Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Advisory: This album contains language some may find offensive.
He possesses one of the coldest voices in hip-hop, and one of the hottest pens. But for most of his professional career, Cyhi The Prynce has existed within the industry as an open secret of sorts — the ghost of G.O.O.D. Music credited with contributing to Kanye West's outsize legend on his seminal albums: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne, Yeezus, The Life Of Pablo.
Yet, the native Atlantan's solo start has sat on the shelf at record labels (Def Jam released him from his deal in 2015) that didn't know what to make of a southern MC who transcends every southern rap cliché. CyHi doesn't have to rely on Auto-Tune; he sounds like a cyborg without it. He doesn't need to lean on syrupy sung melodies; his punchlines are the real hook. And he's not confined to the trap, even though he's lived that lifestyle to the fullest.
Missing from his lyrical repertoire, until now, has been a story to flesh out his character. But the choir boy turned dope boy has finally weaved his divergent childhood paths into a cohesive narrative. With his debut LP, No Dope On Sundays, CyHi the Prynce brings Jesus to the trap and spits a testimony full of raw human contradiction.
While Christian tropes continue to creep into secular rap, most MCs treading that line tend to cast desire and devotion in diametric opposition to one another. Not CyHi. He finds synergy between the two. In his worldview, sinners can be sanctified. Besides, what's the use in being so heavenly minded that you're of no earthly good?
Coming from the trap capital of the world, where Atlanta rappers alchemize drug culture into pop cachet, that distinction is holy. It adds a layer of depth, and some much-needed context, to an oft-told story. With one week to go before the Nov. 17 release of No Dope On Sundays — featuring the likes of Pusha T, 2 Chainz, SchoolBoy Q, BJ the Chicago Kid, Travis Scott and, of course, Kanye West — CyHi chronicles his come-up, track-by-track, with one foot in the streets and the other in the sanctuary, for NPR Music's First Listen.
"I wanted to set the atmosphere for the album. I wanted to take you to the place where this album takes place. I wanted to take you to that environment and get you in that mood. I wanted it to be hard.
"No disrespect, this is not no Christian rapper. Even though I do rap about God a lot, I'm from toting pistols, smoking weed and selling dope. I'm just showing you how to be delivered from that same thing, but also [how to] do something creative afterwards, so you don't have to lose your edge or your integrity or connection with your environment. Because the goal is to still stay in that environment and bring individuals out of it."
"No Dope On Sundays" feat. Pusha T
"A lot of my fans know that I grew up in the church, so I would religiously have to go. I did other things, as far as sports. But my parents just tried to keep me busy. They didn't want me to have an idle mind. But once I start growing up, I realized that for me to really be somebody in the world I had to experience things myself, versus hearing it from your parents or your pastor or reading it in a book. So I was always a vibrant kid. I was always that n**** [laughs].
"With me getting kicked out of school, the street life kind of came to me fast because you had no choice. This is when I knew I was in the streets. I was used to my parents cooking at night. Growing up, you never think that you've got to have $10-20 every day to eat. I'm 15, 16, but I'm living on my own as an adult. It's like, 'Damn what we eating tonight?'
"Me combining both of my lifestyles — as far as the time that I did do in the streets and the time of my spiritual maturing and grooming by my parents — kind of gave me a third-eye view on a lot of topics and different situations. I can say I can go through some street s*** with Jesus in the room. You have to be very, very honest. And I think that's the dope part about me, is how I can exist in both worlds. So that's what 'No Dope On Sundays' means."
"Get Yo Money"
"I used to tell my mom I was a prophet and, you know, they used to look at me all crazy. I'd be like, 'Mom, I'm trying to tell you, my raps are real biblical.' People hear me rap and I used to have girls crying.
"It's crazy because I used to date my [high-school] teacher back in the day. I was the greatest basketball and football player at my school and I won all the talent shows. But the stigma was I couldn't read well. They would get at me like, 'Alright Cydel, you're talking in class — stand up and read.' And I would read fairly slow. But the teacher that I was dating brought me to a [recording] studio. A bunch of people were there. This [producer] named She'kspere had a few of his artists there. I let everybody rap and then I just went in. And if you hear me rap in person it's a lot different than hearing me rap on the mic. I'm just clairvoyant. Anyway, she started crying when she heard me because everybody in the room was like, 'Yo, this is, like, pop-level. The man's got bars.' People couldn't believe it. And when I started seeing people getting in their emotions when I rapped, I said, 'Ok, I've got something.'"
"Movin' Around" feat. Schoolboy Q
"The thing is, I was always rapping, because the guys that I was around had so much cachet within the music industry. They were some real street dudes. They used to run with Diddy and [BMF drug kingpin Big] Meech and all those guys. So I used to be around them rapping, but I wasn't on no kingpin status. I just used to get a few pounds, do what I did, then drive back to the studio. My partners were so indulged in it. That's why my music sounds like extra-OG status."
"'Movin' Around' is where the OGs sit me down and say, 'OK, here's your dope. Do what you do. Make sure you bring my [money] back or you got issues.' This is the theme song for getting your baggies, getting your scales, calling your partners. It's giving you that type of energy."
"Trick Me" feat. 2 Chainz
"At the same time, while you're [hustling], you can't let a[nybody] trick you off the streets. You can't be on the phone talking reckless. Don't let negative haters get you to do something out of character that you shouldn't be doing. That's what me and 2 Chainz were kind of relating to. If somebody sees you getting money or doing something positive, they'll try to throw a monkey wrench in your game, even if it costs them their life. They're just so miserable they don't want to see you [succeed], but you can't let them trick you out of what you've got going on that's supporting your family."
