“I can’t take away the pain,” Black the CSR raps on “Genesis,” a song that kicks off his debut album, Humble Beginnings, ushering listeners into his story in biblical fashion.
Rather than starting at the very beginning – with his birth and upbringing in the Northland neighborhood of Columbus – CSR opens with a period he described as his “awakening,” when he moved to Tennessee at age 17, establishing needed geographic distance from a challenging childhood in an effort to see if he could find a way forward on his own.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you get thrown into the deep end, right?” said the rapper, who returned to Columbus a few years back to help take care of his family. “I was listening to a podcast recently … and they were talking about hereditary traits and natural selection, and how half of the scientific world believes that you can teach yourself to be whatever, and the other half believes you’re born with certain limited abilities and all you can do is make the best of them. But, on a spiritual level, I believe if you access your deepest core, you can find a lot about yourself that will really surprise you. … And what I discovered about myself is that I could be my own worst enemy. And that came from being in the deep end, and from being strategic and understanding any situation I’m in, I can get out of it if I take responsibility for my place in it. And if I do that enough times, eventually I can get to a place where I’m not in the deep anymore, and maybe I’m on shore, and then maybe I can work my way to a canopy.”
Humble Beginnings traces this evolution, CSR rapping about reckoning with his past (“Genesis”), letting go of his ego (“Can’t Stop Us Now”), accepting that he can’t outrun his demons (“Code Red”) and finally learning to let in the sun (“Better Days”). “Appreciate the journey,” he raps on the latter, an understanding CSR said had unfolded within him gradually, arriving following a stretch in his late teens during which he lived with a foot in two different worlds.
“I was in school, trying to be better, and I was the best student in class,” he said. “But a piece of me, from where I came from, was way too familiar, and I was connected to people who weren’t conducive to that direction. … So, I was friends with brilliant professors from all over the world, who became friends with me because they saw something in me, and at the same time I was around people who were living … destructive and confused lifestyles.”
As a result, CSR said he often masked his true self regardless of the company, keeping his guard up at virtually all times. “A lot of that mindset I adopted as a survival mechanism,” he said. “In high school, you act like who you’re supposed to be, and I think we’re all guilty of that. But I knew who I was on the inside for a very long time, and I was fortunate enough that I eventually reached a place where I could step into being unapologetically me.”
The rapper’s debut documents this unmasking, with CSR taking full ownership of his story, aided by the contributions of collaborators such as Zhenel, Jaxyn Troy and Trek Manifest, who rips through “Welcome 2 America” like a lyrical twister.
In addition to pulling from his own story, CSR also adapted lessons he learned working as a filmmaker, such as making sure the album had a clear narrative structure. (As a side effect of this approach, CSR veers between "he" and "I" when discussing the record's central character, a line that increasingly blurred as he wrote.)
“If you think about the character arc, he starts off super confident, and the first few tracks are more upbeat, where I’m arrogant and boastful. And what happens then is, like life does, he becomes humbled, and there’s a shift, like, whoa, those demons are still there, those things I was battling within myself are still there,” CSR said. “I had been so arrogant that I forgot that I had trauma and I forgot there were still things external and internal that I was battling. … And what happens toward the end is I come out with a newly awakened wisdom and insight, where it’s not a false confidence. It’s a more assured confidence, and it’s more valid because it comes from diving into the darkest parts of myself. … And in the end, I come out more insightful about that journey.”