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by Christina Lee
photos by Chad Griffith

“‘All Eyez on Me,’ OG from the East,” NLE Choppa raps toward the end of his sophomore album “Me vs. Me." The 19-year-old rap upstart from East Memphis, boasting over 10 million monthly Spotify listeners, has paid tribute to Tupac before. His lead single around this time last year was “Picture Me Grapin,” a play on “Picture Me Rollin’.” The song’s video recreated some of Pac’s most iconic music video scenes, fashion and run-ins with media, like when he spit on reporters covering his 1994 sexual assault trial. NLE even bears Pac’s influence across his chest, with a gothic cross tattoo in the same silhouette the West Coast rap icon had on his back.

Thank NLE’s father, who gamely imitates his son’s trendy dances whenever there’s a camera nearby. “I heard a lot of Tupac growing up, just off the strength of my dad playing his music,” NLE says, on a Zoom call minutes after our photoshoot. Yet, despite how he’s openly referenced Pac at his most defiant, NLE holds his dad’s favorite rapper in high regard for his moments of righteous fury, like when he turned the word “thug” into a teachable moment, forcing critics to reckon with how he contained multitudes.

“Even though his music, period, is outstanding, I feel like [Tupac] as a person treated me more than his music ever would,” NLE says. “What he did for his people, the way he was on a deeper level, he was more than just a gangsta rapper.”

NLE figures that Tupac’s career must have inspired the seeming duality in his own music, even if he wasn’t completely conscious of the impact. “I want to say that it was inspired by Tupac,” he says. Regardless of the intent, it’s certainly the easiest way to explain how, after becoming an unexpected beacon of health and wellness in 2020, “Me vs. Me” is NLE’s return to reckless form. On YouTube, NLE labeled the single “I.Y.B.” (“If You Buck,” nodding to Crime Mob’s dreads-shaking classic) as “Old Choppa.” His verses bounce on top of distorted bass as if he’s trying to make the floor below him collapse. “Push his wig back like a n— receding / shoot him in the stomach, them bullets he eatin’” is maybe the song’s least threatening taunt.

“This tape is mainly for my core fans,” NLE says. “Some of these hype songs I made are from before I’ve been on this better path I’ve been on, because I’ve had a more clear and open mind. I just chose the ‘Me vs. Me’ concept because I’m battling myself. Even if it’s good or bad, it’s like every second of the day I’m questioning myself. It’s a more advanced version of the old me.”

Before the artist born Bryson Potts was old enough to attend grade school, Memphis was the most dangerous city in America, a title the city reclaimed this year, as highlighted by fellow native Young Dolph’s shooting death in town. “We was victims of a home invasion when I was way, way, way younger, to the point where I don’t even know what age I was,” he says. “I just know I was 4 or 5.” His music—lyrics like “Meditated with the gun like a monk,” and the gold, platinum and multi-platinum singles thereafter—has reflected that reality. “It’s gritty, grimy, gutter, treacherous.”

Photos by Chad Griffith

Photos by Chad Griffith

Ahead of his 2020 debut “Top Shotta,” NLE was already reaping the benefits of young rap stardom: “the money, the jewelry, the females, the cars.” He had turned down a slew of reported record deals worth up to $3 million in order to launch his Warner Records imprint, No Love Entertainment. Yet, he says, “I was at one of the lowest points in my life,” he says. “And that was just the simple fact of me not valuing what I needed in my life, versus what I wanted.” What he actually needed was “self-love, security.” That fall, NLE publicly vowed to stop rapping about violence altogether. “If you hear it from me it’s an old song,” he tweeted. “I want to spread positivity and wake people up.”

NLE kicked off 2021 by launching his online herb shop NLE Health & Wellness, hawking autographed bags of mugwort. The remedies he sold, like sea moss, can be found in Black-owned health and wellness shops nationwide. When he extols the benefits he learned from social media, NLE is essentially repeating the claims of the late herbalist Dr. Sebi, whose fans included Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Nipsey Hussle and Erykah Badu. Behind the scenes, NLE consulted with Hayah Mitwal, a next-gen Dr. Sebi who wears a copper coil monocle over his right eye.