"Murda" feat. Estelle
"I've got a few partners in prison for murder. It's a very prevalent thing going on in our community that a lot of people kind of glorify. When it happens in Las Vegas, the whole world's sad. But I feel like y'all should be crying about what's happening in my neighborhood everyday if that's the case. I think that's everywhere in America. I just wanted to show that happens in so many different ways — not just [murder], but from robbery to domestic abuse, so on and so on."
"Don't Know Why" feat. Jagged Edge
"I'm a real person, [but] I'm also closer to God than I feel like a lot of people are. People may think, 'You're a helluva rapper.' Yeah, I am. Because when you've been as loyal as I am to my guy, He'll give you a gift like this that makes you super special. So I'm definitely spiritual but I'm definitely a real n****, too. I smoke weed everyday; I tote my pistol. I'm just a solid guy. I'm very respectful. I can be disrespectful in certain points if you take me to that level. Other than that, I'm even-keeled.
"This being my first album, I wanted to take them to the beginning of me. I didn't want to take them to where I am right now because I wasn't afforded the opportunity to put out my album when I really wanted to put out my album. So I had to take them back."
"God Bless Your Heart"
"'God Bless' is almost like a rejoice-ful song that I wanted to do to show the flipside of the coin. Even though it's rough in our neighborhoods, we still wake up and thank God that we're alive, and get back to it. You'd be surprised how a lot of people will break down in that situation. But our people have that mental fortitude to keep going and keep searching for those dreams. That's what 'God Bless' is about — being blessed to be alive. And after that you got to go get it."
"Dat Side" feat. Kanye West
"After you have a good day in the trap, you go to Follies [the Atlanta strip club] or somewhere and turn the f*** up. 'Dat Side' is just us getting together as partners, going out and having a good time, trying to forget the problems in the world — just having a great time with your friends at the club and it's just this one irritating guy at the club who wants to ruin it. Or some groupie chick drinking all the bottles [laughs]."
"Looking For Love"
"I might be in the club and feel like I don't belong. I'm not really there to be buying bottles. I just want to hear what's going on in music. Then you see that girl that's on the same thing. She might be in the club with her girl but she doesn't really want to be there. And I might spot her from across the room and realize we're both looking for the same thing, but it's not in this club. What we do outside of here is how our relationship or friendship builds. That's what 'Looking For Love' is. A lot of girls go to the club every night trying to find somebody that they can be with, but it may be the normal guy you meet in the grocery store that will be the man of your life."
"Nu Africa" feat. Ernestine Johnson
"I grew up, not only Christian, but my parents are very pro-Black. My dad used to be like, 'Man, I remember we used to get the BMW and take the fender off and make it a low rider, put the different wheels on it. Five years later, it was coming off the lot like that, because they saw what we were doing in the neighborhood.' He used to tell me that, 'Why don't we build cars in Africa and ship them to America?'
"I guess this conversation will never change. 'Nu Africa' is a timeless song because it'll always be something in society that brings us back to that idea: 'We need to get together.' I wanted to find a creative way to get youth to start thinking like that. I just want a 10 year-old to hear that song and say, 'Mom, it sounds kinda lit over there.' I wanted it to sound like a black Disneyland.
"I just see that vision. You've got to start thinking like that. And I think that's something that will always be prevalent in our community."
"It's me talking about all these [label] executives, metaphorically. My frustration with my label [Def Jam] was, 'You don't really know what I've been through to get here. You don't know the story. You don't know just by releasing me from this label what I got to go back to do to start over.
"[The album delays] have been frustrating. But it's also been — how can I say it? It's like being on the bench for the Golden State Warriors. You're winning the championship every year, it's just the fact that you don't get that much playing time. But think about it, I'm the reason why these artists are really that good. Because they get to practice against me. Kanye, 2 Chainz, from Big Sean to Travis [Scott], Pusha T, they all get to practice against me. I didn't make them, but I keep them sharp. Man sharpens man like steel sharpens steel. On a humbler level, I think once I get to that moment where I get to reap the benefits I'll be a lot more content with what I have. And I won't go too crazy or change who I am."
"80's Baby" feat. BJ the Chicago Kid
"I came up with this concept because my mom didn't know she had me in her stomach till she was about six months [pregnant]. She told me she was drinking and smoking, whatever she was doing, then she found out. Me and my sister are 11 months apart, so she had just had a baby. So she had to start eating right and taking her nutrients.
"That was on a blessed level, but I took it to a more grassroots, ghetto level, where a lot of women are just going through hardship while their baby is in their stomach. A lot of men are taking them through changes. They're going through emotional changes. It's just a baby talking to the mom from her stomach:'Every time I kick, she say feel his little feet / when I listen to my heart I can barely hear the beat.'"
"After you go through all of the trials and tribulations of this album, or in life, it kind of brings you closer to God. Some of my partners were all tough growing up, but as soon as one of them got a gunshot wound the first somebody they'd call is God. Before my partner got shot, he never went to church with me. But then I took him to church three days after he got shot and he says to this day it's one of the best things that happened to him, because he understood he had a purpose. He had a couple of kids coming and he was like, 'My life could have been gone like that!' You never think, at 15, that you'll get shot. So that's a song about just becoming yourself, becoming a man and having a certain spiritual side about you that you should have throughout your life to make you a better person."
"I'm Fine" feat. Travis Scott
"That's my 'the doors of the church are open' [song]. After you find [salvation] or you accept that you're growing, people may look at you different. People may look at you like, 'Man, you want to go to the club with us?' 'Nah, I'm fine, bruh. I'm good.' And I think that song gives the individuality of the album. That's what I want to gift them off that song: Your hardship may be different [but] at the end of the day, it's okay. You live your life and whatever makes you happy is fine. That's what I'm finding.
"No Dope On Sundays is just a book of my Bible that I'm writing."