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Even hiding behind his icy silver aviators, it's apparent that Aloe Blacc's mind is somewhere else. Small talk ricochets off his lenses on a dark elevator ride up to the seventh floor of a downtown Los Angeles artist loft for a midday photo shoot. He's on a tight schedule of interviews and appearances these days, nearly every hour accounted for from dawn to dusk. Nevertheless, a recent marathon run of nearly two-dozen gigs at South By Southwest—including an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live—to promote his best-selling album, Lift Your Spirit, has barely dented him.
He came to the shoot prepared, toting a pressed, black Armani suit jacket and white dress shirt on a hanger hooked over his sturdy index finger; the leather boots on his feet are impeccably shined. But Blacc is worried he's forgotten something. After taking a few steps into the loft, his left hand grazes the brim of the gray tweed porkpie hat on his head—and then he remembers.
"Ah, damn," he says. "This is the wrong one."
He goes downstairs. At the open crosswalk, his hand juts out to stop oncoming traffic before he glides to his unassuming green Volvo sedan. He pops the door and grabs the right lid—a black fedora snagged from his music video shoot for "Wake Me Up," the second single on Lift Your Spirit. Prior to its release, the folk-tinged track got a major profile boost thanks to a version he sang and co-wrote for Swedish DJ Avicii, which became the fifth-best-selling dance track in SoundScan history; as of this writing, it's reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 102 countries.
Blacc holds the hat to the sunlight and studies it briefly. "Here we go," he says with a smirk. "This one should go perfect."
Though a seemingly small style detail, it's the kind of thing Blacc never misses. He lives for those careful, considerate decisions and style points, controlling every aspect of his career, his sound and his look. The deep pauses he takes before answering interview questions are a sign that he isn't an artist who'll say anything to get your attention—only the right thing. As a singer, his meat-and-potatoes delivery is expressive yet attainable; he's the kind of vocalist you can comfortably sing along to and still feel hip as hell.
Blacc's approach becomes all the more important with each passing day. The Laguna Hills native is on a meteoric rise that started with the hit single "I Need a Dollar," off his sophomore solo album, Good Things, and continues with Lift Your Spirit's sweetly boastful platinum-selling single "The Man," currently featured in a national TV ad campaign for Beats By Dre headphones. Of course, the stakes are much higher now for the artist born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, one of only a few black kids at Laguna Hills High School way back when. In the midst of release week, all the hubbub is exciting, but also amusingly strange to the indie-minded artist—especially after nearly 20 years on the grind.
"You release a record, the first week is not the only week it's available," he says as the makeup artist's brush flutters over his face by the loft's large window overlooking downtown. "You expect people to warm up to it. There's a lot of activity around promotion and marketing. But I'm in it for the long haul, not just for the first week."
Since the start of his career in 1995, Blacc has learned a thing or two about long hauls. There's no shortage of press tracking his route from backpack rapper to star soul singer. But that's a pretty limited perspective on a guy with a deep discography that's dabbled in multiple genres: dancehall, salsa, haunting spaghetti-western operas, touches of funk and psychedelic rock and now (thanks to Avicii) EDM club anthems. It's taken a long time to channel that eclectic energy into a signature sound. And despite the growth of a long-developing career throughout Europe, it's taken even longer to get his due in the States. But while jumping from an indie mindset to a major label has changed Blacc as a businessman, it hasn't deterred his idea of what a good artist is—someone who does whatever the hell he or she wants.
It's that kind of swagger that earned him a slot on the biggest stage in SoCal: this year's Coachella double weekend. He'll be there April 11 and again on the 18th, the same day as Outkast, the Knife, Chromeo, Zedd and tons more. Until this year, Coachella was one of those gigs Blacc said he could never really see himself playing, mostly because the bulk of his success has been on the other side of the world. But as he prepares to set foot on the Indio Polo Fields with his backing band, the Grand Scheme, it seems America is finally willing to accept that Blacc isn't lying when he sings in a melody reminiscent of Elton John's "Your Song," "You can tell everybody . . . I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man."