Cordae and Michael B. Jordan’s Guide to Building a Legacy
Like so many rappers of his generation, Cordae was forged online. Emerging in 2018 as part of the the YBN hip-hop collective, whom he met on the internet, the Maryland native, born Cordae Amari Dunston, turned the flashes of promise he showed on his potent viral hit “Old N***as”—a clapback against some disrespectful rap elders—into a full-blown music career. Already one of the more thoughtful lyricists to emerge in the last few years, Cordae turns up the introspection on his sophomore album From a Bird’s Eye View, a collection of songs that showcase his timeless flow alongside some pandemic-induced personal growth. He recently connected with his friend, the actor and filmmaker Michael B. Jordan, to discuss breaking bad habits and the road to legendary status.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: Congratulations, my G.
CORDAE: Appreciate you doing this with me. I’m honored and privileged as always.
JORDAN: I love this stuff! The album that I had the honor of listening to about a year ago, you didn’t even have a title for it at that time. So where did From a Bird’s Eye View come from?
CORDAE: It means seeing things from a broader lens, an outside perspective. As human beings, we tend to all have main-character syndrome. Let’s say you and I were to have an argument. It’s easy to say, “Man, fuck Mike! He’s on some bullshit!” But to see things from a bird’s eye view is to be like, “Okay, I can understand how he got offended because of this. I was wrong in this situation because of that.” And I found myself going through that. I was calling people, apologizing for shit I did like six months ago, that they didn’t even realize was a thing.
JORDAN: That’s evolution. We can get so caught up in our own perspective, “Me, me, me. I, I, I.” It’s always good to step back and see how your actions or your words affects other people. Because everybody’s not going to receive things the same way. I think the evolution from your first album to this one shows growth.
CORDAE: I’m a little nervous, but true faith is having no fear of the unknown. I’ve reached a place of confidence in my music where I’m like, “lf you don’t like this album, you just have poor taste.”
JORDAN: That leads me to a good question. How are you going to measure the success of this album? Is it awards? Charts? Social media and streaming?
CORDAE: Awards are a beautiful thing. Whether we acknowledge it or not, something deep down inside of us wants to be recognized for our art. But the number-one way I measure impact is how it makes people feel. When I’m out at the mall or grocery store, and people come up to me and be like, “Yo man, that album saved my life. This one song got me out of a dark place. That shit was relatable as fuck.” That’s like 30 Grammys to me.
JORDAN: I feel that.
CORDAE: Another way I measure success is when I’m on tour. Numbers can be skewed very easily, especially within the music industry. There’s artists that will do like 200,000 streams in the first week, but they can’t sell out Webster Hall. A fan can love you so much that they can go to sleep and press play on your album and repeat it all night just to spike up your numbers. I’m not saying everyone is doing that, but you can’t fake the support you get at a live show. People gotta get out of their house, get in the car, drive, and pay money to actually come see you. Same way, when you drop a film and it does these incredible numbers in theaters, people have to put in the energy and effort to support you.
JORDAN: It’s easy to love me at home, but it’s a different thing when you’re making a night out of it. It’s a different type of appreciation. Do you pay attention to trends when you’re making music or are you after something timeless? Or is it a mixture of both?
CORDAE: I look at everything as legacy-based. I hate doing something that’s fly now, and then three years later it’s not fly no more. It’s a balance between recognizing the times we’re in, but still being timeless and positioning yourself for the long game. I’ve seen cats that were the hottest of the hot. Number one, everybody’s talking about them, and then a year-and-a-half later, they’re a lot less prevalent. They squandered their long-term play by overfeeding into the trends. I trying to be on some hall-of-fame shit.
JORDAN: You sound like an alchemist, looking at all the ingredients and formulas, and putting something together.
CORDAE: Let me ask you something real quick.
JORDAN: This ain’t about me! I ain’t letting you do that.
CORDAE: Just one question!
JORDAN: Okay, what?
CORDAE: Your catalog is immaculate. From The Wire to Fruitvale. Were you always very particular with what project you decided to be in, or when you came up, were you just like, “Whatever I can do to just get in the game.”
JORDAN: In the beginning, I was so young that I was just trying to get my feet wet.
CORDAE: Get the reps up.
JORDAN: Yeah. I was doing background work. Wasn’t no lines, no nothing. I was definitely the token Black kid around that time. And then it just evolved from that into auditions for commercials, and this and that. I’ve always been blessed to be surrounded by a lot of guidance, and veterans that knew a lot more than me that were able to nudge me in the right direction. Acting is tough, because you can get famous or known way before you’re financially stable.
CORDAE: For sure! Same with music.
JORDAN: So sometimes that puts pressure on you to take roles in order to keep the momentum going, but that may not be the right thing for you, legacy-wise. I got lucky enough to do a lot of that work when I was so young, that it didn’t really carry over until like, say, in my teens. Once I became a teenager, doing Hardball and then The Wire allowed me to grow and learn in a good environment, but still progress and level-up from project to project. And then, you get to a point where you gotta be patient. The biggest thing for me is, you’re defined by what you say no to.
CORDAE: Absolutely. It makes your “yes”’s worth more.
JORDAN: When you create music, what’s your setup? How do you create a vibe? I remember a couple times, you were taking a trip, and I saw you had your speakers set up, your laptop there, so you could catch a vibe. How do you create your environment to write music?
CORDAE: I try to bring the studio everywhere I go. When I go back home for Christmas or Thanksgiving, I have a little small setup at my mom’s house. If I’m in New York for an extended period of time, I just bring the setup in the hotel room. If I move to a new house or something, the first thing I’ll do is put a studio up in that bitch. When I got my first piece of money, the first thing I did was buy a little small makeshift studio, because it’s an investment. It’s a stock that’s just going to always multiply.
