Ben Burden on the cover of his debut, the EP Concrete Maze Credit: Transmental

In fall 2014, Ben Burden had reached a crux in his collegiate soccer career at High Point University in North Carolina—as a junior, the starting midfielder knew he’d soon have to choose whether to pursue the sport professionally. A torn meniscus would end up making the decision for him, though, and after his injury the former high school All-American sank into a dark place.

Burden felt betrayed by his coaches, who met with him multiple times, fishing for ways to end his scholarship. He remembers them complaining about his poor grades, but he says he had a 3.5 GPA. “It became clear that it had to do with my injury,” he says. In December 2014, he left behind his best friends and transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he planned to finish his philosophy degree. Frustrated and lonely, questioning his identity as an athlete and as a person, he picked up a pen and returned to his childhood passion—music.

“See, I’m not the man I used to be / I done seen a lot of things / I was once a moral being / This world done made a mess of me.” Burden didn’t yet know it when he wrote those lines—some of the first lyrics he came up with after leaving High Point—but they’d soon become lyrics to the title track off his forthcoming debut EP, Concrete Maze.

Burden recorded four songs in North Carolina (and played one more season of college soccer) before dropping out of UNC Greensboro in April 2016 and moving to Chicago that same month. Here he found camaraderie with fellow artists who didn’t know him as a soccer player but only as a talented singer and songwriter—a fellowship that helped him feel secure enough to shed the hypermasculine persona of an athlete and tap into his vulnerabilities in his music.

“Chicago, to me, is just this place where we can create and be free and just be completely open to trying new things. That’s what matters most to me.”

—Ben Burden

“I think in coming to Chicago, you’re looking for an identity. I think LA and New York have such an identity already,” Burden says. “And you can get eaten alive by those places by other things that have nothing to do with music.” Those “other things” include the drugs, parties, and similar sand traps that so many artists have pointed to as distractions from their creativity—Chance the Rapper recently addressed those dangers in the Coloring Book track “Same Drugs.”

Burden was drawn to Chicago in part by the reputation of Classick Studios, the west-side talent magnet where Chance, Eryn Allen Kane, Saba, and many others have recorded. He’d gotten in touch with in-house engineer Bryan “Kawaakari” Schwaller through Jeff Lamonte, a childhood friend in North Carolina whose home studio he’d used to make his first four songs. He visited Classick in March, before his move, laying the groundwork for the sessions where he’d cut the last three of the seven tracks on Concrete Maze.

“Chicago, to me, is just this place where we can create and be free and just be completely open to trying new things,” he says. “That’s what matters most to me—not focusing on ‘I’ve got to meet this producer or get my album to this person.’ What matters most to me is making the best music possible. Chicago allowed me to do that.”

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Video by Morgan Elise Johnson

Concrete Maze is a coming-of-age tale, and its musical explorations mirror Burden’s search for acceptance and identity. At its core the EP is a fusion of hip-hop and R&B (Burden sings as well as raps), but it ranges widely within that territory, incorporating hints of blues, jazz, and southern rap, experimenting with unconventional song structures, and moving between aggression and tenderness.

Burden’s struggle has been about more than whether to make music or play soccer. Born Benjamin Robert Harold Burdon to a white father and black mother, the 22-year-old moved at age 12 from his native California to Salisbury, North Carolina, because his family wanted to be closer to relatives. In this new environment, people foregrounded his blackness in a way he’d never experienced before.

He’d already heard the word “nigger” plenty of times, but when it came from his black cousins on family trips to Memphis, it was playful. Within a week of moving to Salisbury, though, an older white neighbor hurled the slur at Burden for riding a bicycle on his lawn. It was the first time he’d heard it used as a weapon. “There’s no weight behind that word until you hear it in a negative way,” he says. At the same time, his cousins in Memphis and New Orleans poked fun at him for talking like a white guy—though because of his California roots, they usually said he sounded “like a surfer.”

Burden grew up singing tenor in a statewide chamber choir, but in high school he also made music of his own. “When I moved to the south, it made me appreciate rap,” he says. “I was a huge 8Ball & MJG fan. That’s what the region was playing.” At age 16, he met producer Mark Sparks, best known for working with R&B A-listers such as Anthony Hamilton and Jodeci (and who’d cofounded the short-lived Soulife Records in 1998). Burden was at a Lamonte family cookout, and the two buddies played some of their own music for the party. Sparks asked to hear more. “He was like, ‘I’m going to give you a couple of beats,'” Burden recalls. “‘If you can write to one tonight, if you can record it in the next few days, send it to me.’ He loved what he heard.”

