M1llionz: Never too much
M1llionz speaks like he raps.
His voice is calm and soft; perhaps a little lower than the one he uses on his tracks. A Brummie lilt adds melody to his answers, which he approaches with a cautious thoughtfulness. It’s this voice that has set him apart as he has risen through the ranks of drill and the music industry at large, levelling up from playing his first show in March 2020 to hitting the UK charts, the radio airwaves and Drake’s Instagram feed.
© Udoma Janssen
M1llionz (just M1llionz, no real names here) landed with a crash, bang, Lagga less than two years ago. It was then that he dropped North West, an ode to his youth in north west Birmingham. Written in prison, the track was released in late 2019, after some coaxing from those around him. A steady stream of increasingly essential singles followed, including the UKG-loaded B1llionz, the boisterous Lagga and Y PREE. “I think it’s when Y PREE dropped [that] I realised…” he ponders out loud, weighing up which moment in particular sparked a decision to start pursuing music more seriously. “I think that’s when it fully changed and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is mad.’”
“WHEN Y PREE DROPPED, THAT’S WHEN IT FULLY CHANGED AND I THOUGHT, ‘YEAH, THIS IS MAD.’”
Last year also saw him drop a must-listen Voice of the Streets freestyle and feature on a string of vital collaborations. These include Informa, lifted from fellow Midlands-raised rapper Pa Salieu’s Send Them to Coventry mixtape, Year of the Real (again with Pa, but also Meekz and Teeway) and Experience – a collab with his Ten Percent Music family and hometown mates, Tygz, Mwoo and SkengTrapMob. We’re chatting just a couple of hours before Badnis, M1llionz’s first track of 2021 and the intro to his still-very-much-under-wraps debut release proper, drops on his YouTube channel. He uses the platform to put out BTS-style vlogs; M1llionz has been teasing Badnis for a few days now, offering fans a glimpse into its lush, Jamaica-shot visuals. “I think it’s good to show the process of making music,” he says. “Or even if I’m just chilling.”
Before the interview, I was half expecting M1llionz to join the call from some idyllic location. Videos posted to his socials within the last two weeks show him at Coronation Market in Kingston, Jamaica, picking up hula hoops – real ones, not the crisps – glistening gold jewellery, toys and more. He was then filmed heading to the Deadly Beats Studio in Seaview Gardens where he handed out the goods to local kids.
© Udoma Janssen
Coat: ABAGA VELLI
Today however, M1llionz is speaking to me from a room in London, slouched back on a sofa. A large window is concealed by an even larger blind directly behind him. It frames him in the sort of strange early-hours-after-a-night-out light, both timeless and with no hints to the world beyond. It’s a calm scene, not quite as exciting as the one we’ve been eyeing up on his Instagram.
“When I did that, I was [in Jamaica] for like four days,” he tells me. “But I was in a rush, so really and truly it was supposed to be a bit bigger than that but, basically, Jamaica was about to block flights to England and vice versa. The last flight was that day, so if I didn’t get that flight, I would have been stuck in Jamaica over Christmas.” He got his flight the same day he handed out all those presents. “I always try and do stuff like that,” he says, reflecting on the Santa-like exploits that took place before a mad rush to the airport. “I just thought, because it was Christmas coming up, I might as well see if I can help the kids and make their Christmas a bit better.”
© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Burberry
The rapper tries to visit Jamaica as often as he can. Clarendon, where some of the Badnis visual was shot, is among his favourite areas because of how peaceful it is, but he’s travelled all over the island and still has family living there. He would visit frequently as a child but wasn’t always as eager to fly out back then. He occasionally found himself on the receiving end of warnings of being sent over there – or so he hints. A threat that’s probably familiar to second or even third-gen immigrant children.
M1llionz was born in an area of Birmingham, England, called Handsworth. The poet, musician, and fellow Jamaican-Handworthian Benjamin Zephaniah dubs it ‘the Jamaican capital of Europe’ and the influential roots reggae outfit Steel Pulse are also from there, titling their 1978 debut LP Handsworth Revolution. As a kid, M1llionz moved around Birmingham until, aged eight or so, he moved to London, returning to Brum a little later. During summer holidays and half-terms he would hop around the country, visiting family in cities like Leeds, Manchester and Huddersfield. He was raised by his mum – or mom, if we’re doing it the Birmingham way – who also plays music, his uncles too, but M1llionz doesn’t dive too deep into specifics. “They used to get on to me saying, ‘How don’t I know how to play instruments?’ and that, I was like the only one [who didn’t],” he says, a smile forming. That’s not to say he wasn’t interested in music as a kid. M1llionz had a deep love for dancehall and considered it his main go-to at the time – “Vybz [Kartel] was out, Mavado, all them people back then,” he remembers.
