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VIBE Summer 2014 Cover Story: August Alsina

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August Alsina is featured on VIBE's Summer 2014 issue.

BLUES BROTHER

August Alsina probably won’t pen the next wedding classic. Surrounded by drugs and death, his life is another sad love song

STORY: Shanel Odum | PHOTOS: Sarah McColgan

“Who even reads magazines anymore?”

August Alsina’s rhetorical question echoes from the comfortable confines of Black Entertainment Television’s green room, where the 21-year-old singer is prepping for his second 106 & Park appearance. He’s perched on a bulb-framed vanity; long, lanky limbs swimming in drop-crotch sweats and an elongated black hoodie. A blue, denim Laker’s cap is snapped to the back and his eyes are hidden behind a pair of dark shades, which he rarely takes off. And while he is rocking the obligatory two chains, his baby Jesus piece is more delicate than dookie.

With his small collective of gatekeepers, the NOLA-native is currently discussing the power of print publications (or lack thereof). His publicist squeamishly reminds him that they’re not alone. Except August could give a shit that a journalist is within earshot. A segment producer quickly steps in to fill the awkward silence, whipping out a copy of the show rundown. “Ready to prep?” she asks. Then the orchestration of an olive branch episode begins. The deal is before August's 106 interview is allowed to promote his album, he must address the fiasco of his last visit: when he seared host Keshia Chante for probing him about recent beef with fellow crooner and former buddy, Trey Songz—a subject August deemed off-limits prior to the live studio interview. Today’s reunion should prove interesting.

With less than 15 minutes before showtime, August pulls a shorty of Cuervo 1800 from his pocket and takes a swig. “It is Cinco de Mayo,” he says flashing a gold-gilded grin. Then he bows his head and extends his arms. “Now let’s pray.” After a brief benediction, the singer is ushered on set. Bow Wow rolls up seconds later and greets him warmly. Loud pounds are exchanged followed by snippets of small talk. Everyone’s waiting anxiously for the show’s hostess. Minutes later, she waltzes in, all smiles, getting primped and powdered until the moment she breezes on set, past August with the chilliest air. The audience loses it, the red recording light blinks on and the charade begins. Half-assed apologies are delivered from both parties like an overly rehearsed script. BET and Def Jam are pleased. Keshia and August appear disingenuous.

CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING August Alsina kicks it with fellow cover stars Mack Wilds and Ed Sheeran. August cracks open a can of peach Crush in his living room. It’s a couple weeks after his 106 & Pretend appearance and he’s lounging on his elegant, khaki wrap-around couch playing Grand Theft Auto on a titanic flat screen. He bought the three-story condo in a cozy, suburban cul-de-sac earlier this year, but with the April release of his debut album, Testimony (Def Jam), and 2 Good To Be T.R.U., his first major tour (supporting 2 Chainz and Pusha T) having just ended, he hasn’t had the chance to settle in. He reaches for the remote, shuts down the video game and flips the channel to MTV Jams. The loose wifebeater he’s wearing shows off the tapestry of tatts covering his skinny frame. The caution tape snaking around his wrists, the “SELF” and “MADE” sideburns, the pin-gouged voodoo doll (a nod to his Louisiana roots and crave for control)—and yes, even the cliché music notes and microphone—are all significant life chapters chiseled into his skin. The most painful, though, is his late brother’s epitaph, “4.15.86 - 8.31.10.”

Just days before August’s 18th birthday, his 24-year-old brother, Melvin LaBranch III, who he credits for inspiring him towards the music and crack game, was fatally shot in the head a block from their East New Orleans home. His murder, which remains unsolved, was a major impetus for the young teen. Nearly four years later, August would dedicate his debut album to his brother (It dropped on Melvin’s birthday). It was his way of thanking his sibling for helping him get to where he stands today. “When I was staying with my brother,” he recalls, his slight, syrupy drawl creeping up like an aftertaste. “He had the little Pro Tools shit set up in the crib. So I was writing and recording my own shit. I won’t lie, some of it was terrible, but as you keep doing it, you get better.”

While AA gives the bulk of the credit for his career to big bro, it was his mother who initially nurtured a 14-year-old August’s swelling passion for music by scraping together enough money to buy the family a laptop. Then one day, while searching for footage of a high school brawl, her son discovered YouTube. “My mama got me a webcam,” August recalls. He picks up his phone and takes a few moments to tap out a text. It’s Friday night, but he’s not making party plans—he’s got a meeting with his manager and a studio session later.

