Artist Spotlight: Swoope Talks “Sonshine,” Depression, and Hip-Hop
One aspect of the human experience we can all resonate with is hardships. If you have lived long enough, you have encountered your share of trials and tribulations. As Christians, we seek to hold on to the Lord and look to him for hope as he sanctifies us and strengthens our faith in the process.
Lawrence Allen Swoope II is no different than me and you. He may be a world-class lyricist and a talented producer, but his lyrical dexterity and musical genius do not exclude him from hardship. He is still human.
His latest and fourth album “Sonshine” carries a level of maturity, joy, and hope that can only be delivered by one who has been refined in the fire of tribulation and life experiences.
A lot has happened since Swoope has released a project, including a label change, bouts of depression, but also deliverance and growth. These things have fused together to deliver an amazing new project that pushes us all to place our hope in a savior who loves and cares for us no matter how bleak things may seem.
I caught up with Swoope to discuss the circumstances and trials that led to this latest album.
So, the new album is here! Why the name “Sonshine?”
It was actually a name that my wife came up with. As me, Natalie Sims, and my wife sat back and listened to the records that were being compiled, we noticed there was a vibrant aesthetic to the album that, for us, was really a testimony to the Lord’s grace in regards to where I was currently at in life.
I struggled with depression for about a year and a half (and still do on and off) but 2015 and 2016 were the worst. So, as I listened to the record in 2017, I had a track called “Shining Down” and I had an intro I wanted to call “Shine” (which was going to be the original name of the album) but as we went back and listened to the album and thought through how the feel brought to mind vibrant colors, my wife said, “What about sunshine with an O?!”
The rapper in me was already thinking about how many ways you can flip the title as far as meaning: The son of God shining, me shining on the album by not being afraid to be myself, and also a moment that I have on the album where I talk to my sons about life. There’s a lot that comes out of the word sonshine but it started with my wife.
It’s crazy that you mention depression. An artist’s album usually sounds different over time because of life experiences. How is where you are in life now make “Sonshine” different than your previous albums?
There are a lot of branches on that tree [laughs]. Professionally, I’m not with my old label (Collision Records) anymore but I’m currently with Native North so the split & fallout with my last label really affected 2015 & 2016 looked like for me.
I’m also a totally different person that has now learned grace and compassion for others by becoming them. So the guy at the gas station asking for change – I became that person. I was in Baltimore doing a show—one of the biggest shows of my life, I was on stage with a symphony that night—and I had no money. There wasn’t a food per diem so I didn’t know how I was going to eat and was calling out to God.
I was asking around to see if anyone knew where a shelter was so that I could get some food. Thankfully, I ended up finding some but I really had to learn grace, compassion, and humility by becoming people that I never thought that I was going to be.
I never thought that my mother would go through battling cancer for the third time. I never thought that some of my family relationships were going to be strained and I also never thought that I would look in the mirror and see someone that I thought the Lord wasn’t pleased with. I was at the bottom! And “Sonshine” came from God meeting me there. He came down, met me, and gave me a better understanding of grace.
So, with that in mind, this is not the same Swoope you hear on “Sinema” (previous album). That Swoope is a person telling a very creative story about sin because he had the luxury to talk about sin in that way as opposed to being transparent about his own reality. He was able to fabricate a narrative to articulate a reality that he wanted people to know. With “Sonshine,” I went through a lot! And the Lord met me there and I’m excited about that! So they’re two totally different records.
You mentioned you’re with Native North. How does it feel? What sold you on believing that Native North would be a good move for your career?
Those answers are almost one in the same and culminate in the person of Natalie Sims. Nat and I have been friends since we were in a group called “High Society” together. We have really good creative chemistry so it made sense from a creative standpoint to roll with a person that I’ve been making music with already.
Outside of my wife, Natalie was one of my biggest professional advocates in making sure that people were giving me fair treatment as an artist – and she didn’t gain anything from it. So when she started talking to me about what Native North would be as a creative conglomerate focusing on artist advocacy, I wanted to be a part of that.
I’ve also learned that nobody wins alone. There’s no independent artist that doesn’t have a team. So with Native, all of the boxes (creative, personal, spiritual, professional) were being checked off; it was a no-brainer. It was also very low risk even if it was a bad idea, but so far, it has been one of the best decisions that I have made in the past few years.
What is the main message you want to communicate with this album?
There is a myriad of things: hope, contentment, and security.
But I really wanted to make an album that made people, “Why keep going?” And “how did you keep going?” “How did you get here?” My re-introduction to the world was my single entitled, “Lambo,” a song that detailed a lot of my depression, hard times, etc. So going from “Lambo” to “Shining Down” is a pretty big contrast. That contrast should cause people to ask: “How did you get here? What made you keep going?”
I like people asking questions first rather than me just giving them the answer. All music is show and tell. You’re either telling me something or showing me something.
And I think Christian Hip-Hop is really good at telling people things but the artist that shows you their life, shows you their transparency—they have a way of holding on to your heart because they step into your world. Rather than just pointing the finger and telling you what you should do, they actually show you.
My hope is “Sonshine” can show people that hope, contentment, and security is found in Jesus and push them to ask how.
What was the most challenging part of making this album?
