Stars feat. Nicholas Howard (Needlz & YZ)

Stars feat. Nicholas Howard (prod. by Needlz)

Both Stars and Paint the World were featured in the film Jamesy Boy.

This song just flew out of me. I fell in love with this beat from the moment Needlz sent it over. This song was so much fun because it got to really take me back to when I was a young, hungry artist. The first two verses were as much about my frustrations as John’s. See, John was experiencing this all for the first time, so he hans’t been tainted by the pitfalls of the industry the way I had been. What this song did was give John a depth and sense of wisdom that most artists on their first project couldn’t possess. He was mixing my jaded experience with his refreshing, optimistic spirit. It was an important song to have on the album.

The first verse, I pretty much nailed on one shot. I wrote it at Penn Station while waiting for my train home and recorded a quick version on my iPhone. I actually came up with a hook idea that I never finished and half of a second verse that we didn’t use. By that night, John had already recorded it and had it back to me. I wrote in all these little pauses into the verse to let the words resonate and let the beat breathe. I added a sing-songy flow to give the verses a dope melody:

No more begging people to post my –
songs, just to have these so-called critics expose my –
wrongs, and ignore my rights.
I guess they can’t see my vision, they got poor eyesight

It was just a way to keep the flow interesting and give John some more personality. He’s rapping about a disappointing topic – leaving music – but with a glass-half-full demeanor. It was important to capture the frustration, but also the satisfaction.

I don’t speak often enough about the talent that John shows in being able to create these songs the way he does. I know reading and listening to this, it seems like I do all the work. But music – REAL music – takes an entire team. Rihanna wouldn’t be Rihanna without her team. But her team wouldn’t be successful without Rihanna. I could’t have pulled off this album without John. Without his vision, without his ideas. He brought me the foundation for Sorry I’m Late. My responsibility was to take it to another level. Without John? You get “ninety-four” (my second solo album).

His ability to deliver my lyrics in a way that I can’t is extremely impressive. Not many people can do that. Plus, hip-hop is extremely competitive and ego filled. I truly admired his decision to allow me to take such control of some of these songs. A lot of artists would’ve refused to let someone else be as hands on, and in return, you would’ve gotten subpar music. Having worked with John since he was 15, he trusts me. Trusted me enough to let me write some of this music for him, trusting that it would help create the best project possible and help him learn and expand his experiences.

Back to the music. The second verse followed a similar path as the first, I just related his music to being in a play. I referenced how hip-hop fans all want to be artists now and it’s almost impossible to get anyone’s support.

I wrote about every dream
Every minute of my life
Every chapter
Every scene
Auditioning for the lead, memorized every page
But ended up in the audience, staring up at the stage.
Wishing it was me reciting all those lines with the audience so captivated,
listening to me.

I took a similar approach on the last verse, but focusing on his family. It ended up having a great deal of foreshadowing that I had hoped for, but didn’t expect to be so dead-on. The verse starts out with him apologizing to his daughters for putting music first. The verse talks about how he thought he was really doing this for them, but in reality, all they wanted was his time. It’s him wishing that he wasn’t drawn to music so much. That he could appreciate the simple joys of having a family. This verse – represented by the last official verse on the album (excluding the bonus tracks) – was significant because it was him getting to the end of the project before finally having this epiphany. It’s symbolic, especially because directly following the album’s completion, he decided he no longer wanted to pursue music and wanted to dedicate his time to his family. So that verse – that last, final verse – ended up being the perfect segue  for his exit.

I wanna say I’m sorry to my daughters
For not having my priorities in order
Not understanding all they really need was me
Wishing these ambitions would just leave us be
Wishing I was happy to be average
Instead of stressing what I never had or did
Enjoying every minute that I have to live
And satisfied with giving All I Got to Give.

I wonder, was this my introduction?
Or merely an interruption?

