Before our interview has even begun, it’s apparent that something is different with Slaine. Mainly, it’s the fact that it’s 1 p.m. and the rapper and actor, whose preferred recording method has been to pull overnight marathon sessions from
8 p.m. to 8 a.m., is already at the Bridge Sound & Stage studios in Cambridge, working on tracks for the next LP by his group, La Coka Nostra.
In fact, everything about the creative process that has made Slaine, 36, born George Carroll, one of Boston’s most recognizable and successful hip-hop artists, has been overhauled in the last four months. Nowadays he hits the studio early, and works until he decides he’s finished for the day, having completed songs or not. When he can’t write what he wants to write, he leaves, because to stay would put far more in jeopardy than the quality of his next track. Four months and three days since proclaiming his sobriety, Slaine is putting everything else second.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” says Slaine — whose new solo album, “The King of Everything Else,” drops Aug. 19 — of his new approach to recording. “When I’m getting drunk and high, my brain is clicking at a fast pace, it’s manic, it’s antsy. I get like that when I’m sober, and if I can’t write what I want to write, I get frustrated and then I have to leave. I can’t risk being in that spot in my head.”
It’s somewhat jarring to discuss Slaine’s personal growth against the backdrop of his new album, a project that he describes as “my arrogance at its height.” Indeed, “King of Everything Else” reflects the uncompromising, darkly charismatic persona that he’s embodied since bursting onto the local scene on the strength of his 2005 mixtape, “The White Man Is the Devil, Vol. 1.” The title, a metaphor for cocaine, was an indicator of the visceral, unsparing approach to discussing drugs and hard living that would become his artistic calling card, and his personal M.O.
“It’s weird, because the obsession to drink and do drugs was so big with me, and I didn’t realize that,” says Slaine, who also played memorable supporting roles in Ben Affleck’s Boston-based dramas “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” “That’s kind of what I made a career out of doing, depicting that lifestyle. But I don’t think anyone can listen to my whole body of work and think I glorified it. It’s a complete picture: the depression, the suicides, the overdoses. This is part of that picture still.”
Though he had made previous attempts at detox, the situation came to a head over the course of several months beginning at the end of 2013. Reeling from a friend’s death and using heavily, Slaine saw his health begin to deteriorate, as well as his ability to perform live. Finally, on March 3, he stopped.
“I did a little tour run through the Colorado area,” he recalls. “The air was really thin, I couldn’t breathe on stage, I was forgetting my lyrics, and for the first time I felt like my skills were slipping. I just felt like everything was slipping away from me. I could always justify my use by saying this is who I am, my life is successful anyways. But I just felt like I had already beat the odds for so long with so many other things, it was almost disrespectful to myself, to my family, to everybody that died to keep on like that. There’s been plenty of other times when I’ve been down and out; this was just the time when I had enough of it. I had to surrender.”
Personal turmoil has always fueled Slaine’s creative endeavors, and his forthcoming music is no exception. Though the album was completed before he declared his sobriety, “The King of Everything Else” at times sounds like its author can feel the walls closing in around him. On the stark “Pissed It All Away,” he hints at an increased sense of responsibility (“I should watch what I’m saying because I’m reaching kids / but I’m drunk all the time and I speak what I live”). The closer, “Our Moment,” feels like a cathartic breakthrough, turning the page from dark past to brighter future.
“The only thing I can do when I make a record is just talk about my life as it is right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff to write about when you’re in recovery. I’m dealing with feelings that I’ve been suppressing for years. I had to redirect my defiance this time. That is one of the things that drives me. People think I can’t kick [drugs and alcohol]. I can’t get out of that life, I’m stuck, I’m trapped, I’ll never be able to beat it. That definitely drives me.”
The atmosphere inside the Cambridge studio is about as far away from that life as one could get. Slaine sips iced coffee as he jots down lyrics on his phone — a practice he adopted after losing too many notebooks over the years, another side effect of his struggles with addiction — then steps into the booth to record. As session engineer the Arcitype plays back his takes, vitriolic wit and raw hunger still echo in Slaine’s verses. But this time, the context is different. He’s still staring into the abyss with open eyes; he’s just taken a step back from the edge.
“I love my son more than anything in the world,” says Slaine, father to a 5-year old. “In my head, I used to think, I can’t do this unless I’m drinking and using. I had to get to a point in my head where I don’t care if it all falls apart. As long as I’m sober and I have a good relationship with him, that’s the only thing that’s important to me now. Whatever else, I still love doing this and I’m gonna do it in a different way, and if it doesn’t work, then I don’t give a [expletive].”