Time. It just took way longer than I’m used to. I also found myself having to eat my words. There are two phrases that I had to eat. One of them I rapped myself and another was from Maxwell.
On my last album I rapped:
“You don’t learn to trust God until you have to trust God or when you got nothing and its just God.”
I had to eat those words in 2015-2016. I was telling people something from a disposition that was lacking in experience. There was a quote from Maxwell when he was releasing “blackSUMMERS’night” and it had been quite a while since he had released any projects at all. He said:
“I like to let life write my albums and I hadn’t done enough living yet.”
So this is what I wanted to do. The last song I recorded was “Old Me” but until I had that song, I didn’t know that the project was finished. That process took two and a half years.
I love the homage you give in “Old Me” to black pride. Black and brown Christians (and POC in general) are embattled in a fight for freedom, justice, and equality. When I hear you tackle these issues on “Tsnk (Thou Shall not Kill)” and “Black Boy,” what responsibility do you feel as an artist speaking to these issues?
I feel like the Nina Simone quote is always applicable – where it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.
To think through all of the things in which you’re referring: evangelical circles, reformed circles, Donald Trump, police brutality…this is a national discussion and I think it’s a mismanagement of our platform for us as artists to not speak about these things. So, yes I think it’s my responsibility to be vocal but I also think it’s my responsibility to be wise and compassionate. Though I am an African-American male, I am also a follower of Christ. I do not want to purposefully insult, demean, or alienate any other race because that becomes a contradiction. I can’t say, “Oh! You’ve been doing this to us so let me do this to you!”
“Sonshine” is the third draft of my album. The first draft was just a very angry black record. I passed it through the hands of Adam Thomason and Pastor Noah Nickel and they both said, “You have valid points, but where is the Jesus though?” [Laughs]
To get to “TSNK,” “Black Boy,” and others was a process of learning grace, humility, and compassion. My responsibility is to be vocal but it’s also to be wise and compassionate about what I want to articulate.
In what ways did this project sanctify you?
The Lord saved me when I was 15 and I remember having this burning passion for the Lord. I felt a lot of those same feelings again at the top of 2017 and I wouldn’t call it some type of re-salvation but my mother used to say, “Maturity is not about learning new things but it’s about remembering the old things that you forgot.”
For me, it was remembering that “God has been God!” and I forgot! I made my reputation, my skills, my talent, my relationships, my money and what I thought was going to be my successful future idols in my heart. I slowly started to pull away from the Lord.
When I ate at the homeless shelter, (and this is not a shot at homelessness but a point about the gravity of experience) I felt like the prodigal son when he woke up in that pig slop. “How did I get here?” So to return home to a father with open arms illuminated the idols of my heart. The sanctification process was really a gift of grace from the Lord. It opened up my eyes and allowed me to be proactive in removing those idols. I had to really settle in my heart that, If God isn’t God overall, then he’s not God at all.
The things that I made idols were actually gifts from the giver and I started worshipping the gift and not the giver. A lot of this happened before I even began writing the album so the process of actually getting to “Sonshine” was a tough but very necessary process of sanctification.
You grew up playing music in the church. How do you think that has influenced your own sound and production?
The influence is heavy but I actually hid it for a while because I was attempting to emulate other artists.
On my first album, “The Zoo,” I sounded too much like Lupe Fiasco. On my second album, “Wake Up,” I sounded too much like Kanye and on my third project, “Sinema,” I sounded too much like Kendrick. But on “Sonshine,” because of where I was in life, I’m writing for therapy, almost. So there was no thinking like, “Oh, let me make this song sound like [enter artist here].”
No, this is just what my heart is feeling right now so there’s an authenticity that exists on this album that didn’t exist on my previous albums. The gospel sound and the African-American worship experience that had been poured into me for 29 years innately bled out of me. It wasn’t really something that I intentionally attempted to do. The pianos, organs, etc was authentically me. If you get in my car, you will hear Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Gospel.
You are what you eat and it’s what I feed myself consistently and it bled out of me on the project. I’m not running away from the black church (or sound). It’s where I’m from.
We now have the Lil Uzi Verts and the Lil Yachtys. What do you think about this new generation of Hip-Hop artists?
It’s not my cup of tea but I think it’s necessary. When you reference the golden age (and there’s an ongoing debate as to when that was), there were always rap artists who made songs just for the parties. I mean “Whoomp! (There It Is)” came out in the “golden age.”
Lil Uzi Vert is just as necessary as a Kendrick Lamar. I’m not saying he’s just as good as an artist, but I’m saying the balance is necessary. Everyone couldn’t be a Public Enemy but everyone also couldn’t be a Sir Mix-a-lot. You can’t appreciate one if you only listen to the other. My bend is more towards the J.Coles, the Kendricks and Kanyes, and Jays – those who are still relevant—but that doesn’t mean I don’t think we don’t need the newer dudes for balance.
Any last words that you want to leave the people with?
Yes! If you haven’t heard the album then please be sure to check it out! It is my aim and goal to be consistent in 2018. I want to continue to speak and have conversations in the marketplace so keep your eyes peeled. There’s a lot more coming this year!
“Sonshine” is now available on Swoope’s website, iTunes, and all streaming platforms.