles to find the words to talk about it, but he said he’ll never have the mother-son relationship he once had and what his siblings still have.

“Family doesn’t have immunity to me,” he said. “If I cut you off, I can cut you off. The more I’m growing, it’s learning people are just people at the end of the day. We can grow up in the same household, but everybody’s going to grow into their own person because life shaped them that way. She did some s*** a mother would never do to me. That just proves to me, like, I’m gonna treat you like a regular person and not speak to you ever a day in my life again.”

He uses the words “coldhearted” and “militant” to describe the way he approaches his relationships these days, with his family and with his Our Society team. To him, it’s a waste of his time to put effort into nurturing or rebuilding something that isn’t helping him grow as an artist and as a person.

After all, on top of his business, his music and his drift, he has a family of his own to care for now. His girlfriend, Sabrina, had their second child, Euleia, last June.

“I’ve seen what my parents did, so I know what not to do,” he said. “I think that’s the beauty of life. I get to raise my children. I get a second chance.”

Their firstborn, Vasillias, is 2 and likes to dance onstage with HAKIM at his concerts.

“Being 2, and him already learning stuff like that, it gives you more of a purpose,” he said. “If ain’t nobody watching, I know my son is.”

culture@dailynebraskan.com

This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of The DN.