Even though the name Cam O’bi may not be familiar to you, the prolific producer’s work probably is. It’s likely you’ve heard his instrumentation on projects from artists like Big Sean, Chance The Rapper, Isaiah Rashad, J. Cole, Moses Sumney, Noname, Saba, SZA, Twenty88, and Vic Mensa. J. Cole’s “High For Hours?” That’s Cam’s work. Big Sean’s “Living Single?” You guessed it, that’s Cam. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” from Chance The Rapper’s breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap? A Cam O’bi original.
Even with such unimpeachable credentials under his belt as a producer, Cam has greater designs and plenty to say on his own as an artist. While he’s been making beats since 2001 on an, ahem, unlicensed copy of FL Studio — then known as Fruity Loops — and placing beats with the biggest, buzziest names in hip-hop since 2012, Cam has been gearing up to make the transition to full-fledged artist for the past year-and-a-half. The process started in 2018 with the release of “TenderHeaded,” a nostalgic, surprisingly political single featuring St. Louis rapper Smino and will culminate this year with Grown Ass Kid, O’bi’s debut album.
The process hasn’t been all that difficult for him; speaking with him by phone discussing the album and its recently-released third single, “Perfect” featuring Chicago crooner TheMind, he tells me that he’s always had the “knack” for songwriting. A natural storyteller, he says he initially gave up writing songs after school made him “hate it,” but picked it back up in the course of helping other artists write songs to his beats. That gift has shone through on tracks like “Perfect,” “TenderHeaded,” and late 2019 single “Grammy’s Babies.” O’bi’s pen crafts winding paths for the listener’s ear as he guides them through narratives detailing his journey to self-acceptance, his romantic foibles, and his understanding of heritage and legacy.
Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that he’s an even better writer and producer than I initially thought. When he tells me that even the terminology of “TenderHeaded” is intentionally chosen to spark conversation, Obi highlights his own talent but remains humble, revealing an eager mind and a huge heart. As we talk about the process of making the switch to front-of-the-mic artistry, producing for some of the most thoughtful artists out, and turning abstract concepts into vivid mental images, I’m even more eager to finally hear Grown Ass Kid as a finished project — and share it with anyone who’ll listen.
After so many years of production success, working people like Smino and Big Sean, how do you make the transition from behind-the-scenes producer to in-front-of-the-microphone artist?
I would say the very first thing is there’s the actual tactile skills part of it. So it’s going from making a beat and letting an artist come up with the lyrical direction and the lyrical theme and whatever to, now, I make the beat, but then I’m the one also that comes up with the lyrical direction, the lyrical theme.
It wasn’t that hard for me, honestly. I realized that I had a natural knack for songwriting. I never really wrote anything before. When I was a kid, I used to love writing, actually. I wrote my ass off as a kid. Then I stopped because school made me hate it. So it was interesting when I started to write songs to my own beats. I kind of fell back in love with it and realized I was rediscovering something that I had put down when I was a kid. I would work with artists and they would sometimes invite me to get on songs with them, like Vic Mensa because I helped him write the hook for “Orange Soda.” I wrote the melody and he put the words to it. And he was like, “You should do it.”
What are the differences in the challenges of, let’s say, putting together a beat and writing a rhyme?
They are very different, on one hand, but on another they’re very similar. I realized, for example, with making a beat, what I love about it is I’m using sound to kind of create a world that’s really palpable, that you can see through just by hearing it. You can feel it. Every sound is something that gives an image to you.
I actually learned this from hanging out with Noname, Chance, Vic. All of them were extremely talented writers and lyricists and I kind of picked it up, but specifically working on Telefone with Noname’s lyrics, I realized her words were doing the same thing for me that beats always did for me, which would be taking me to a world. Just hearing her words would take me to a world.
“TenderHeaded” did that for me. It really evoked sort of fond memories for me because you had these very evocative images that were very specific to a Black point of view.
I would say, okay, so every word on that verse, on that song, is intentional. I wanted to do something, like you said, that’s pro-Black. So I was thinking, “Okay, how do I do that?” Because my thing is I didn’t want to do that and you know right away that’s what I’m doing. I never like to be so on the nose with my lyrics.
I remember my ex-girlfriend, she was a kindergarten teacher. She would critique my writing. She’d always be telling me, “Say it like you’re saying it to a five year old,” because five year olds don’t understand jargon. They don’t know what racism is. They don’t know what white supremacy is. You know? They don’t know what love is. They don’t know what betrayal is. You have to make them know what betrayal is by giving them a story that they can relate to, so that they can feel it. And so that was essentially the way that I went about writing.
Every word was chosen very carefully. I wrote down a list of a bunch of words from the Black community that I used to hear as a child, that I don’t hear anymore. So beedy beeds was one of them. There’s a whole bunch of things. And my goal with that was to… because those words, when I hear them, they take me back to a place in my childhood and I was like, for those people out there for whom this is for, when they hear those words, my hope is that it’ll evoke the same kinds of things in them… Even the word tenderheaded, I picked that very intentionally, that word, because that’s a word from the Black community. It’s a word that we know that a lot of people don’t know outside of Black community.
It really relates to something that is very specific to one of our experiences and kind of both a negative sort of thing, but also a sort of a very comforting sort of thing, I think, for us because it does remind us of mom and doing things like combing your hair straight or making you cut off your “naps.”
It does. It’s very poetic, too, I think, just that word. I always thought Black English was so poetic. The way that our slang is, it’s naturally poetic. The saying that something is lit or something is fire, that’s a poetic device that we use in our every day.
So what more can we expect from Grown Ass Kid? What do you want from the experience? What do you want people to take away from it?
I want people to come away from it with a new perspective on their situation, on themselves, really, and turn on their whole life, on life itself. So with “TenderHeaded,” I wanted you to think about your childhood if you’re a Black person, when you hear that. you’re a Black American. But if you’re not a Black American and you hear that and you don’t even know what that is, I want you to think about that, too. I want you to think about the fact that this song was nearly written in a foreign language to you and we speak English. We both speak the same language, but you don’t understand me. I want people to think about those things.
I want the whole album to be that. But really, by the time you’re done with it, when you finish the album, I want you to feel like you’ve just been on a journey, a very long journey around the world, outer world and the inner world. I really want it to just feel like, when you’re done, “Oh, my god. Where was I?” Like an acid trip.