On the same day in February that his daughter, Syx Rose, was born in Atlanta, Ricardo Valentine was scheduled to take the stage on the other side of the country in Santa Ana, California. “Everybody was running around saying let’s cancel the show,” says the soft-spoken 25-year-old musician known as 6LACK (pronounced “black”), remembering his reaction to the joyous news. “I was like, ‘No, she’s born, I’ll get home right after this, let’s do the show.’ ”
6LACK had always anticipated there would be challenging moments like this, long before he was selling out shows in America and Europe to promote his inaugural solo project, FREE 6LACK (Interscope Records). Once he entered the music industry, “I knew what my life was going to be like, so I prepared myself for the tough stuff,” says the Atlanta-based artist, who was born in Baltimore in 1992 as the eldest of three, to a dentist mother and rapper father. With his dad’s encouragement, he recorded his first lyric by the time he was 4: “I just remember it being ‘When I grow up I want to be somebody.’ It was my song.”
It was also a sure sign of things to come for 6LACK, whose parents moved the family to Atlanta in 1997, where he demonstrated talent as a rapper early on. “It was a language I could speak,” he says, looking back on early days spent rapping on the playground in elementary school, followed by rap battles starting in eighth grade.
During this time he also earned the moniker “6LACK”—a nod to the east Atlanta neighborhood of Zone 6, where he was raised. “I inject Atlanta into everything I do,” says 6LACK of his hometown, which has stolen the hip-hop spotlight in recent years thanks to fellow artists such as Lil Yachty, Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy. “There’s so many different communities and cultures within Atlanta, and it’s very accepting of everything, no matter who you are,” he explains. “They give everybody a chance there, as long as they feel something when they hear your music.”
By the time he graduated high school, 6LACK already knew his music was more than just a hobby. “It was something I was really good at and loved, something that I could do that would impact other people’s lives,” he says, citing everyone from Prince and Sade to T-Pain and Michael Jackson as influences. He enrolled in a computer science program at Georgia’s Valdosta State University but quickly came to the conclusion that music was his passion and priority. After signing to an indie record label in 2011 as part of a hip-hop collective named Team Flight, 6LACK dropped out of college to try his luck.
But Team Flight’s meager record-deal advance ran out quickly, and 6LACK and the other members spent the next few years at the mercy of their label, struggling to make ends meet, with no regular roof over their heads and, oftentimes, no food on their plates. “There were times I would feel super tested,” admits 6LACK, who secretly began releasing his own music on SoundCloud in defiance of his label, which consistently pressured him to create “hit records.”
By the time 6LACK was finally released from his deal, the ever-hopeful young artist had already earned a loyal following for his own music and began to see a new side of the industry that recognized his untapped potential and vision for his own brand. In 2014, 6LACK inked a deal with Atlanta-based creative agency LoveRenaissance (LVRN), this time on his own terms. “I believed in them and they believed in me,” he says.
6LACK headed back into the studio and spent the next two years recording more than 200 songs (“I just needed to get all that out of my system. I needed to figure out what sounds I liked, what sounds I didn’t like,” he says) before finally homing in on FREE 6LACK, an emotionally packed R&B project that celebrates his newfound freedom— “from old ways of thinking, toxic relationships, not living for myself; from my old deal.”
Woven into the album is a hyper-honest narrative of self-awareness and 6LACK’s acknowledgement of the obstacles he’s overcome, both personally and professionally: “A lot of people have the mistake of listening to the album and thinking these emotions are something that I’m currently living in, but more so it’s just me saying ‘This is what I’ve been through.’ ”