“We never had bread to get those type of gadgets,” he continues. “I never was one of those kids who would go on American Idol thinking I could sing. I’m the nigga looking on the Internet. I started going on there to sing in a fucking shirt that was too big and a hat that wasn’t for me––my brother’s shit. I was on there like, ‘Aye y’all fuck with this? Let me know if I can sing or not. And if y’all keep telling me no I’m probably just gonna quit.’ The response was cool, but then we had to pawn my computer because [my family] didn't have enough bread to get by. So I stopped and fell off. That was some bullshit with family issues.”

Those family issues were rooted in the same drug trade he entered following Melvin. Except August’s wonder years showed him the ugly from the consumer side first. After Hurricane Katrina, his own father’s and stepfather's battle with crack addiction drove his mother to uproot him and flee New Orleans for Houston, Texas. “[My stepfather] would go do drugs, take everything out the house, and come back and act like it’s okay. ‘Nigga, you just sold my motherfucking clothes! What do you mean, that’s okay?’”

The troubled relationship between his mother and her addict husband got worse, and ultimately, the fallout left August homeless. “Sometimes when you’re in a relationship with somebody, you love them more than you love yourself and get caught up trying to fix them.” Kicked out at 16, he returned to Louisiana to live and eventually hustle with his brother. “Initially, I really did try to go to school, but I ended up stopping after a while. For so long I just chilled and was getting bird fed, but I’m in this car with all this dope. I am at the crib when niggas is cooking the dope. Fuck, if I’m gonna take a penitentiary chance, nigga, I’m going to get my motherfucking money.”

Unfortunately, August would learn that an addiction to green could be just as deadly as hard white. “Crack fucking ruined my family. So to be selling that shit and seeing what it do to people, you start to realize, ‘Damn, my heart might be a little too big for this shit.’”

CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING Mack Wilds, Ed Sheeran and August Alsina on the cover of VIBE's Summer 2014 issue. Despite the hardships, August doesn’t sing woe-is-me. Although his come-up is never absent from his music, he manages to balance his accomplishments with his mistakes. “You play the cards you’re dealt,” he says with a sigh. Smoke curls from his nostrils like a dragon’s and joins the fog hovering over his living room. “I don't feel like my life is no worse than another black man—we’re all just trying to fucking survive...It’s about finding your way out.”

Not only did the young heartthrob escape, but with the number one R&B album in the country, he’s managed to swerve into his own lane. He may roam in the same vocal range as his peers, but August doesn’t ooze Trey’s sex appeal or Chris Brown’s athleticism. His brand of soul is more brazen; his content is intensely intimate, without being romantic. His delivery more pained, almost pleading. The difference is, he’s begging for understanding, not pussy. Crooning about struggle and suicide makes his music explicit and extremely raw. Misfortune is his muse.

Being that Testimony is more trap tales (“Make It Home,” “Grind & Pray”) than panty-droppers, (“Kissin On My Tattoos”), music critics, desperate to categorize him, have started giving his niche whack nicknames like “Hard & B.” August’s dimples deepen. He thinks the hybrid handles are ridiculous. He tries to stifle a laugh mid-exhale, but starts to cough instead. “To me hip-hop is your background, your lifestyle, your come-up, your struggle. All of that over a boom bop,” he says extinguishing a roach in the marble ashtray atop his coffee table. “I talk about the same shit, if not more, in my music than half these motherfuckin’ rappers.”

Conversing with Mr. Alsina alone in his own space, it becomes apparent that he isn’t the anti-press dude he appeared to be at BET. He understands the role journalists play in his ascendance; he just refuses to get caught up in the critique. August isn’t unfazed by attention and accolades. He’s just cautious. “Of course I hear what motherfuckers are saying,” he admits. “You can either get caught in the hype and the love of your fans, or caught down in the negativity and be depressed. It’s just best for me to stay away from a lot of shit and I think that’s probably why my vibe may come off as I don’t give a fuck. But at the end of the day, I found a way to actually take care of my family legally and there’s people who love me, so I’m not going to get caught up in motherfuckers who don’t.”

August's veracity can be harsh, like a filter-free Newport, but his candor comes from a place of honesty, not disrespect. He strikes the perfect balance of hard and soft—a badass who strips naked to bare his secrets. He may have sex appeal, but the real allure is his vulnerability. August is a gifted ghetto griot. His heart is too big to sling rock, but it’s perfect for singing the blues.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE FROM VIBE'S SUMMER 2014 COVER

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