JORDAN: And you can write that off.
JORDAN:That’s your place of business! That’s a write-off. Just wanted to throw that in there.
CORDAE: I appreciate that, too. But honestly, I just need some damn speakers, some earphones, and peace and quiet. What I do now is, I lock my phone up in this little vault I’ve got in the studio. And I got this other phone that don’t have no service, no internet, no nothing. And I just write on that. Because the phone is a magnificent thing, but it’s also terrible because it has so many capabilities. I just gotta lock that thing in a way to stay focused.
JORDAN: If you ain’t got discipline, you ain’t got nothing.
CORDAE: I’ve been trying, but sometimes it don’t be working too good. I ain’t even gonna sit here and lie. Sometimes, you just get a damn itch! You’re like, “Man, I gotta tap in!” But for the most part, I try to stay locked in. Because I had a PS5 which I had to unplug. It’s just fucking dangerous, especially in these early stages of my career It will be a disservice to myself and the world if I let a Playstation, or Instagram, or Twitter, take up too much of my time.
JORDAN: I got my Playstation in the closet. Literally in the closet. Like, all the way in the back. I make it difficult and uncomfortable for me to go and play that game. Sometimes I need to go get on Call of Duty, and get that little mental break.
CORDAE: For sure, a little bit of dopamine!
JORDAN: Just a little bit! So you’re 24 and extremely focused. Who do you have around you? Is it the same people when you were younger? How has your circle changed as you’ve gotten older and more successful?
CORDAE: I try to keep as many day-ones around me as possible. The ones that are ready for this shit. Early on, I was like “I’m trying to bring the whole hood with me.” But I learned that’s not really the proper way to move in business and everybody ain’t necessarily prepared for this lifestyle. So I was able to go through friends of mine that I grew up with and be like, “You’re naturally skilled at this thing. So let’s bring you on the road. You’re a great people-person and you’re organized, so you’re gonna be my road manager.” My other homie Ian is really dope with clothes and style. “Okay, bet. You got creative direction, and you style shit.” That’s the people around me that I went to high school with. And also, you build your own tribe within the space of entertainment. There’s a whole lot of fake love, a whole lot of inorganic shit. But when you connect with like-minded individuals that’s on the same sort of divine kinsmanship, as I call it, you continue to build your tribe based on that. Because you find out, especially through this entertainment shit, who really fucks with you, and who’s just fucking with you out of convenience, impure intentions, all type of shit. And I had to learn that shit! It took a minute for me to truly get that. But honestly, I keep the circle tight. If I fuck with you, I fuck with you the long way. I’d take a bullet for you. You know what I’m saying?
JORDAN: Yup. When it comes to protecting your space and your energy, what do you do when you’re alone? Because I love my alone time. As much as I’m with people and I got so many things going on around me, I need my alone time, to be able to get my thoughts together, to be in my own weirdness, to be able to be in my own shit. What’s that like for you?
CORDAE: You hit it right on the money. Alone time is essential. That’s when you’re able to be thorough and honest with yourself, and be able to look at things with a clear conscience, without any outside opinions. So when I’m alone, I do all types of shit, but what I’ve been getting into the habit of doing now is reading. I just read this book, Atomic Habits. I don’t know if you’ve read it.
JORDAN: I got that book right in the other room, bruh.
CORDAE: That shit is life changing! What it teaches is to make your good habits visible and easy to access, and make your bad habits inconvenient and impossible to get to. It’s putting that Playstation away and locking that shit up in the closet.
CORDAE: Like you said, it’s a balance. Because as creatives, we gotta live. I gotta go to the club, because I need that energy for those hyper records. But I’m a machine when I’m alone. A straight killer. That shit is everything to me.
JORDAN: I love hearing that shit. Atomic Habit is about getting incrementally better every day.
CORDAE: I love that book, man. For real. It’s priming your environment. Your habitat forms your habits! And I was already doing this subconsciously, without knowing the actual science and neurology behind it. Like I said before, wherever I am, I’m putting a studio there, and in my studio I got like five whiteboards, dry-erase whiteboards. And I see a bunch in your background as well.
JORDAN: You already know, bro!
CORDAE: We killers, bro!
JORDAN: I love it. You know we’d be on these solo journeys sometimes. Sometimes it’s good to just get reinforcement and confirmation of things that you’re naturally doing, or things that you feel like is the right way to do things. It’s confirmed, like, “Okay cool. I am on the right path, this is how I should be doing things. I should be whiteboarding it up. Mood boards, dry erase boards. You gotta create your environment. If I walked you around this room right now, you would see nothing but the movie. That’s all it is. Cause I don’t want to look in one direction or another, and not see something that I should be thinking about. Or at one point or another. I want my environment to be that, cause that’s what it is when you walk in here.
CORDAE: Yo, when I’m in Atlanta, and after I take 30 tests, to pull up on my boy. I gotta see that. Cause I just know that shit gonna inspire me like crazy. You just a straight up killer, bro. That mentality is something that inspires me, for real. Cause I can’t be no damn puppy hanging around no killers. My brother a killer, I gotta be a killer, too.
JORDAN: Aye man, listen. You inspire me. Seeing your hunger and your focus and drive, it confirms that this is how this thing called life is supposed to go.
Assistant Stylist: Lauren Aguilar
Hair Stylist: Anesto Anguiano
Makeup Artist: Jackilyn Martinez
Production: Born Artists
Location: Larrabee Studios