Conversations with Cassie
The world takes time to warm up to you—longer in some cases than others. It’s taken Bad Boy songstress and former model Cassie nearly seven years to find her place in today’s soundscape. The singer, who released her biggest hit to date, “Me & U,” in 2006, has become something of a cult star for R&B’s new sound—but without actually being a part of it. The single, with its minimal electro beat helmed by former collaborator Ryan Leslie, changed the path of the genre in many ways. The underground hipster sound—heard today by The Weeknd, Jhene Aiko, Miguel, and even Drake—has been heavily influenced by the ’06 track in its pared-down aesthetics and production, which altered the tapestry of R&B monumentally. In the beginning of her music career, the singer faced harsh criticism for her whisper-like vocals; but she’s since garnered acclaim for her signature tone, much like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson before her.
So where has Cassie been since her debut? She’s released a few singles that never made the desired impact, made cameos in friends’ music videos, sang a couple hooks—and suddenly—she found herself explaining, “I’m not going to all of a sudden turn into Mariah Carey… I know I have to go with my tone and my vibe now for the new records… It takes people a little longer to get in to you when you have a distinct sound.”
Her first full-length release since the album comes as a mixtape released this week, titled Rock A Bye Baby. Unlike her debut, the project boasts features from hip-hop’s heaviest hitters, including Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, and French Montana, reflecting an evolved, significantly grittier sound. It stays true to her now-lauded transient affect: only amplifying her aggression lyrically while sticking to her atmospheric vocal style. It’s a treat for fans that have been waiting for a comeback for years. Through pushbacks and offsets, highs and lows, Cassie’s ready for her return to relevance and recaptures the vibe that put her on the map in the first place.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: We last heard from you when you released “King of Hearts” last year. What have you been up to since?
CASSIE: That was right around the time I started back up recording the second album. It was the second phase of trying to come back out. I would start up and stop again, change directions, and it would sound totally different. It was around when I was staying more time in LA. I kept my apartment in New York, until selling it, and moving to LA full-time this past summer.
HOLMLUND: Which city do you prefer?
CASSIE: I’m from the East Coast. Born and raised, from Connecticut, and being out in LA, the people are different.
HOLMLUND: What’s the difference between the two cities for you?
CASSIE: It’s definitely more laid back here. And I definitely spend a lot more time by myself living in LA, so, I’ve learned more in the past 10 or so months. It’s given me time to really focus, and that’s why I think it was possible to develop this project [Rock A Bye Baby] the way that we did. When I first moved here and before that, I was still in the phase of working on the second album.
HOLMLUND: You’ve heard this question asked a ton since your first release back in ’06, but never were really able to give one answer—because of pushbacks or whatever. Where is the second album? Your fans have been asking for years.
CASSIE: Oh, I know! The process since “Me & U”—if you had to start from the beginning—I moved labels [to Interscope], a lot of things changed; not just in the industry, but for me in general. I put out a few “feeler” singles and none of them popped off the way the label, or I, was hoping. It was all about getting a second album going, and none of the singles bubbled into anything we hoped for. It’s hard to get the label to really root for you when “Me & U” set me up for really high expectations… I was being pulled in so many different directions, I needed time. The time came when I moved to LA and all that energy, whether it was frustration or whatever—was reflected back onto this mixtape. Recently, I played the project for the label… and they were impressed. I think people really counted me out, especially the past couple years. And I knew how much I was counted out, but, I had never really taken the time to have all that sink in until I moved to LA. I hope if the mixtape does well, you’ll see a second album in the future.
HOLMLUND: It’s not as though we haven’t heard from you, though. You’ve been featured here and there… but not much has been of you solo.
CASSIE: Yeah, for instance, with “The Boys” record with Nicki Minaj—that was originally my own. It was mine and was one of my favorite records. I fought for that record so hard! I’ve had these little glitches along the way, just like I’ve had here and there, and that’s what’s made this project especially, much stronger as a whole.
HOLMLUND: What about “Official Girl” with Lil’ Wayne. Did that just not take off and, in turn, spawn the second album? It’s been one of the major conspiracy theories.
CASSIE: It was more that the support behind it wasn’t there. It was almost like the audience wasn’t ready. They hadn’t appreciated my sound for what it was. The two singles, “King of Hearts” and “Official Girl”—they were forward—and, I mean, that’s why they did better in Europe. Things have always done better for me in Europe. They’re more receptive to my sound as a whole. I think it was just wrong setting, wrong time, and not necessarily the wrong sound, but too forward of a sound.
HOLMLUND: During the time between your debut and this mixtape, people started to notice you for your style. Recently, however, there’s been a little backlash: especially with the videos for “Numb” and “Paradise.” It’s definitely not what people remember from the “Me & U” days, and people are questioning this more boyish, tough look.
CASSIE: People forget things so quick… they forget that I’ve been in this game for a while. At the beginning, it was very manufactured. They had me with specific stylists that created a look, and I think when I branched out and started doing stuff on my own, people started to take note. But honestly, with the hair[cut] and everything… that’s when my look started to take shape.
HOLMLUND: What about when people say that Rihanna and Rita Ora share your style?
