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Somewhere between the gritty traditionalism of Rapsody and raunchy exhibitionism of Cardi B, Buffalo rapper Armani Caesar has been flying the flag for people who love both “real hip-hop” and shaking their asses. Her Griselda Records-backed debut album, The Liz, lands in the midst of a resurgence of female energy in hip-hop, yet stands on its own as a unique throwback to the energy of pioneers like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown who also split the difference between sexy and rugged, as comfortable strutting in a g-string and heels as they were posted up on the block in hoodies and Timbs.
My original introduction to the Buffalo-bred, North Carolina-educated rapper was through songs like “Big Ole Bag” and “The Nasty Song,” initially pegging her for a rapper in the same vein as what Jermaine Dupri once dubbed “stripper rap.” So it was a shock to me when Armani was announced as the successor of the “First Lady Of Gridselda Records” title in March of this year. Surely her modern presentation clashed with their throwback stance, her raps about collecting dollar bills in garbage bags at odds with theirs about getting Virgil Abloh to scrawl his signature quotes on bricks of cocaine.
But then, I considered how the origin of those garbage bag bills was just as likely from those illicit pharmaceutical deals as it was Wall Street trading, and suddenly it all made sense. According to my conversation by phone with Armani herself, that’s exactly as the Griselda gang planned it. The Liz caught my skeptical brain even further off-guard when the lead single was revealed to be the DJ Premier-produced “Simply Done” costarring fellow Buffalo bar bruiser Benny The Butcher. The vision came together; like the Westside Gunn-conceived cover of the album, I had to open up my third eye to perceive al lthe levels the project was set to operate upon.
Barreling through untimely obstacles such as the death of Buffalo mentor DJ Shay, a full album leak and resulting delay, and oh yeah, a global pandemic, rookie rapper Armani Caesar arrives on her debut a fully-fledged, multidimensional hip-hop diva in the making, completely aware of her power and versatility, and unafraid of the spotlight. As it turns out, she fits right in with the likes of Benny, Conway The Machine, and Westside Gunn, earning not just her “first lady” title, but also establishing herself as a star in her own right.
Okay, and before we start any interview stuff allow me to say my condolences for DJ Shay. I know he was really important to you guys up there, and my heart goes out to you guys. I’m sending you all the positive energy.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that because the family is definitely, we’re close-knit. We’ve all known each other for over a decade so it was a huge blow, but we’re getting through it.
So how’s quarantine been treating you? What have you been up to?
Just working. I have the boutique, I have the projects popping. You know how Griselda drops, so I had to get in my recording bag and really catch up with everybody because them n****s drop like five albums or projects a year.
So did you have to speed up just to, what was the adjustment process from going from independently producing to doing stuff with Griselda?
It definitely takes more of the weight off of me as far as like doing it myself. I came in the game doing everything solo, I didn’t have no bag behind me. I didn’t have any producers or anything. I just had to seek everything out by myself. So now, I have a whole team be able to just help facilitate that, and it still be my vision because West is very big on us being able to still be in our independent bag. I like the fact that he gives me complete creative control and I trust his vision, so I’m able to come up with ideas and then he has his own ideas, and it just works. I just think that it’s like working with family.
When you signed to Griselda I know a lot of people were surprised because they seem to have such a different style from what you were doing with “Big Ole Bag” or “The Nasty Song.” So, what was your reaction to people saying that?
I think the biggest thing with that is just that, before people actually knew me, before I moved down to the South or North Carolina, anything, I grew up rapping on those beats. My first couple of tracks were freestyles over Alchemist beats and stuff like that. So it wasn’t foreign to me to go back and do that again, but it was foreign to everybody else that was following me once I moved down here. So that’s why it really was a no-brainer when West came to me with the idea because he already knows what I should do, because we’ve been doing this for a minute. It was just like, “Now is the time to shut everybody up.” If they don’t know, they going to know.
Obviously the biggest influence on The Liz tape is of course Liz Taylor. I see the iconic photo with the third eye, whose idea was that?
It was both of our ideas. It was us coming together in the middle ground, because it’s also Miss Elizabeth from wrestling, and that’s the reference that West brought to us. He’s super big on wrestling. So with Liz Taylor being an iconic, fly, ethereal type female, and then just throwing it on such a hard gritty, I feel like it just represented the projects more than any picture of me could have. It wasn’t as cliche. We did have another direction that we were going to go in at first.
Griselda is also big on movie samples. You guys used a clip from CB4 for “Sissy Intro,” right? You’re flipping it and using it in a different way to talk about some stuff that maybe people wouldn’t expect.
