Image via CEO Trayle/Instagram

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Matthew Ritchie’s equivalent of using PEDs is writing while watching The French Dispatch.

There’s no playbook for dealing with trauma. Self-help books and Twitter therapists like to pretend that plug and chug remedies exist for the greater public: That’s a pipe dream. You can see the variety of struggles in your friends. You see it in your family members. So why assume that artists are beholden to the expectations of the public to share about their trauma? The healing process can be public or private, sometimes through their lyrics or wrapped in the themes of a project. It’s a personal journey for each artist.

But what does that journey look like for CEO Trayle? The nomadic, Atlanta-based rapper has made inroads via his unpredictability, both in regards to his themes and musical stylings. Throughout his life, he moved from Jamaica, Queens, to Alabama, to Atlanta, picking up pieces of his identity at each stop. He’s a product of his regional idols: 50 Cent, Gucci Mane, and Rocko. He forged his methodical flows at the lunch table reciting 50 verses, and found a way to balance ferocity with tender inspiration through the other two (he calls old Gucci “Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and Rocko the king of inspirational rap).

Evolution shaped his growth through his Happy Halloween mixtape series and breakout anthem “OK Cool.” The single blew up first in Chicago during summer 2020, (“it went bigger because people get their heart broken more than people do gangsta shit,” he says), and was followed up by great releases such as Happy Halloween C4 in 2021, on which he holds his own amongst the likes of Babyface Ray and DoeBoy. It feels as if he’s allergic to repetition, refusing to linger upon a lyrical strain or pre-set sound. In one breath he can sound dismissive and downtrodden, lamenting the disappointing realities of failed relationships. The next, he’s liable to be full of bravado, with his chest pumped and head held high as he raps about having no fears, like on the lead single from his forthcoming Vier EP, “July The Fourth.” “I don’t feel none, but I feel numb/I don’t hear none, but I hear some,” he raps, unwilling to fully mask that there’s something bubbling underneath the macho facade he employs from time to time.

At moments, you can earn a semblance of understanding about the trauma that builds the stories behind the artists, but only if you pay attention and care enough. The single’s title hones in on a singular event in Trayle’s life, one that has marked his existence since its occurrence. On July 4, 2013, Trayle was subject to a home invasion. The public details of the event are sparse: he was shot seven times and survived by killing the robber in self-defense. That’s the skinny, and likely all you’re able to glean about it if you ask Trayle. Trust me, people have tried. And people have failed. The first thing that he told me when we hopped on Zoom was that he hates interviews. When I ask him about what occurred, Trayle skillfully corrects me on another aspect of my question, choosing to focus on the theme of Vier as a whole. While he aimlessly rolls himself a blunt, he provides a glimpse into the true motivation behind the original release date, July 4, rather than give up the explicit details of the traumatic event.

If people were looking at Vier as a self-exploration of Trayle’s personal trauma stemming from the home invasion, they’ll be sorely disappointed. What arrives is a grab bag of his whispers and couplet flows delighting at every turn. His words, expertly bouncing between boasts and tempered reflection of his mood, rest over production styles that range from military drill sets (“DrillC4”) to head-numbing piano beats (“Send My Bitch” featuring Enchanting). He’s got a love of everything old and samples of yore, understanding that rap can incorporate numerous genres into its folds. Trayle’s confidence allows him to try whatever might work, forming an engaging set of tracks on which he shoots a high percentage on.

But while there’s no overt allusion to the event on Vier, that doesn’t mean that the healing process isn’t present. It’s important to remember that the words we hear aren’t indicative of the artist behind them, they’re just an aspect of their humanity. Trayle is a thinker, not just about that day, but about what it means to have survived it and to be living now. I spoke to Trayle about what the event means to him, how he’s dealing with life after that day and what follows after, both as a person and his evolution as an artist. To hear him speak about the future is exciting, knowing that after Vier, hopefully, there are many more releases to come.

First off, how’s life? How’s everything been, being in the house and whatnot?

CEO Trayle: Everything been good. Things just moving. Trying to keep from being stagnant.

Has the pandemic made it easier to be stagnant, forcing you to stay inside and shit?

CEO Trayle: The pandemic made us to where you could get comfortable in the house. When you should really go outside. But you know, sometimes it’s a win-win situation, because the pandemic helped me a lot.

This EP focuses on one moment in your life. Can you talk about what happened back on July 4 a bunch of years ago?

CEO Trayle: It really don’t focus on it, to be really honest. The only time I’m really talking about that July 4th shit is when it’s in an interview, or when somebody asked about it, or if it’s in my music already. That’s shit, I’ve been talking about that for years. Now that it’s just like I’m doing well on a large scale, people trying to figure out what happened. The music on the tape doesn’t really focus on the events actually. But due to a situation, one of my songs was unable to be cleared, so we had to push it back.

