If You Know You Know
After half a decade of making hits, O.T. Genasis is finally ready to tell his story.
Words: Eric Ducker
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
The bright lights turn off and the black lights turn on and under that low purple glow, O.T. Genasis gets ready to bowl his first frame of the day. It’s just past 3 p.m. and Pinz in the San Fernando Valley is empty except for O.T. holding down lane No. 1. He lines himself up and then lets the ocean-blue ball loose. For a brief moment, it veers towards the gutter before spinning back to the center, knocking down nine pins. On his next roll, he picks up the spare with nonchalance.
Over the course of this warm-up game, as disco cheese from the Village People and pop punk from All-American Rejects blares from the speakers, O.T. calculates how much wax is still on the lane’s wooden slats and which direction the ball is leaning as it speeds down them. He picks up four more spares and two strikes, ending with a respectable score of 144.
O.T.’s Hugo Boss slides rest under the lane’s hard plastic seats, as he wears a pair of the alley’s standard Cobra rental shoes—brown and green with a thick velcro strap. He left his personal bowling shoes in his truck, along with his two bowling balls. O.T. rattles off the high scores he’s racked up when he uses his own gear, “297, 284, 291…” A couple of years ago, he and his friends started coming to Pinz just to hang out and party, but then they began taking the sport seriously and showing up all the time. Sometimes he’d blow off going to the studio just so he could work on his game. He says he’s thought about joining their league night, but he still spends too much of the year out on the road.
Over the course of the afternoon, familiar security guards and staff members stop by to ask O.T. how he’s been. After he orders a round of Don Julio Reposado shots with slices of oranges, he asks, “You know why they’ve got Don Julio Reposado here, right?” The waitress gives him a sly smile as he savors the dramatic pause. “Because of me.”
It turns out that being a talented, dedicated bowler is just one more thing that people don’t know about O.T. Genasis, despite how long his music has been in their lives.
O.T. has been making hits for five years. That’s basically a lifetime when it comes to hip-hop. His breakout song, “CoCo,” got a hyperboost at the end of 2014 after Marreese Speights, then a member of the Golden State Warriors, posted videos of the team blasting it on the plane every night in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. Then the league got hip to what the song was about and told them to stop. That was way back when the Warriors were the NBA’s beloved upstarts—before the Lineup of Death crystalized, before the formation of the Hamptons Five, before their chance to become basketball’s greatest dynasty ruptured like Kevin Durant’s Achilles. Those dudes catching O.T.’s vibe in a private jet hadn’t even won a championship yet. That’s how long people have been hollering, “I’m in love wit da cooooo-cooooo!”
After “CoCo,” many people expected O.T. to be a one-hit wonder and disappear back to wherever he came from, but then more hits kept coming: the hypnotic throb of “Cut It,” the unhinged trap rantings of “Push It,” the strip club candy of “Thick” and the victorious swagger of “Everybody Mad.” That last one got a boost when Beyoncé danced to it during her instantly legendary performance at Coachella in 2018, which was repackaged and distributed by Netflix in April 2019 as Homecoming. O.T. had a show of his own in North Carolina on the night of Bey’s debut performance. He had no idea about her plans until his phone started blowing up on the way to the afterparty. “I always tell myself, If nobody like my shit, [at least] Beyoncé like my shit,” he adds after finishing his third game at Pinz. “That’s good enough for me.”
Even with this ability to remain in the public’s consciousness, O.T. still hasn’t released an official album. That’s supposed to change this fall with his long-promised debut, Alarm. He picked the name (years ago, actually) because he thinks it will make listeners finally wake up to his talent and musical capability. The truth is that people have been preemptively hitting the snooze button on him for years.
At the start of this decade, 50 Cent signed O.T. to G-Unit Records, but he was dropped before he could prove himself. Busta Rhymes soon scooped him up for his The Conglomerate Entertainment imprint through Atlantic Records. O.T. got some buzz off the track “Touchdown,” but was in danger of being dropped again before he put out the gritty as fuck video for “CoCo” himself. As the song took off, folks at the label saw the heights that he was capable of hitting and changed course.
“His ability to come up with these distinct choruses that everyone can sing along to and are a little unconventional but simple, that’s a unicorn trait that not many songwriters and rappers know how to do,” says Rigo “Riggs” Morales, VP of A&R and Artist Development at Atlantic Records. “His ability to do that is unparalleled.”
