• Courtesy of Frank Leone
  • Frank Leone

Last night 19-year-old rapper Frank Leone released his debut full-length, Enter Wild; it’s free, like most mixtapes today (except Drake’s latest), and it’s got the same lush, immersive quality that makes the best mixtapes resemble studio albums. But Leone calls Enter Wild an album, and the spirit and dynamics fit the definition. Leone produced all of Enter Wild on a laptop, recorded his vocals with a cheap microphone, and sought vocal contributions from artists overseas and in Chicago—local MCs Monster Mike and Saba show up, as does poet and activist Malcolm London.

Leone moved to town last year from downstate Illinois. Chicago hangs in the shadows on Enter Wild, but the strongest presence and influence on Leone’s album is Allerton Park, a nice plot of nature that sits a stone’s throw away from where the MC grew up. Leone embraces the earth on Enter Wild, which he describes as a journey through the forest.

I got an early preview of the album when I met up with Leone a few weeks ago at a studio run by local producer Professor Fox. After listening to key cuts such as “Toad Vision” and “Redeye(s)” I asked Leone about his new work, living in Chicago, and becoming a lone rap wolf in a small town.

Leor Galil: You described Enter Wild as an action-adventure [album]. Why?

Frank Leone: I want to set that tone for the listener. It’s more of an album because it’s all original production; it’s a full-length. And I want people to experience some wild things that they’ve never heard before.

How long have you been working on this?

The first beat I made for it was in July of 2012.

And you started working on it before you came to Chicago?

Yeah, I came to Chicago in August of last year.

What’s the name of the town you grew up in?

It’s Monticello, aka “the ‘Cell.”

What was your experience starting as a rapper-producer in this particular town before coming to Chicago? What was your environment like and how did it affect your work?

It was bizarre, I think. Because no one I knew, growing up, would expect a rapper to come out of a 5,000-person farm town in the middle of nowhere. But I think a cool thing that came out of that was most of my friends didn’t listen to—don’t listen to—rap.

There was a decent amount of people at school who did, but it made the first people to listen to my music pretty heavy critics of it. They were pretty harsh because they aren’t gonna like it unless it really stands out as something else. So it kind of helped give me a good audience initially that was like, “Well, if you’re gonna do this, you’d better do a pretty good job because it’s coming out of the middle of nowhere and it’s not very likely you’re gonna make it.”

What kind of music were your friends listening to?

FL: Man, they have terrible taste—no I’m kidding. I don’t know, they vary. A lot of them just listen to the standard radio stuff like Coldplay and junk like that. Coldplay is good [laughs]; in fact, there’s a Coldplay sample on this album. But they listened to stuff like that and Pink Floyd. Generic teenage rock music.

Kid Cudi was popular in my town though, so that was cool. And I like to think I introduced the Chicago side of hip-hop to the ‘Cell as well.

At what point did you start to develop your own interest in hip-hop and exploring that as a musician?

That was Kanye. I was working at a summer camp the year of 2010 and I had asked my friend to put me on some rap because I was interested in it. He told me, The College Dropout, and I kind of fell in love with it that summer. It just so happened that Kanye’s first GOOD Friday series happened after that, which is my favorite Kanye of all time. Then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped, which is one of the biggest influences on my sound ever. It was like, a month after that that I started rapping.

Why did you seek out rap? Were you like, “Yeah, this is something that I’m making the decision that I want to listen to now.”

I liked the storytelling—I thought it was interesting. I liked the techniques and just the sound and the flow of people’s voices. The intricacies of it were really interesting to me. There’s not really, I guess, a reason. It just gives a certain feeling, when people hit the flow just right.

At what point did you find that you were able to hit your flow just right and carve out what is now your voice?

Immediately I thought I was hot at what I was doing when I was not. I was working on it a lot but I really didn’t start taking it seriously until like . . . I think it was late summer of 2011 when I ran into Vic Mensa at a Lupe show down there. He was in Kids These Days at the time and I had just discovered them.

I was like, very excited to see him because I had just been listening to their music all summer. And I went up to him. I had actually rapped over one of their songs, “Be,” and sort of remixed it. I got his e-mail, I sent it to him, and he hit me back pretty quickly. He said like, “This is cool, you’ve got a lot of skill.” That was the moment when I started thinking, “Maybe I should try this for real.”

