Belly, for some reason, isn’t a terribly well-known artist in hip-hop, despite his high-profile associations and flashy credits. Born Ahmad Balshe in the Palestinian West Bank and raised in Ottawa, Canada, he hooked up with Canadian superstar The Weeknd’s XO record label in 2015, contributing to the singer’s Grammy Award-nominated, 50 Shades Of Grey single “Earned It.” He’s won two Juno Awards — which have often been called the Grammys of Canada. He’s currently signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, a distinction Jay personally bestowed after being impressed by the MC/songwriter’s prolific work ethic, biting wit, and smooth flow.
His previous release, last year’s Mumble Rap, somehow went criminally overlooked in spite of its cornucopia of singles produced by Canadian hitmakers Boi-1da and T-Minus. While Pusha T is the talk of hip-hop right now, last year, he only turned in a bare handful of performances, one landing on Mumble Rap‘s “Alcantara” and yet… nothing.
That may change with the release of Belly’s latest, Midnight Zone, only his second “official” studio album. With the blessing of Jay-Z, Midnight Zone may be the moment that Belly finally receives the shine it’s obvious he’s been grinding toward for the last few years. The Palestinian-Canadian rapper appears ready for his crossover moment, leading the way with a radio-friendly, melodic single featuring The Weeknd, “What You Want,” and a compulsive drive to create. He’s done living in the shadows. It’s time to shine.
What can you tell me about Midnight Zone?
The midnight zone is the part of the ocean that the light can’t reach. That’s what I feel like my whole career has been.
Musically, I have Metro Boomin and Southside producing on it, I got Ben Billions, I got
You said you feel like your career is in the “midnight zone.” Can you elaborate?
I just feel like that’s an analogy for what my life has been. Whenever the light comes, that’s when it’s supposed to come. I’m not complaining. I just feel like I’ve been in the darkness for a long time and this is me stepping out into the light. I’m just living every day like it’s my last, making every day my best day.
You’ve released a lot of projects in a very short span of time. Why are you so driven and prolific? Why did you want to put out so much material, as opposed to slowly building a catalog or saving some for later?
I can’t say that I want to. This is just the natural process of my being, man. This is why I’m here and I know that. This all I do, man. This is what I’m driven to do every day because to me there’s nothing else. This is what it is and the fact that I was gifted enough and blessed enough to be born with a gift like this, I’ll never stand in the way of the powers that be by not using my talent every day.
When I saw you at Coachella, I was really impressed by your attention to detail and how built up your set was. What inspires you to put so much effort into your stage show?
I think it comes with the vision. It comes with visualizing and having a concept and bringing that idea to life. I don’t want to sell myself short by just going onstage with a microphone and a hype man and thinking that’s enough. I wanna give people the full experience.
You really do create that sense of an experience with your music videos as well.
I think it was important for me to not just let these visuals live in my head. It was important for me to get them out and look at them because when I make the song I visualize everything. It kinda drives me crazy if I can’t bring that vision to life. I was blessed enough to be able to bring those songs to life and shoot videos for them.
That vision seems like a big part of the reason you’re currently with Roc Nation. What’s something that you’ve learned from working with Jay-Z?
I learned humility. I learned that an outside perspective can really change my own outlook about my own music — especially a perspective as powerful and influential as Jay’s. Him being so hands-on with the project taught me about humility and taking the time to really nurture and bring something to life the right way. It’s one thing to have an idea but the execution is everything.
Do you ever feel like humility is sort of antithetical to the idea of a rapper, where the expectation is to be very proud and bold and almost arrogant?
No that’s only what they highlight. Realistically, rap has a vulnerable side too and a lot of artists have vulnerable songs. I understand that being the highlight and the stuff that makes it to the singles, but even Jay-Z has “Song Cry.” I have “Lullaby.” There are songs that rappers are very vulnerable on.
Which of your own songs are meaningful to you in that way?
Early on, there was a project called The Greatest Dream I Never Had with a song called “Time Alone” and nowadays I’d say “Lullaby” off Mumble Rap because it’s still hard for me to hear that song. I talk about a lot of things that I’m actually really affected by.
Why did you name your last album Mumble Rap?
I’m just not a fan of what the term is supposed to mean. I just wanted to brand something that was reminiscent of more classic, traditional hip-hop that people are used to [with the term]. I didn’t feel like it was a fair term to give to the young guys in the game that are carving a new sound and a new culture. I think it’s really dope what they doing. It was a way for me to snatch the term back.
Why do you think it’s so important for them to have the room to create their own culture?
Nostalgia plays tricks on people’s minds, you know? I think throughout time, there’s always been that pocket of young guys that comes in and changes the game and then there’s a bunch of old guys that are mad about it. At the end of the day, that’s just nostalgia working. Music is ever-changing; it’s gonna shift and it’s gonna change and it’s up to the young generation to do it. It was an unfair term that got attached to some pretty revolutionary stuff that was happening. I tip my hat to the whole wave of young artists out pushing the culture forward. There’s room for everything.
How do you think your approach can help in pushing the culture forward?
My versatility is what makes me the artist I am. Because I came from a songwriting background, I was able to shapeshift when it came to my music. It made me find my whole self in that sense because I realized that I could do a lot of different things. I realized that I would only be putting myself in a box if I didn’t allow myself to go there artistically.
Speaking of your songwriting background, what do you say to people who are surprised to find out that you worked with The Weeknd on “Earned It”? That’s something I don’t think people would expect from a rapper with your style.
When you put the title “rapper” on it, yeah, I guess I could see what you’re saying, but when you take that same sentence and say “human” then it becomes much more believable.
I think as human beings, we all go through situations where we love, where we go through heartbreak. I’ve seen the biggest gangsters in the world crying over girls, so heartbreak and love is real in anybody’s life.
So when you take the stigma away from rapper or gangster or whatever title they wanna put on people, it becomes a lot more easy to digest. People are just writing about life.
What’s next for you?
The world, Pinky. I got Wireless Festival coming. So much coming up. I’m just excited
Midnight Zone will be out this summer via XO, Roc Nation, and Republic Records.