CASSIE: I cut my hair like this years ago, and I’ve been on this style for a while. And I’ve always had my own flavor. I mean, it’s evolved, but it’s weird to me when people say we’re all copying each other… just because we wear the same brands. It’s like people don’t realize the same brands make the same clothes or something. I think I have my own little way of putting shit together, and I like it, and frankly, I don’t think it’s like anybody else’s. Everyone has their own perception of fashion, but I think the fact that we all sort of inspire each other is also important. Look at the ’80s, ’90s. Everyone was similar because of the trends, yet when all was said and done, everyone had their own thing. I think you’ll see we’re all individuals years from now.
HOLMLUND: When you first came out people were quick to peg you as the next Ciara, or Janet Jackson’s clone—especially since you came out with a dance-centric single and you danced in the video for “Me & U.” Nowadays, especially after seeing the new videos, people are wondering where the dancing went…
CASSIE: I think the mixtape’s been so organic that I’m kind of just letting the music breathe and speak for itself…. I want to exude the power of what my presence is on this project first and foremost. It’s not always about a “1, 2 Step.” I definitely will be dancing again. It’s important because I danced my whole life. This is probably the longest I’ve gone without dancing. I just feel like with this project, the music is such a vibe… “Numb” was actually the first record we recorded, and it’s totally a “zone.” The actual creative process for it was probably more exhilarating than anything else I’ve done. Actually coming up with this new sound for myself; that’s still kind of in the genre and tone of “Me & U,” but that’s also evolved, was really something that was important… I mean, I’m not going to all of a sudden turn into Mariah Carey, so I know I have to go with my tone and my vibe now for the new records.
HOLMLUND: It’s interesting that in the last three years or so, people have really rediscovered your sound as a whole, and maybe they’ve come to realize its influence… but what’s captured me has been the talk on music blogs signaling this shift. People now like your voice. It wasn’t as much like that when “Me & U” first dropped.
CASSIE: Yeah, it’s funny—people like my voice now! [laughs] I think people now know what I can and can’t do. What my true strengths are… and that’s been in the vibe. Those that have listened to the mixtape have all been like, “You’ve found your sound.” People recognize that finally. It took awhile, and it’s now starting to stick.
HOLMLUND: Janet Jackson did have two flopped albums before Control, so, it’s not uncommon for the love to come later.
CASSIE: Right! It takes people a little longer to get in to you when you have a distinct sound—especially if you’re not force-feeding singles to pop radio. I try to be as much of an enigma as I can… because I want to be present and have people know what my message is, but then again, I want that mystery. There’s a sensuality in the mystery that I think drives people to listen to my music. Whether it’s to just ride to, dance to, whatever…
HOLMLUND: This mixtape’s to ride to, get high to…
CASSIE: The visuals for “Numb,” you know; smoking in it and whatever sets it up as a vibe record. It creates a tone for what people might do to the record—just tune out… It’s cinematic.
HOLMLUND: How long did the mixtape take to create?
CASSIE: It’s literally the night before and we’re still in studio making transitions. We want it to be perfect! I’m still deciding on the cover art… which I colored on an app on my phone. And it comes out tomorrow. [laughs]
HOLMLUND: Whose career would you say you’d most like to have, when all is said and done?
CASSIE: I mean, its kind of cheesy, but… Beyoncé! We’re not the same in any way, but she did everything her way and then settled down and had a baby, and she’s happy. That’s what I’d love to have in the long run. She started younger than me, so, it’s not like we’re in the same playing field, but, her career is one I admire. I like the way that she’s grown into a woman in the industry and kept herself so grounded.
HOLMLUND: When did you first realize you were famous?
CASSIE: I think it was when I was living on both coasts. I still had my apartment in New York, and I had been in LA for an extended period of time. I had come back to the city, started packing things up… The next day I went out and it was like, I was getting stopped everywhere. I had never been stopped in the street before. At least not in New York! New Yorkers move quick. As soon as I spent more time in LA and returned to New York, it was like shit changed. People were all, “Cassie! Come take a picture!” And it wasn’t just paparazzi, it was real people. This, mind you, was only like two or three years ago, if you can believe it. [laughs]
HOLMLUND: Do you think it has anything to do with the hair?
CASSIE: I think it has a lot to do with the hair. But Rihanna has a similar cut now and she’s definitely more known, but people still recognize and spot me!
HOLMLUND: Now that people are back to buzzing about your music can you think of a song you wish you had as your own?
CASSIE: I would have loved to do something on the Drive soundtrack. “Tick of the Clock” is so my sound… “A Real Hero” on there is good, too. I had friends tell me they thought it sounded like me.
HOLMLUND: As a woman in hip-hop, how do you feel about misogyny in rap lyrics?
CASSIE: It’s hard. It’s what prompted a lot of the records I did for the mixtape. If you listen to the track, “Rock A Bye Baby,” I talk about blowing somebody’s head off, hopping in my Jeep and driving away… I got to play with my own aggressive side a lot on it, just as men do. Much of the record plays on that New Jack City vibe. It’s a harder side of me: I talk about bitches and money, just like guys. On “Take Care of Me,” I address what people have been saying about me over the years… Fauntleroy wrote it, because he knows everything I’ve been through. He helped me spit it back. A lot of the tracks are more personal than just being in the club. But there are also songs made for just wildin’ out.
Male rappers can get a little out of hand, but, when it’s a reversal and I turn it the other way, I ask all my bad bitches to the floor. On the song, “Bad Bitches”… it’s not like women won’t do the same thing they do dancing to A$AP’s “Fuckin’ Problems.” I throw a reversal on it to make it empowering. I definitely don’t believe in men degrading women, but they’re going to do it no matter what.