© Udoma Janssen
Coat: ABAGA VELLI
Hoodie, trousers and shoes: A-Cold-Wall*
“MY FAMILY USED TO GET ON TO ME SAYING, ‘HOW DON’T I KNOW HOW TO PLAY INSTRUMENTS?’”
M1llionz’s Jamaican heritage is something he filters into his tracks. Lagga, for example, is Jamaican patois for ‘stupid’. It’s natural, he says with a shrug. A disinterest in forcing things is something he stresses at various points in our conversation.
In his visuals, he also celebrates culture and community from Badnis or Y PREE, both shot in Jamaica, to Lagga, shot in Nairobi, Kenya. Exciting, blockbuster-like music videos are fast becoming synonymous with his work. They continually strengthen his connections to overseas locations both dear to his heart and previously out of his reach. “I think that’s what makes people gravitate towards me,” he says, pausing to ruminate on his appeal. “Because I think, obviously the lyrics are… yeah, probably good, the flow… yeah, but I think the video makes it.” This he states with certainty.
He’s being modest. M1llionz’s music is compelling enough by itself. After all, this low-key guy is a vivid storyteller. Take the opening lines of his Year of the Real verse: “The man at the desk just askin’ me questions/ No sergeant, I don’t feel suicidal”. Or this, from B1llionz: “Can’t believe what my soldier’s tellin’ me/ Lost a G pack, how does that make sense?/ Told him best to trace his steps/ Unless he really wan’ get paid in pence/ Now I’m more than a baller down/ Like when Man U sold David Becks”.
Lyrics are something M1llionz approaches with a world-building mentality, transforming even the most seemingly mundane details of everyday life into a narrative work of art. M1llionz offers me a primer, saying how if he was, say, relating a trip to the shop for bread – though he quickly clarifies that he wouldn’t actually write about going to buy a loaf of bread – he would embellish that process and journey in as much detail as he can. “Giving you a full-on picture on how I’ve done it or why I’ve done it,” he elaborates, “so, there’s a bit more meaning to [it].” This approach can make things difficult as he often wishes to say more lyrically, but doesn’t always have the time, or perhaps it won’t make sense, or the flow simply won’t work. “Sometimes I have to take out lines because they don’t fit,” he says. “Or because the flow’s already mad anyway, they start moving all crazy.”
© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Louis Vuitton
While he’s grown and found favour within drill, M1llionz is hesitant to be associated solely with the genre. “I wouldn’t say I’m a drill rapper, I just feel like I’m a bit different,” he offers. It’s a sentiment that many ostensibly drill acts seem to be contemplating. London rapper BackRoad Gee, for instance, has made similar comments in months past, and drill’s poster boy Headie One told the Evening Standard in 2019 that if he had “just stuck to drill, I’d be holding back my talent.” The need to broaden the scope of their sound beyond the genre is understandable – an expression of an artist’s desire to move forward, searching out fresh ways to prove their versatility, exercise their creativity and evolve. For M1llionz, this manifests in a fusion of big collaborations and new styles. He hints that he’d like to experiment more and infuse different cultures into his music. He’s not so eager to divulge which sounds or cultural infusions he wishes to explore. It’s not the right time to put them into the universe. Not yet.
It isn’t like he’s not doing big things now, or killing every guest verse he’s on with the quiet flourish of an established act – he is. But he reckons there’s still room to grow, and goals to tick off. Perhaps the right place to tease them is through his visuals. Eagle-eyed fans who watched the Badnis video in its entirety, for example, may already have a sense of a possible direction M1llionz could be moving in. As the new video draws to a close, a link-up with fellow Brum act Lotto Ash from Lotto Boyz, who coined their sound ‘Afrobbean’, is fleetingly teased in a Marvel movie-like fashion. It’s another lead single from the upcoming release, we find out later, one that sounds far more melodic that anything M1llionz has put out so far.
As much as he’s keeping quiet on his grand plans, he will reveal this: “I’m open to do any genre. If it works, it works.” M1llionz sits back in his chair, the ambiguous sunlight from an hour prior now replaced by the inescapable shadows of dusk. “I want to be known [not just] in the UK,” he says, in that softly spoken voice. “I want to be known everywhere.”
Badnis is out now via Ten Percent Music