But it’s basically just me using those significant dates in my life to release music and talk to my fans. The fans who know what happened and where I’ve been. That’s what the four songs are: to talk to the core fanbase.

You use those significant dates in your life. Why do you find it important to put stuff out around those dates?

CEO Trayle: The traumatic experiences that I experienced in my life made me who I am. When people go through traumatic shit, they remember the date. But they moreso don’t want to bring it back up, or it’s an experience they can’t speak on. I can speak on my experience because I’m still here. I’m supposed to be able to still speak on this shit.

At the same time, it don’t really correlate. It’s just those dates. I want to bring them back up in my life to let myself know, “there was a traumatic experience on this day that you made it through: now you able to release music, or drop a video, or be around fans.”

So those days act as what to you?

CEO Trayle: They act as ammo to me. Once those days start coming up, I gotta show that I’m still here from that traumatic experience. So like, I have to put some music out. That’s just how I look at it.

Then it’s kind of like a celebration?

CEO Trayle: That’s exactly it.

What does it mean to you to be able to drop around these dates?

CEO Trayle: It let me know like, “shit.” I feel good most times. Sometimes I could be in my own head.

I know the idea of processing trauma can be tough. What helps you get through those moments where it’s not a celebration?

CEO Trayle: Just reminding myself that I’m still around for a reason. And my kid, stuff like that. Stuff that puts me in a mind frame that I can keep going. The reasons why I’ve been doing what I’m doing. When it turns back into a traumatic experience, I have to remind myself to celebrate.

How important is it for you to be honest in your music about yourself?

CEO Trayle: It’s important for me to be honest because a lot of people glorify the bad. They’ll hear that I got shot seven times, or the story behind it. In all actuality, you should just be grateful that niggas is still around to experience life after death.

Do you think rap has an issue talking about events like that?

CEO Trayle: Nah. If you feel that rap glorifies things of that nature too much, you have to go into these people’s backgrounds and histories, to realize this isn’t shit people just talk about. This is something that happens to people every day. People get so hung up on the fact that somebody is rapping about guns or murder. But if that’s all you saw growing up, then what are you going to write about? People fail to realize that this is America, and there’s a lot of places in America that’s like third-world countries.

It’s just people rapping about what they know and what they do.

CEO Trayle: That’s basically what it is. Like if you have got a kid and you submerge them in a lifestyle, that’s all they’re gonna know. You can look around and watch other people pretend that they’ve been submerged in that lifestyle, and rap like they’ve been. But at the end of the day, you’ll be able to tell.

It’s all entertainment. But people get hung up on the fact that violence has a place in the music. But that’s really what people see in their everyday life. Me, I don’t care about what anybody rap about. You can rap gangsta, or folk, or country. I don’t care. Some real shit, I liked that “Old Town Road” song before everything, that’s a song my son likes. Good music is good music, shit don’t really matter.

Does writing about the things that occurred help you process them?

CEO Trayle: I can’t write stuff down. I stopped being able to write stuff since I started looking at the history of music and realizing that not a lot of people wrote music down. Back in the era of Lil Wayne, where everything was coming off the top of his head first. I tried it out and I just loved the way things come off. They come off realer, more in your face. There’s no time to prepare. There’s more feeling to it than when you read it off a piece of a paper.

So your raps are just memories and recollections just off the rip?

CEO Trayle: It’s so jumbled up in here. I may talk about yesterday, 10 years ago, and the day before yesterday all in one song, not even in chronological order. I may just speak on an interview, or me and you talking right now, or about the day my son was born: Just events in my life that stand out. If it’s significant and it rhymes, it sounds better. It’s real life plus it works.

A song like “ OK Cool” can change a lot of the ways that someone thinks about their artistry. How does going viral effect the way you make music going forward?

CEO Trayle: It really didn’t. I mean, it kind of did. Before “OK Cool,” I had hella songs, but after, things started getting 100 million streams. The people who know me for that song, they want to hear that kind of music: they want to hear heartbreak, the word “bitch,” they want to hear all of that. I was never a real big fan of “OK Cool,’ like the song in particular. It changed me because when it first dropped, I tried to follow the track’s trend.

It don’t matter. You could be Jay-Z or Future: you’re never as good as your last album, or as your last song. The fans are going to critique and say what they want all the time, but it’s up to you to get them to adapt to how you are in life. A lot of people ride the wave of what got them on, then they convert over to what they really want to do. Look at Kendrick: he came up with the “Drank” song, that went crazy, and then he started really rapping about what he wanted to rap about. Plenty of people start off with what got them hot, they build a fanbase big enough to the point where fans care about them, and then it don’t matter what they drop.

