Music

Compton Rapper Problem Finds Vulnerability On His Confessional Debut, ‘Selfish’

Even if you don’t know Jason “Problem” Martin, you’ve probably heard his music. The 32-year-old rapper from Compton has most likely soundtracked your turn-ups for the past seven years, from his appearance on E-40’s inescapable party anthem “Function” to his 2017 full-length collaborative LP with DJ Quik, Rosecrans, Problem’s been heavy in the game. His distinctive “whaaat” ad-lib has graced singles from everyone from Wiz Khalifa and The Game to Rapsody and Terrace Martin jazz band The Pollyseeds.

Yet, in all of his many, many appearances on the rap radio charts, he’s still something of an unknown. Fourteen mixtapes and an EP deep into his catalog, he’s still heralded mainly as a featured rapper on ratchet turn-up anthems. He hopes to turn all that around, however, with the release of his first retail album, Selfish, which is out today and available for streaming on iTunes.

I met with my Hub City compatriot at his North Hollywood recording studio to chop it up about the new album, the things he’s seen in his eight years releasing records independently through his Diamond Lane label, musical and personal growth, and just what it means to be selfish in the music business. What I learned is that there is more than to Problem than what he’s previously revealed.

I first encountered Problem’s music in 2010, with the release of his first music video, “Lobster.” A loose track with no official home, “Lobster” is nothing less than a 3-minute rhyme-fest, laying out his mission statement in no uncertain terms with clever punchlines, a somehow laconic-yet-energetic flow, and a swaggering confidence that set him apart from practically anyone else coming out of the city at the time. This was in the middle of the so-called “West Coast Renaissance,” the early days of rap blogs that began exposing underground Los Angeles rap groups like Pacific Division and U-N-I to a greater audience.

Yet it was Problem who stood out the most. Clearly deeply rooted in both street culture and lyrical, backpack rap, he was able to synthesize the two seemingly opposing sensibilities into a versatile approach, elevating the rugged trap talk with sharp double entendre and deep cut cultural references. I couldn’t wait to hear more.

Then “Function” happened, and everything changed. That isn’t to say that Problem’s rhymes fell off or that his skills dulled in any way, but his path, which had seemed like a straight line to real rap superstardom, suddenly curved left into the world of singles rap. Tracks like “Walk Through” with Rich Homie Quan and “I Don’t Want Her” from Eric Bellinger almost threatened to pigeonhole Problem as merely a party rapper, when his early output had promised so much more.

“During the time, that’s what I’m living in and that’s what’s going on,” Problem explains of his party rap era. “But I’m actually changing mentally. I’m feeling real selfless as far as, ‘This is how I’m feeding my family.’ I want my fans to have that feel, so I’d rather give ya’ll what I think ya’ll want and do what I need to take care of everybody. Then what I’m doing in my mind is different and my kids getting older… everything. I didn’t even start turning up ’cause it was cracking. I found molly and it was great and this was my life. I’m fucking hoes, I’m acting a fool. I’ve always done me. The minute I stopped it got weird. Whatever my ‘me’ is, whatever my truth is, I do that musically.”

This, he says, is the origin of the title of Selfish: “I have to take a little break sit back and just regroup and I gotta be selfish this time. I gotta do exactly what I want to do. I want to put out the songs that I want to put out. I want to work with the producers I want to work with and I can’t care if they don’t understand.” Just like the best of his music, though, “selfish” also has a double meaning. “I ended up having this record I wrote called ‘Selfish’ eight years ago. It resurfaced just while I was sitting there going through and it just made all the sense in the world.”

Even as he leaned into the new set of expectations even harder with mixtapes like Welcome To Mollywood and Hotels, Problem found himself going through changes in his personal life that didn’t quite jibe with the image of the rapper others wanted him to be. “We came up in a time where the people we looked up to and respected had a thing,” he says of rap idols like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and other legendary ’90s rap icons. “They were Superman, they were Batman, they could never be another thing. But that ain’t this culture. What we’re selling right now is ‘reality.'”

While he still found ways to sneak in sparks of that reality, with Rapsody on her She Got Game project and on clever appearances with collaborators like Snoop Dogg (he wrote three songs on Ego Trippin‘) and Terrace Martin (on his Here, My Dear and Sex EP mixtapes), he felt that the balance was missing.

“It was crazy because I didn’t have the balance until very recently. If you have the balance you’re ready to hit the button and go. I’m a pleaser, all musicians are. I want you to love the music and I want you to understand when somebody that people somehow paint as this bigger than life thing or this superhero thing or this rap thing when it gets to changing a little bit we get nervous. I remember when Ludacris cut his hair it was the most craziest shit for me.”

“If you thinking I’m going to be wearing diamonds and shit all while I’m playing with my kids, you a fool. That’s not what I am. I can’t play that no more,” he continues. “Now people are like, ‘Me neither! That’s crazy, why the fuck would you do that? Oh, it’s hot outside, why you got on a god damn Champion hoodie?’ I’m chilling! People respect that way more because they always fucked with who you are. Whatever that ‘you’ is.”

That’s the reason why he stepped back and changed his approach on Selfish, which contains some of his most personal music yet — especially on the title track, where he tackles the exceptionally difficult topic of abortion and how it affects him as a man and a father in retrospect. The album is only nine songs long — he calls them nine “moments” — which was a deliberate choice.

Thriller had nine records. I was listening to that. And I’m not saying that I tried to make Thriller! I can see the headlines!” he jokes, elaborating, “I noticed that Mike had nine moments. He had a song about a monster that was a single. He had a song about a girl who thought he got her pregnant. He was fighting with a Beatle over a girl. But it all makes sense.” The album features production from DJ Quik, Teddy Walton, 9th Wonder, Terrace Martin, Mike and Keys, Diamond Lane producer JB Minor, Iamsu, Siege Monstrosity, and Problem himself, but he is executive producer, tying it all together in the way Quincy Jones did for Thriller.

A large part of this new creative process has come from expanding his circle of collaborators through close friends like DJ Quik and Terrace Martin. Quik especially taught him how to sometimes abandon formula and work from instinct.

“We only had one disagreement the whole time [they worked on Rosecrans]. On ‘A New Nite,’ how it goes into ‘Quik’s Groove’… I said, ‘Hey man, can we split that up on the tracklist. People wanna hear this as ‘Quik’s Groove.” And he said… ‘NO! [Jumps up and imitates Quik pacing] That is not the way we did it man! If we did it that way, you could do it that way! You gotta let that shit keep going!’ And every time we got interviewed about that shit they brought up that was the craziest idea to keep that, that long. He always looks at me like… My thing is, I’m used to a strategic thing and he brought me back to ‘ain’t no rules.’ If it feels good, just go!”

This is why he is able to be so confessional on Selfish, as well as grooming Diamond Lane artists Bad Lucc and Airplane James for big breakouts. As he puts it: “My music is growing, the company is growing, our outlooks are growing. I can’t wait to see what the next eight look like.”

And as far as changing his reputation, he’s not too worried about it, taking an “if you build it, they will come” approach to the music. After all, he knows who he is, both as a man and as a musician. Now, he’s ready to inhabit all that entails, for himself if no one else. “It’s a confidence thing you gotta find to be vulnerable. It’s a lot of vulnerable moments on here but the fact that I got a record on here that I wrote eight years ago lets you know that it’s been here. I wrote one of these records three years ago, it’s been here.”

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