I feel like what she stated in that skit is exactly what I be on in my raps, just teaching girls to not be so caught up in the hype of trying to date the rapper, or the ball player, or any guy that you feel has money. You want to turn yourself into a boss. She was like, if not, you’re just a groupie, or you just a hoe, and it’s a lot of hip-hop hoes out here.
Now that we’re moving into the realm of females emerging, you have so many different styles. I feel like I’m bridging the gap between being free and a feminist, being able to say and do what you want to, and also having the responsibility to make sure that you’re still paying your bills, you still bossing up, so can’t nobody really tell you nothing. Because until you’re your own boss or until you are able to maintain and sustain your own wellbeing, you’re a slave to whatever they throw at you. And I’m just totally 100% for females being able to boss up and get their own, talk their shit, and run their own show.
Right. One of the things that does kind of set you apart is your focus on punchlines and getting those lines off. When you said “Elastigirl, I’m so out of their reach” I had to just stop and sit there for a second. Do you have a favorite line from the album?
I feel like all my songs are like my kids, I can’t pick just one. I don’t have a favorite because I feel like every single one hits different, and I try to go into every song saying what we all are saying as women or even we’re saying as people, but being able to say it in a more creative way. Rap is not new, and of course there’s nothing new under the sun, but I also just don’t want to be, I want to be able to say it in a way that it hasn’t been said before.
I still use lines and references that are current, and because of my sound with me having such a nostalgic sound, I want to be able to bridge the gap and make it new by being current. I’ll get ideas watching cartoons and stuff like that. I have just been doing it for so long, studying it, being around greatness because they’re all spitters. I think that just makes me push my pen harder.
That strikes me as something that you would have learned from 9th Wonder down there in North Carolina, taking his class. What were some of the other things that you really learned from working with him, or just learning under him as a professor?
We used to just have so many different things that we had to do. Every day we have to come to class with a current event. We have actual books to read, and really just digging deep into the surface of things. Even just walking into the class he would be on at his DJ station and he’ll play a old song that has been sampled, and we would have to guess which current song it was. That put me more so into digging deep, actually doing my research, and it helps everything become more cohesive, then you’re not looking to sound like everybody else. It helps you to just be a little bit more creative, and think about just music as a whole, more so as an art form than it is just a regular genre.
I don’t think there’s anybody that’s out quite like you, so you have a lane. When I think about the closest person to you is maybe Che Noir, but she’s not quite doing what you’re doing. You can switch back and do the Megan Thee Stallion, City Girl type stuff. So it’s really interesting to see that all the one person, because we haven’t really seen anybody do that in a really, really long time.
That’s what I wanted. I wanted it to be like the ideal female rapper that you can get everything from, because I don’t feel like any one female is one thing. I feel like you do have females that are very brash and bossed up, and sometimes they on their City Girl shit, sometimes they on their backpack shit. They want to be the one with the power, however they want to give it up, but I just felt like I’m a one-stop shop.
I really, really, really, really love to hear women rap because without women rap becomes very monotonous, it becomes very tedious and boring. So when women are rapping, not only do you bring your different stories, you also bring a wider variety of voices and clothes, and interesting different things to do. You rap about garbage bag money. And a lot of people won’t admit or don’t know what “garbage bag money” is, but you can play it both sides. And I love that.
I feel like that too, because a lot of people will try to use my past against me and say, “Oh, she’s just another stripper rapper.” At the end of the day, I always say the streets and the strip club is parallel, meaning we all hustle and do the same things. You can call it “work” or you can call it “ass and titties,” but we have to have that amount of game, you have to hustle and get in there. If the streets are messed up and dried up and there’s no money in the streets, nine times out of ten, there’s no money in the club.
So when rap about it, I’m not so much glamorizing it, but just how you would hear a Jay-Z or whoever rap about their hustling experience, I’m bringing that to it. So the average female rapper that may not get that from another rapper, a Che Noir or a Rapsody, over a hard beat, they can look at me. It’s like, “I can identify with her because I look like that, it tells me my story.”
That’s what it comes down to, all about telling a story. I just want to thank you for sharing your story with me. What’s next in your story?
This project is really just to kind of solidify my spot in the Griselda group, to let people know that I can do both. After that, I’m just stretching my wings and just doing whatever I feel like is going to make the track work. My biggest thing is that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into having to sound like one thing. It’s always been like my superpower, I can switch and do both. That’s why I’m a star player because I can do everything. I can go into whatever realm I want to and dominate just like Kim did coming from Junior M.A.F.I.A, and moving on to doing more commercial songs.
The Liz is out now via Griselda Records. Listen to it here.