Not3s knew he’d made it when he was asked to leave the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham.
He wasn’t asked to leave because of a fire alarm, or any infraction, or on the behest of some overzealous security guard. It was because another shopper had spotted him in his durag and sliders and begun what would soon turn into a good old-fashioned popstar mobbing.
Occurrences like these over the past 18 months have provided a steady stream of signals to the 21-year-old singer/rapper - or perhaps we should just say ‘popstar’ - that life is well and truly different now. “I feel like a superstar. I don’t feel like anything less. And I’ve definitely grown up a lot,” he says with the kind of confident wisdom that only a 21-year-old can truly possess.
After cresting on the breakout success of 2016’s ‘Addison Lee’ and a clutch of collaborations with fellow rising star Mabel, Not3s found himself frustrated. Frustrated on two counts.
Firstly, he wanted to be able to release new music faster, instead of milking the same handful of singles and riding the established industry merry-go-round of produce, promote, perform ad nauseam. And secondly, his entrance into the national consciousness had coincided with a moment of flux in the industry, as artists such as J Hus, MoStack, NSG, and Belly Squad left critics and marketers grasping for new nomenclature to fit the unique blend of Afrobeats, bashment and UK rap emerging from studios across the capital. Eventually, the clunky catchall of ‘Afroswing’ was settled on.
But for Not3s, this was just another example of the industry constructing a box in which to contain young black artists.
“For me, ‘Afroswing’ is sly bullshit,” he says, almost relieved to be getting the sentiment off his chest. “The only reason I say it’s bullshit is because people put people in a box and don’t want them to be pop or be anything [outside of that box].”
He refers to his music exasperatedly as “just Not3s”; he talks avidly about the potential brimming in the UK’s homegrown R&B scene; he flips between Future and Snoh Aalegra on an iPad - singing along to each with ease as he has his photo taken in a New Era cap he designed in collaboration with the headwear brand last year (“They liked my music,” he reveals. “It was just a natural, beautiful bond”), which was based around and inspired by the release of his ‘Take Not3s II EP’.
“Afroswing: it’s sick, what people are doing - don’t get it twisted. It’s amazing the opportunities that have come out of it, but yet again, just call us artists,” he explains. “We’re trying to make music and become bigger than what you’re putting us in.”
Not3s’ response to his pigeonholing was a raft of collaborations and features with other singers and MCs - he shared studio time with everyone from Fredo to Sneakbo, Chip, Headie One, AJ Tracey, and Avelino - that showed his chops across party tunes, road rap, and sweet boy singalongs. It became hard to tell whether he just had good taste (and management) or if a hook and a verse from Not3s had been agreed upon behind the scenes as the seal of approval required by any UK rapper on a quest to break through.
But there can be risks associated with this approach too. No one wants to be known as just a ‘features guy’. Not to mention that it can make playing solo live sets difficult when so much of your catalogue is formed of collaborations with other artists who have their own solo shows to play. Does he worry about being pigeonholed for a different reason now? As the UK’s answer to Akon (an artist who’s appeared as a featured artist on a single almost three times more often than as the lead)?
In a word, no.
“It’s music, you’re meant to work with people. If you’re not, then you’re not bettering yourself,” explains Not3s, saying that features allow him to tap into other artists’ fanbases too. But that’s not to say he has any less interest in writing and releasing more solo work. For Not3s, music has always been a way to tell his story, express himself, and transmit his experiences to others. “There’s more to my life that you can’t hear through features alone,” he says. “Because with features, you can only hear so much. You don’t really know what’s going on with [that person].”
In September 2018, a close friend and mentor to Not3s and his team, DJ Nana Banger, was killed at a house party in Hackney. Not3s cancelled festival appearances, taking time to reflect and mourn. “That’s somebody that, if it weren’t for him, me recording outside of school or a youth club just wouldn’t have happened. He put me on to shows. He was trying to help me get my name out there. We’re both youts from the same area - but he’s not capable of living no more, so I live on for him.”
It’s a tragedy, and one that Not3s says has instilled him with a newfound maturity and clarity of vision. When we last spoke, he joked about playing at the Addison Lee office Christmas party, and penning songs about private jets so he could attract a more lucrative sponsor. Today, while his playful grin is rarely absent, he’s more aware of the broader impact he can have with his music.
This awareness was pushed front and centre during his performance at Afro Nation in Portugal this summer: “This is the biggest amount of black people I’ve seen in a crowd,” he called out to the audience in August, “and there’s been no shootings, no stabbings. These Portuguese police have been waiting to do something but I don’t think it’s gonna happen for them.”
For Not3s, using his platform in this way is a given. It comes from a place of frustration at one-sided media narratives, and what he describes as years of harassment at the hands of those responsible for policing the streets. He says he wants to challenge this prejudiced status quo, and pull positive stories to the surface instead.
“I always try and see the light out of every situation, so I try and make whatever I’m making in its brightest format,” he explains. “No matter how dark it could be, I try and find the brightest way of saying it. Because, fam, everything’s dark: you’ve gotta try and find light in situations. It’s too easy to get sucked into the darkness.”
As a new year approaches, Not3s is preparing to channel that sentiment and energy into his biggest statement to date: a debut album that he hopes will shake off lazy pigeonholing and stereotypes.
“I just want it to be a classic,” he says, well aware of the loftiness of his ambitions. “The same way Michael Jackson could put out ‘Off The Wall’ and no one was making that type of music, I want to be able to make music in a way that no one can touch me.”
You won’t find Not3s relying on cabs from Addison Lee anymore. He drives a Porsche, wearing slippers lifted from a recent hotel stay. But, for him, it’s not a nice car or a shopping centre mobbing that will truly confirm his superstar status. It ultimately comes down to the music and, with his eye on the horizon, this album.
It’s a fact he’s well aware of. And so it’s apt that, after a long day of being dressed and pampered for the cameras, his plans for the evening consist solely of a takeaway and time in the studio. “It’s my own little space,” he says.
His own little space - which, fittingly, is exactly what he’s trying to carve out with the album he’ll record there.
Words: Will Pritchard
Photography: Will Spooner
Fashion: Harry Clements
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Not3s wears custom cap by New Era x Not3s.
Click HERE to buy this bespoke piece. Read more about the collaboration HERE.
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