O.T. has his own explanation about why he has such a high conversion rate from single to smash record. “My ear for music is crazy,” he conveys. “I listen to country. I listen to pop. I listen to a lot of dancehall music. I’ll listen to just dance music. I’ll listen to techno. I know a lot of shit that people don’t know. A lot of people just make music. I’m listening. I’m not just making chants; I’m listening to my pockets. I’m listening to where I breathe, where I don’t say something, where I’m making my voice an instrument.”
Asked if after enduring delay upon delay he ever considered leaking Alarm himself, just like he’d done for the “CoCo” music video, he maintains, “I did, but for the wrong reasons. Because what we often do as artists is we be like, ‘Yo, we got to go get the bag.’” O.T. has stayed paid by embracing a demanding touring schedule, including stints opening for Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa. So, with money not being a pressing concern, he’s been able to realize not just the importance of patience, but knowing when’s the right time to act. He’s also surprisingly candid about what he still needs to work on as an artist.
If there is a persistent knock on O.T.’s career, it’s that fans don’t really have a sense of who he is. There’s no story, attitude or stylistic idiosyncrasy that defines him. When your music can be everything to everybody, you’re not specifically anything to anybody. “I’ve seen where I’ve lacked, where I can grow—and that’s as simple as people knowing who I am and what I deliver and what they can get from me,” he admits. “It feels crazy but humbling at the same time, because nobody knows what I’m capable of doing.”
These issues, which O.T. calls his “problems branding myself,” are even reflected in the fact that when his career started taking off after “CoCo,” he wouldn’t tell people he was raised in Long Beach, Calif. He would just ignore the question. Most assumed he was from Down South. Some thought he was from Haiti because in Haitian Creole “koko” is slang for pussy. If you read the comments in the song’s video on YouTube, there are still people who think he’s from Africa.
O.T. said he didn’t want to tell anyone he was from Long Beach because then they’d want him to make songs that matched the area’s usual sound, following in the tradition of artists like Snoop Dogg and Tha Eastsidaz. He says he started admitting he was from Long Beach “when it was too late,” but he means that in a positive way. By that point, he’d already established himself enough that he could make the music he wanted to, not what others expected of him.
His parents came to the United States from the Central American country of Belize, looking for a better life. Born Odis Flores, he can’t remember exactly when he started rapping, but it happened once he got his own radio. He’d just make up new lyrics on top of other people’s songs. Inspiration came from rap’s Southern pioneers, who brought their regional perspectives into the national mainstream: OutKast in Atlanta, Uncle Luke in Miami, Geto Boys in Houston. There were lots of parties around O.T.’s family and he knew if he rapped at them, the party would keep going. Like many of the kids in his neighborhood, he did get caught up in Crip street life, but was able to separate himself before it was too late. As to how he’d describe himself growing up, O.T., now 32, replies, “I was the cool kid that was fresh but never too cool to have fun and dance. Same way I am now.”
Even though Alarm is said to have plenty of the potential hits that most labels crave, Conglomerate and Atlantic are still figuring out how to make sure there’s a cohesive story around O.T. “On this one, it’s just back-to-back-to-back-to-back infectious heaters,” Morales, O.T.’s longtime A&R shares. “From the trap to the clubs to the mix to the streets, it’s just a full gamut of straight that shit. The most difficult part has been, where do you take a record where you’re pouring your heart out about the way you grew up? Where does that fit? What’s the narrative here? You need to weave in that shit altogether. And that’s the difficult part that he has right now.”
When asked what he wants people to know about him as a person, O.T. offers only vague ideas: He’s “personable” and “not the regular street cat that makes hit records” and “all for the people.” Are there any songs on Alarm that capture who he is? “Once you press play, you’ll be like, Oh, OK,” he asserts.
That’s his promise, and fans and skeptics alike have been wondering if it’ll actualize. They no longer need to wait and see.
Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2019 issue including our cover stories with Juice Wrld and Lil Baby, Show & Prove with Lil Keed, Saweetie and NLE Choppa, a candid interview with A$AP Ferg, Damian Lillard talking his music crossover and more.
See Photos From Lil Baby and Juice Wrld’s Fall 2019 XXL Magazine Cover Shoots