Any rapper with a hard-luck background can use AutoTune to turn life's maladies into melodies, but few are able to genuinely sing about struggling to survive like 21-year-old New Orleans native August Alsina.
Listening to his lyrics, the Louisiana singer sounds less like Bruno Mars and more like the notorious trap-rappers of his state, such as Baton Rouge's Lil Boosie. But his hustler's resolve and immense vocal talents have helped him to avoid becoming another inner-city statistic.
After only a few years of pursuing music seriously, Alsina is touring with successful Def Jam peers 2 Chainz and Pusha T and preparing to release his major-label debut, Testimony, set for an April 15 release. Alsina hopes it delivers his message of motivation and inspiration while giving a part of who he is to his audience.
August Alsina performs with 2 Chainz, Pusha T and Vince Staples at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Thursday, Feb. 20, 8 p.m. $42.50. All ages.
"It's unexplainable—you got to live it," the singer says when describing the ups and downs of his life, growing up in a time when his hometown was a "murder capital." Both Alsina's biological and step-father were drug addicts, and his mother pushed and labored as hard as she could to make everything work for their five-sibling family.
At the age of 14, Alsina began putting up YouTube videos of himslef singing FM pop and R&B hits, receiving online acclaim, but clicks and comments never translated his triumphs in the digital world into real-world success. Even with the possibilities opened up by his online popularity, as Alsina progressed through his teens, his life transitioned for the worse. At 16, Alsina was already on his own; to keep a roof over his head, he resorted to dealing drugs.
"I was trying to make a way out of no way, trying to make some money. I didn't have the means to go to the studio," Alsina recalls. The idea of fostering his artistic talents was pushed to the back of his mind, he says. "You got to be alive to do music."
Within a couple of years, his life became a roller-coaster of loss and success. The death of his 24-year-old brother Melvin proved to be a revelatory wake-up call for Alsina. Both he and his brother were living similar lives at the time Melvin was shot and killed, and Alsina saw in his brother's death his own fate.
The singer then devoted himself to making music and moved to Atlanta in 2011 to begin focusing on his career.
By the spring of 2012, Alsina had a buzz-building mixtape out hosted by one of the South's tastemakers, DJ Scream. Dubbed The Product, the mixtape showcased the artist's slick-talking, southern drawl on "I'm Gone" and "Sucka." His delivery could sound as hard as Gucci Mane or as smooth as the Dream, and represented two sides of the same hip-hop and R&B culture.
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"I can only talk about what I live," Alsina says. "I'm always going to stay true to myself. . . . Whether it's good or bad, I got to speak on it as long as I'm doing music."
It barely took a year for Alsina to follow up with The Product 2, which spawned the massive hit "I Luv This Shit," featuring fellow Atlanta resident Trinidad James. The celebratory, club-friendly track helped to put his name on the radar of plenty of hip-hop tastemakers, propelling him to the level of exposure he's at now. Within months of The Product 2's release, Alsina was a member of the Def Jam family, fine-tuning and polishing his sound.
As one of the labels's biggest prospects, Alsina continues to tour—he plans to follow this current U.S. run with another major tour—all the while holding onto his mantra: "You live every day to grow," he says, "and that's what it's about to me."