R&B singer August Alsina smiles when he recalls inviting his three nieces to a recent video shoot. "Put on your pretty dresses, and come through," he says.
Co-directed by Payne Lindsey, Alsina's "Downtown" video follows these girls, ages 4, 7, and 8, walking single file through a New Orleans cemetery. Their dresses white and puffy, hair loosely curled, and their eyes are huge. Alsina wanted them there for the same reason he moved from New Orleans to Atlanta in 2011 to pursue a career in music. Sitting at Midtown's 11th Street Studios, feet propped up on a table like a corner-office executive, Alsina remembers the exact date when his older brother Melvin LaBranch III was fatally shot in the head: Aug. 31, 2010. Taken from his debut album, Testimony, out April 15 via Def Jam, when Melvin would have turned 28, "Downtown" reconciles that day. Alsina peers into the eyes of a hostage as if he was responsible for the murder.
"Coming to Atlanta, it was probably the best decision I made for myself," Alsina says.
"Downtown," produced by Knucklehead and Carlos Cahee, and featuring Kidd Kidd, hints as much; to a mind-numbing crawl. Alsina sings of New Orleans with steely reserve: "People dying every day, that ain't nothing new when you're from downtown."
When he details how he found out, then wanted to exact revenge on his brother's killer, he sounds shaken by the odds.
One of his two managers, Henry J. Lee II, discovered Alsina through his YouTube covers before helping him settle in Buckhead. Like most young singers, as opposed to a cheating spouse trying to confess, a 15-year-old Alsina sounds hopeful in his 2007 rendition of Lyfe Jennings' "Hypothetically." He still rap-sings through harder truths, and his voice sounds honeyed in "I Luv This Shit," featuring Trinidad James, his debut Def Jam single that hit No. 1 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart in October.
The song also aches at the hook, delivering a crucial line: "Way too young to be living like this," Alsina sings, as if memories from his troubled New Orleans past — homelessness at 16, a dope-slinging past, his father's and brother's death — resurfaced in between puffs and drinks. They certainly inform Testimony's first single, "Make It Home," where Alsina lists some last wishes: Tell his mama that he loves her; take some money to his sister; leave flowers at his brother's grave. Through it all, he bears the same tough-guy yet world-weary attitude of the album's featured rappers Yo Gotti, Rick Ross, and Young Jeezy. "I know how it feels to be 21 and never have a pops, when the ones who were supposed to be role models were addicted to drugs," Alsina says, as if he hadn't turned 21 in September. He recalls a fan who coped with being shot 10 times by listening to "Downtown," while speculating that single mothers and soldiers can relate to "Make It Home." And he remembers the beloved strip-club fixture DJ Nando, who was killed the day before the song dropped, Jan. 15. "We can leave out of here right now, and the way this shit go, nigga just — BOOM, you're dead," he says. "It just happened with DJ Nando, a good guy, a hard-working guy just trying to get his."
Alsina speaks confidently, if not authoritatively of his newfound audience. When he talks of what else he's gained, though, he dials back. He doesn't quite remember the day "I Luv This Shit" topped Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart. "I think somebody just told me we were No. 1 and I was like, 'Oh shit. Cool. What's up with the next No. 1?'"
He has little to say of his opening slot for 2 Chainz's 2 Good to Be T.R.U. Tour, which kicked off Feb. 4. "I'm definitely gonna do my job," he adds. Alsina behaves cautiously, as if bracing himself for more bad news or learning to live one day at a time. According to him, he was just as careful when he explained "Downtown" to his nieces, why they spent that gray day walking past headstones and mausoleums. "When they get older, they can always go back and look at that, be like, 'Because of where my father is, that's what my uncle did,' and put it all together," he says. "It was definitely an unspoken thing, but they understood it."
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