The most relatable moment of this transformation was when NLE started a vegetable garden in his Memphis backyard. As demand for seeds skyrocketed worldwide, there NLE was, telling his seedlings that he loved them to encourage growth. (One garden update on YouTube boasts over a million views.) The most frustrating, but still all-too-common moment of his transformation was when he called the Covid-19 pandemic “fake-ass” in the song “Paradise,” off 2020’s “From Dark to Light.” NLE doubled down in an interview with XXL, calling it “a scare tactic… against melanated people.”

NLE’s self-described intentions as a “helper and a healer” are in the right place. But like so many trying to make sense of our modern plights, he’s subject to health misinformation. In “Me vs. Me”’s “Change My Ways,” he raps, “Retarded with the choppa like a n-— missing a chromosome.” He says those lyrics are backed by what he learned in science class. But after I explain my partner’s experience—how they were born with an extra X chromosome, but don’t view that fact as a disorder or deficiency—he tried to take the criticism in stride. “He might be a little smarter,” he says.

Photos by Chad Griffith

Photos by Chad Griffith

While “Me vs. Me”’s songs are up to two years old, from the days of breakout hit “Top Shotta,” NLE says the project presents yet another personal and artistic evolution. The title hints at a larger reckoning with the senseless violence he depicts—how he, too, is a casualty.

“I need to question and dig deep within my body, my own thoughts, my own soul, to see what I need to do to get things done,” he says. “It’s not so much a struggle. It’s more so asking myself certain questions or holding myself accountable for certain actions.” But this time, NLE isn’t literally spelling out the word “Depression” as he did in “Top Shotta.” Instead, “Youngest to Do It”—his favorite song off “Me vs. Me,” for how he “just talk[s] about life”—breezes through said accountability. “Repenting and killing, I made a decision to kill anything living,” he raps, in a flash of self-awareness. In its entirety, “Youngest to Do It” is a prayer to God so breathless it sounds as if NLE granted himself exactly four minutes in confession to get everything off his chest before he headed back to the trenches.

By the album’s final track, “Rambo,” NLE has exploded once again. Unlike with the titular Sylvester Stallone character, a returned Vietnam War vet sadistically mishandled by police, there’s no context in this scenario for why NLE is “fucked up in the head / I go on a tantrum.” All listeners can grasp, from details that quickly dart past, is that he’s a one-man army whose victims aren’t entirely faceless. “How the fuck his mom gon’ sleep, how the fuck his son gon’ eat?” he asks, his voice hoarse, before barely pausing. “Too late.”

Given that this is by NLE Choppa, and that Stallone himself pushed back against this perception that Rambo was a “violent character” who wasn’t “constantly questioning his own integrity—and the futility of war,” I couldn’t help but wonder if NLE was making some larger statement by ending “Me vs. Me” on this note. But that wasn’t the case: “It wasn’t really nothing symbolic about it,” he explains. “It was just picking the right song to close the album with.”  

In fact, “Rambo” might be peak Old Choppa, with how his memories about what inspired the song have already faded. “That was one of my oldest songs,” he adds. “I just know that I was high, and I don’t do drugs anymore.”

Gazing past his phone, NLE speaks with more conviction when he considers what’s on the horizon. He hopes to accompany the project after “Me vs. Me” with a film inspired by his life. He points to “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” the 2005 crime drama that aspired to be a faithful reflection of the myth surrounding its star, first-time actor 50 Cent. NLE wants his name mentioned among hip-hop greats, his face on the genre’s Mount Rushmore.

“I feel like I’m extremely underrated for my craft,” he says, still as politely as he could muster. “It’s beautiful, and it expands from many genres and is extremely diverse.”

Days after our interview, though, NLE tweets with his full chest. “They say why you a herbalist one day then a killer the next,” he says, citing how Tupac made both “Hit Em Up” and “Dear Mama,” fleshing out mankind’s inherent duality on wax.

Besides the milestones he’s determined to achieve next, there is no telling how the evolution of NLE Choppa will play out. After all, “Me vs. Me” shows how the journey to becoming your best self is a winding path.

Photos by Chad Griffith

Photos by Chad Griffith