That’s kind of how I want my music. You know how Tupac could rap off any beat, but he can still make you feel that “Dear Mama.” I just want people to be able to listen to what I’m saying. Understand that some of the best songs have really sad meanings or sad backgrounds. I want to get away from all the other stuff because of my son, I saw what having the wrong influence did to me. He knows all my songs. I want him to be able to distinguish and be able to learn enough from me. Similar to how I learned from music back in the day. I saw how 50 Cent, Gucci, Rocko was moving, I was trying to learn from them. With Rocko, I always respected him. I saw how he was with his kids, he used to say how he didn’t have a dad. Those type of things really shaped me into being the person that I am.

Do you think going viral can be sort of a trap then?

CEO Trayle: Yup. First of all, nobody goes viral on purpose. When people go viral, it’s either a big mistake or something people have been trying to do for the longest time. Most of the time, it’s something that you’re not thinking about, that you upload and post. But it can be a trap because, say that your post gets a million views, then you post the next thing and it only gets ten thousand views. Now you’re stuck trying to recapture that million, and doing whatever you got to do. You degrade yourself, like look at Boonk Gang or any of them niggas. They’re like, “I want a million views again: watch me go jump on this cop car!” You find yourself trying to one up yourself in a bad way, like you’re competing with the internet instead of competing with yourself.

People can get comfortable with a sound. How important is it for you to continue to evolve creatively?

CEO Trayle: That’s the most important thing. If I don’t, I’ll be stuck doing the same things or in the same mindset. I honestly used to think that I had to go rob somebody or do something dangerous to get in the mind frame to rap. We used to go do shit all day, then we go to the studio and rap about. Now, keeping myself from crashing out just to have something to talk about and trying to change to rap about life’s new experiences. I’m trying to make it sound this way: I came from this to get from that. For Happy Halloween, I wanted to do post mixing and transitions and all this other stuff. I just want to be able to evolve and keep going. That’s the most important thing, besides raising my son.

How important is it for your son to hear your music, and see you doing more, do you think that sets a good example?

CEO Trayle: It shows him me being persistent. Right now, he’s in karate, that’s something I never did. When I first started rapping when I was younger, I never had the support that I gave him. I’m hoping that if I pour into him the way nobody did for me, he’ll be better than I was. More confident. I can be confident, but I still have doubts, like, “damn, should I keep doing this?” I just want to show him that you always have the voice in your head, I want that voice in his head to be me. So it’s easier for him to listen and understand because I’m so close to him.

You speak a lot about how you try to impact him through your music. How has he impacted you?

CEO Trayle: Kid changed my life to be honest. When he was born in 2017, I started taking rap seriously. That’s when I decided to quit everything cold turkey and just focus on being the best dad I can be. With doing that, I feel like it just made me a better person. It made me realize that I was never the type to chase the trend. It shows me I was good for feeling how I felt. I never felt love or anything like the love I get from him.

It makes me want to be around and show him to be a great person. I want to show him you don’t gotta be a gangsta. A lot of my friends aren’t street niggas. I like hanging around… like me and you would be cool. I like people who would be comfortable in their own skin. I don’t need 30 guns around me, I need people who know how to do critical thinking and move around, knowing how to evolve with life instead of being stuck in one spot. I’m having to teach myself that, and then I have to teach that to him. He’s literally a second me. He’s got my name and everything. He’s literally my junior. If I’m being a good parent or not, I can see how he respond, or how he reacts or understands things.

He don’t know about death. I shelter him from certain things, until he gets to a point where I feel like he can understand. It’s not like I’m gonna wait too long because life can hit you at any moment. Growing up, I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, which impacted my emotions, my growth, and me as an adult. Hopefully, if I could stay on track with him, then you’ll see my junior doing way better than me. Not even rapping.

Not to sound corny or anything, but do you think that a love of music or for your son is the best motivator?

CEO Trayle: I definitely think so. Music keeps me grounded and in a good headspace. I’ve been doing it with or without money. It’s something I love to do, and I’ll continue to do it. Whether I’m in a million-dollar mansion or under a bridge. It’s an everyday thing for me.

I feel like you have to have a love for things you do. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

CEO Trayle: You got to. A lot of new artists, they don’t have love for music, they have love for money. So it goes hand in hand. I got a real love for the game of music. I’m a student, still watching documentaries from back in the day from No Limit or Diddy. I just studied and studied everything about it.

How important is it for you to learn from shit people did in the past?

CEO Trayle: I really fuck with how shit was back in the day. I fuck with how you couldn’t easily get into music and had to wait for people to drop; it was tougher for people to bootleg. It took more for people to copy you and you sound like you. They wanted everybody to be the most original you could be. Now these days, there’s not too much originality out there.

What’s your favorite possibility for the future?

CEO Trayle: I’m just looking forward to getting my music to the world. I love when people hit me up and be like, “I just got onto your music,” or, “I just started listening to you.” That’s what I really care about. Like when people tell me that they subscribe to nobody on Youtube but me. I just want to get the music out.

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