This song was originally done with the intent to have Colin Munroe on the hook. I had that idea from the very first time I heard it. I had been in contact with Colin and his manager for nearly a year trying to get him to do a record with us. We almost had it a few different times, but nothing 88-Keys had reached out to him as a favor to me and he agreed to feature on the song we were doing together, but that didn’t work out since the song changed. He was going to feature on a Frequency produced track that also didn’t pan out. When it was made clear that it wasn’t going to work out, I was fairly devastated. He was one of the few people I had really wanted to work with from the beginning – along with Joell and Marsha – and the only one I targeted that I couldn’t get. It was exceptionally frustrating because I knew him and his management. I offered up whatever financial compensation they would require and was even willing to pay this one out of my own pocket, since John was already WAY over budget. I wanted this so bad that I was willing to eat the cost myself. But it wasn’t about money. Colin was having some issues with his label and was on a mandatory blackout for the time being. Whether that’s the reason or not, I’ll never know. I remain in contact with his people and am still a huge fan, but that was the biggest disappointment and my only musical regret on Sorry I’m Late.

As they say though, everything happens for a reason. Unlike All I Got to Give, I WAS able to find a hook that I was happy with. I followed the same process, having numerous artists record ideas.

The intro for the song – “my grandma used to say to me”, was actually what I wrote for the original hook. It was going to be John rapping that hook and then him harmonizing the next four bars. It sounded good, too, but just not perfect. I felt it should be more emotional. I wanted a singer.

Next, I found an artist that I found on Facebook from Canada who I just fell in love with. His voice was actually very Colin-ish. He wasn’t known by any stretch, but had a great sound. I care about the quality of the music much more than I do about the gloss of the name. So I reached out. He was happy to work and loved the song. He sent over the idea and I loved it. The only thing was he repeated the chorus twice, so by the third time around, it lost it’s luster. I had asked him to switch it up a bit, which he reluctantly did. It sounded better, but still not in the pocket. I went back a third time with some ideas and he just kinda shut down. He said that this is a lot of work for him to be doing for a free project.

First off – he was an independent artist with no credits on his resume. This project would’ve been nice exposure for him. Having said that, I respect everybody’s time and talent. Never once did he ever suggest compensation. I would’ve been happy to have worked something out. But the fact that he only mentioned it afterwards – the fact that he was willing to go with an inferior song over a few dollars? It just turned me off to him completely. Again, it wasn’t about money. He could’ve had a conversation with me at any time. I just hated how he went about it. I decided to explore alternatives.

Needlz sent me over the hook that they had originally written. I liked it, it just didn’t capture the emotion that I was looking for. It was a dope hook, but just sounded like it was for a different song that the one that we had written.

I reached out to my go-to writer/singer Meylin who delivered yet ANOTHER great hook idea. The only thing was it was a little happy and I was looking for something more desperate and reflective. The album was so tragic that having an upbeat hook to close it out seemed out of place. And I also really preferred a male singer.

So I thought of my other good friend (and soon-to-be writing parter with Meylin) Nick Howard. Nick has such a unique sound. It was a lot different from the original idea I had, but that’s probably exactly what I needed. He got back to me with a great, great hook. It came down to him and the kid from Canada. I went back and forth for two weeks. The initial reaction from my brain-trust was almost exclusively to go with the Canada kid. But my instinct told me that it was a short-term fix and that his hook would get boring fast. I felt Nick’s would stand the test of time better. The other would’ve been better for a hot single, Nick’s would be better for an album.

My instincts were correct. I played it for my people and came back a couple of weeks later. And just as I had suspected, people had gotten tired of the Canadian hook. Nick’s sounded like a SONG. It was mature. He sounded like he had pain and experience in his voice. It just worked.

Once the song was wrapped up, I decided I wanted it to fall into an intro. I went in and had YZ play some instruments and keys on top to make it more musical and differentiate it from the rest of the song. We then sat down and wrote out his shoutouts. You’d never believe how much work goes into writing something that’s supposed to be so natural. Keeping it short enough that it isn’t something you skip and so it works musically. Not repeating the same things over and over. It’s a lot of work. I even wrote the “I told you my album would be better than yours” shout That was a real bet we had. When we started, he told me SIL would be better than ninety-four. I bet him a steak dinner at Peter Luger’s. I obviously had no idea he’d let me invest over $20k into his album (his original budget was about $1,500) or else I wouldn’t have agreed to the wager. It was one that I was happy to lose, however. He blew ninety-four out of the water.

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