As you’ve grown, how has he influenced your style?

Early on Kids These Days as a whole really influenced my sound—just the way they could blend all these genres that you don’t normally hear together but, when you do hear it together, it just sounds right almost . . . to me at least.

My biggest influences have been Odd Future—like Tyler, the Creator is my number one favorite artist ever. So I really look up to just the things he was bold enough to say, and just the style of music±the jazz chords and everything—just hit me very poignantly at a very nice time. Lauryn Hill had a big influence. Nas.

I think the biggest influence was early on with Kids These Days, Tyler, Earl Sweatshirt . . . Earl Sweatshirt is the reason I started to try rapping above-average. And Lupe, Kanye, people like that.

You mentioned Kids These Days in your premixtape mix. You’ve got Kids These Days on there, you’ve got Tyler, you’ve got Phantom of the Opera.

Phantom of the Opera was a huge influence on Enter Wild. I got really lucky that we took a school trip there for band, I think, freshman year of high school. And we saw them live on Broadway and it just changed my world. If I hadn’t see that, I probably wouldn’t have made this album.

Why’s that?

The grandiose nature of it; the music just hit me really nicely. Especially that opening overture, just the way the organs played out; just this epic, dark, and mysterious feel. I don’t know, it just hit me right. A very important experience to have, I think.

You sample Les Miserables on the album. How has your interest in theater expanded since that breakthrough? How has it worked its way into your music?

I’ll be honest, I was interested in theater before music. I was doing that stuff in high school. I think just because of that it wasn’t a stretch for me just trying to pick something new—I just genuinely enjoyed it. I think that’s why it works so well weaving into the music I make now.

You mentioned Lupe, you mentioned Kanye, you mentioned Kids These Days—all Chicago artists. What is your relationship to this city—especially coming from a downstate town and moving up here—how has your relationship to it changed as you worked on this album?

It’s a love-hate relationship, that’s for sure. The love part of it would say—even just working remotely from my own hometown—just the culture. And the amount of interest not only in the musicians, but also in the people who want the musicians to be heard. If it weren’t for them . . . like, I’m from Monticello, and I know everyone. Every blog will say . . . I make sure to put I’m from the woods near Chicago . . . they peg me as a Chicago rapper. I’m not a Chicago rapper, but it’s because of Chicago that if this ever really takes off, that’s why.

So the scene itself is so competitive and there’s so much good music, and daring and original things coming out of the city. It just pushes you to be as “you” as possible, because otherwise you’re gonna get lost.

I don’t like living in the city though. I don’t like all the buildings and the lack of stars and trees. But I think that the culture surrounding the city is just unreal. It’s really cool.

At the end of the album, “Redeye(s),” you have Malcolm London naming off people who were killed in November 2014—that was almost every homicide?

Yeah. It’s a touchy subject for someone who hasn’t personally been around it. I’ve only witnessed Chicago’s violence a couple of times and I hope to never witness it again. But all of my friends up here, there are just too many stories of people who have just become numb to it happening around them—to their families, to their brothers and sisters.

I don’t think just because you aren’t there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t voice your support, as long as you’re not speaking on it like, “This is what’s happening to me.” Because it’s not happening to me and I’m very grateful for that. But it’s happening to so many people I know that it wouldn’t feel right not to at least say, “This sucks.”

What other ways do you approach that in, not only your music, but just your livelihood being here and working on your music up here?

Well, you know where not to go. From a musical perspective, you need to make it clear that it’s what you know from others, and what you hear and the people around you, and just to focus on that. Just be true [about] how it’s affecting you. It’s affecting those around me, so that’s what I’ll be speaking about and I phrase it like that.

People just have a different attitude in Chicago. You can’t be a loudmouth. There are certain types of artists that come from different areas of the country that couldn’t have come from Chicago because there’s a certain level of cautiousness in what you say and who you talk about just for a matter of safety. It’s still a dangerous city. If I ever get big or whatever, I don’t want people coming to me asking about Chicago violence because I’m not the right person, you know? I’m just the bystander who understands it’s a bad situation.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.