Brian Ennals was clean-shaven on the cover of his 2009 debut album, Untitled, but today an untamed beard juts out from the rapper's chin. It's not, however, an image he plans on sticking with. Rather, it's something he swore not to get rid of until he'd finished the follow-up. And since he's nearly finished working on that album, Candy Cigarettes, currently planned for an October release, he'll finally get to clean up soon.
"I gotta lose some weight. Shave the beard, lose like 15 pounds," Ennals says, sitting down for a relaxed conversation in Arundel Mills mall, near where he grew up in Severn, Md. "I don't wanna be the chunky guy with the beard, it's not a good look," he adds with a laugh. "I've been tempted to just eat as much as I want and become a fat rapper, because they do really well. But I was like, 'Nah, I'm gonna hate myself too much.'"
Ennals, 29, hasn't been growing the beard for the entire three years since his last album, but he has been recording; it just took a while for him to be happy with the results. "I started immediately recording new songs after the Untitled project wrapped, but for a year they were just really, really bad. There's no other way around it, they were just shitty songs," he says. "I wasn't diggin' my own shit. That's the worst thing ever."
The turning point came about a year ago, when Ennals first recorded "Newport Music," which was recently released as the lead single from Candy Cigarettes. A hooky, airtight three-minute track with two meticulously assembled verses and a jazzy beat from producer Alpha Davis, "Newport Music" is about as immediate and entertaining as a new rap song can be without being particularly radio-friendly. ("Norma's," an ode to the Baltimore Street strip club Norma Jean's, has been earmarked as the more accessible follow-up single.)
"Newport Music" sounds effortless and conversational, with Ennals shooting the shit about drugs and women, blithely delivering wisecracks full of internal rhymes like "Sniffin' blow up in the reefer spot/ If this was '69, I'd be knee-deep in Aretha's twat." But to hear Ennals tell it, the song required a lot of effort and a number of false starts "It takes me a while to really be happy with a record. I think I recorded probably six different versions of 'Newport Music.' Four of 'em kind of sounded identical, but there [are] little different pitch changes and stuff. Different versions of the lyrics and the delivery, more so than anything."
In an era when obsessive rap fans can hear the bootlegged demos '90s rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. discarded on the way to creating classics, and contemporary stars toss first drafts onto mixtapes within hours of recording them, it's refreshing to hear a little perfectionism.
Even his stage name went through several iterations. "My middle name's Artivous, so I shortened it and made it Art, but that's really corny, sorry, it's really lame. And then I started using Artivous," he remembers. "It was my grandfather's name, it sounds like Greek, and he's a black guy from southern Anne Arundel County. How'd that happen, nobody knows."
He ended up going as simply Brian Ennals somewhat by accident, after recording a guest appearance on dance producer Max Barbaria's Eazy-E-sampling track "Creep N Crawl." Barbaria didn't know what name the MC was going under when he released the song on the 2008 album Love Your Family, so he credited him as Brian Ennals and it stuck.
Before going solo, Ennals performed around Baltimore's hip-hop venues as part of the group Special Ops, but he's moved all over the region: He was born in Annapolis, raised in Severn, went to college at Howard University in Washington, and now lives in Glen Burnie. "I always rep the fact that Toni Braxton grew up down the street, which we're, of course, really proud of," he says. "Obviously not a big hip hop hotbed, but, y'know, the regional aspect is dead. It's really more about the music than anything."
Still, he seems more connected to Baltimore than D.C. Shortly after its release, Untitled topped the download charts on the local mixtape site AllBmoreHipHop.com, plus Candy Cigarettes features an appearance from Charm City rapper The Boy Blesst.
On Untitled, Ennals frequently sang on hooks, often on moody tracks that made him sound a little too indebted to the current king of singsong rap, Drake. Now, however, he seems more committed to tightly constructed verses with occasionally tuneful touches creeping into his rapping.
"I was experimenting with melody and singing and stuff," he recalls, "and a lot of it was, like, forced. I've figured out what works for the voice and what doesn't, what type of songs sound good; I think my perspective's better."
For a guy who raps under his given name, it seems natural to be himself on record. "It's first-person stuff, it's my thoughts, it's what I'm doing, as opposed to just rapping about rapping," he says.
As "Newport Music" sets the stage for Candy Cigarettes and Ennals prepares to shed the beard and excess pounds, one aspect of his self-improvement regimen actually makes his new record a little outdated. "I quit smoking cigarettes about three or four months ago," he notes, quickly adding, "but I still smoke pot."