Vada Azeem returns older, wiser with ‘We Forgot God Was Watching’

Survival and spirituality are inextricably linked on the Columbus rapper’s excellent new album, out digitally today (Friday, June 16).
Vada Azeem
Vada AzeemCourtesy the artist

For years, Vada Azeem has discussed music in the past tense, believing that part of his life was firmly behind him. 

In an early June interview, the artist, author and musician traced this sense of resignation in part to bitterness – “Not achieving the things [in music] that I thought I wanted to, feeling like the world doesn’t want this from me,” he said – and in part to an ingrained belief reaffirmed by the media that hip-hop was a much younger person’s game.

“There’s an age limit the world puts on hip-hop that it doesn’t put on anything else, and it doesn’t put it on jazz or rock or country or any other genre, really,” he said. “And I think I was buying into that, like, man, whatever I was able to accomplish through music, it’s over. I’m older. I have a family. Why am I rapping?”

But even as this idea started to calcify within him, Azeem continued to navigate creative spaces, recalling a visit to Atlanta about five years back where he ended up in the studio with a pre-fame Westside Gunn and the Griselda Records crew. As the rappers – all of whom are Azeem’s age or older – played him a series of new tracks, Azeem recalled two thoughts running through his head concurrently: This music is tight. And also, you’re too old

“And now Gunn is rolling around with $2 million on his neck,” Azeem said, and laughed. “And I’ve been around him several times leading up to [his success] and after it, and all I could think was, man, I remember that night when I was telling myself, you have to stop. And they didn’t. And they just kept making music. … And it changed my mindset, and it made me throw away the age thing to where I decided I’m going to make hip-hop music until I die. … I had to stop lying to myself, and stop acting like I don’t love the creation of music, because I do.”

This awakening coincided with a larger internal shift, Azeem distancing himself from the more material motivations that he said first drove him to begin making music in Fly Union and later solo as L.e. for the Uncool – namely peer validation, money and a deep-seated hope the form could help him escape his hardscrabble past. In its place, he began to create music first for himself, then for his family, and finally for whoever wanted to listen, be it an audience of millions or just a handful who resonate deeply with his verses.

It’s a sense of intimacy that ripples throughout Azeem’s excellent new album, We Forgot God Was Watching, out digitally today (Friday, June 16), surfacing in everything from the lyrics – “I do it for my sons,” he raps of his internal pivot on “Possession” – to the conversational flow he adopts throughout. Whether rapping about his earliest brushes with violence – on “Black Lion” he recalls holding a gun for the first time at age 9, while “Abuela” revisits a friend shot and killed by police – or his larger spiritual awakening, Azeem does so with the relaxed demeanor of a man who with age has settled comfortably into his own skin.

Learning to love the flawed kid he used to be was a difficult but necessary process, and one that proved therapeutic for the rapper. “There was a part of me that still had a lot of disdain for that person, and now I’m to a point where I’m like, ‘I can’t hate that child. I can’t hate what I was,’” Azeem said. “I have to embrace him just like I embrace all other aspects of myself, because he’s part of me.”

In doing so, Azeem said he has also gained a greater appreciation for the music he recorded as a younger man, sharing how friends and family started to grow frustrated with his habit of posting songs and albums online, only to later remove them, as though his discography were crafted in disappearing ink. “And there’s a bigger reason as to why that was taking place, and it was because I wasn’t healed, and for me leaving that stuff up was just leaving an unhealed version of myself out there,” he said. “And I’m still not a fan of that music, but I can appreciate it. … And I have to appreciate it, because, man, it’s so hard to create anything, and to have the bravery to even do it. There are so many things against me that can turn a listener off. My voice is hella high. I’m funny looking. I know these things. But I’m still going to put this out into the world.”

Nowadays, this confidence is buoyed by Azeem’s deep-rooted spirituality, which surfaces on songs such as “Call the Shaman” and “Armor of God.” On both cuts, Azeem’s difficult childhood and his grown-up beliefs sound irrevocably linked, the rapper positioning his faith as something hard-won, shaped and strengthened by the life-or-death circumstances he’s been forced to navigate. 

“Another day isn’t promised, but I also find comfort in it,” Azeem said. “I lost a lot of people. Most of the men in my family have been shot. I’ve felt the bullet. My little brother was shot in the face. My dad has been shot. My uncle has been shot in the head. And we all survived. But I have friends who didn’t survive, and I’m to a point where I’m a lot more comfortable with death than I ever have been. So I mourn a little differently, too, because I wholeheartedly believe this isn’t the stop. This isn’t the end all for me. … And I get that these aren’t new things. But while I’m here, there’s a legacy, and I want to make sure I’m contributing, and that I’m leaving beautiful things behind.”

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