Sparks became a mentor to the budding musicians. He later invited Burden to an apartment party in North Carolina to meet Jodeci. “I didn’t even really know who they were when I walked in,” Burden says. “They asked me to sing something.” The group wanted Burden to join them on an old-school R&B song—something like Marvin Gaye, he says. “Afterwards, I went to the back room and just started writing.”

When he took up music again in college, though, Burden worried that North Carolina would stifle him—that he wouldn’t find his audience, or that he’d feel pressure to adopt a less adventurous sound than he wanted to. Sure, Charlotte is a relatively progressive city, but to Burden it seemed like the only hip-hop getting regular radio play there were Atlanta-­influenced trap tunes.

“I remember I was listening to Chance the Rapper around 10 Day, and just seeing people hating it,” Burden recalls. From what he could tell, North Carolina didn’t get on the Chance train till he’d become a national celebrity—culminating in seven Grammy nominations this year.

“North Carolina is very late to the party,” he says. “That’s the one thing about moving to Chicago. Chicago is very liberating. In North Carolina, you do anything out of the norm, it can be hated on pretty hard.”

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The title track of Concrete Maze

Concrete Maze is definitely out of the norm, right down to its artwork. Burden poses nude, seated in profile with a large blood-red cross cradled across his lap. The image evokes vulnerability in a way that’s reminiscent of a Prince album cover. He and some friends built the cross themselves this spring from wood they’d bought at Home Depot, carving a maze design into the entire surface and painting it gold for contrast. The idea for the cover had been in Burden’s mind for a while, but getting naked in front of his friends for the photo shoot turned out to feel a lot different to him than undressing with the team in a locker room. “It added weight to the cover,” he says. “This is me venturing out in front of the whole world.” The photographer turned on Future’s “Stick Talk” to help everyone feel comfortable.

“It just breaks free from all of those restraints, beliefs of who I am as a person, and resets everyone,” Burden says. “That’s the only thing I wanted. It’s not even me trying to say I’m Jesus. That’s the farthest thing from it. It’s really just me bearing the burden of who I am and who I’ve figured out that I am.” He changed his last name from “Burdon” to “Burden” to further separate his legacy as an athlete from his new identity as a musician.

Ben Burden, Chelsea Reject, the Other Eric, Yomi, DJ Elliven
Release party for Burden’s Concrete Maze and part of the monthly hip-hop series All Smiles. Thu 1/26, 8 PM, Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, $8, 21+

The seven tracks on Concrete Maze stray far from the staccato trap music that’s trendy today. The four songs recorded before Burden’s move to Chicago are relatively aggressive, and they bear more of Sparks’s R&B influence. On the three from Classick Studios, Burden is subtler, showing confidence in his voice and the direction of his art. Throughout the EP he makes frequent use of plush, layered vocal harmonies. The record was mastered by engineer Mike Bozzi, who did the same job for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Burden’s friend Benjamin Agresti, a producer from North Carolina, came to Chicago with Burden to help him finish Concrete Maze—he moved into Schwaller’s basement.

Burden credits Schwaller, who mixed all seven songs, for encouraging his alternative approach to hip-hop. “Brian just reassured me that [the music] is really good,” he says. “I remember when we was working in North Carolina and wondering, ‘Is this even good?’ Because the sound there is so much different.”

Chicago artists regularly earn headlines for their groundbreaking work, and Burden is a transplant and an unknown—but he doesn’t feel intimidated by the difficulty of making a name for himself here. In fact, he finds it encouraging that the music flowing from the city demonstrates so much variety and innovation. It proves that Chicago doesn’t mean just drill music—something that many outsiders still believe—or even Chance the Rapper’s gospel-­infused hip-hop. There are so many more sounds here, Burden points out, mentioning Smino (a fellow transplant, albeit from Saint Louis), Mick Jenkins, and Ravyn Lenae. He hopes his own distinctiveness enriches the melting pot.

“There are incredible artists coming out of here with their own sounds, and I think they’re all finding success—and that’s the thing that’s very unique to the city,” Burden says. “Now, I’m closer to who I knew I always was. Someone that isn’t afraid to take risks and stick to them. Someone who tries to be completely original in anything he does.” v

Update: This story has been amended to address Benjamin Agresti’s role in the production of Concrete Maze.