“I ain’t cutting shapes, but half of my hood is right now. Half of Church Road’s jumped on this house thing, for real,” says Nines, smirking, when I ask — jokingly — if he goes raving for fun. After all, it’s not uncommon for fans to rub shoulders with the UK’s biggest rap and grime stars in house raves these days. He goes on to tell me he does like a good party but, as of this year, not “those ratchet ones in the city.”
Read this next: The Cover Mix: Nines
It’s exactly a week after the artist born Courtney Freckleton delivered his final album on Warner Records (“I’m a free man now!”) — chart results day, in fact — when we connect for this cover interview, and he’s feeling confident. “I’m happy, man,” he says of having ‘Crop Circle 2’ out in the world. “I appreciate everyone that’s streaming up the ting, everyone who’s bought CDs and bundles — everyone.” Having hit No. 1 with his 2020 album, ‘Crabs In A Bucket’, I wonder if there’s pressure to repeat its success, or to at least come close. “I guess there is pressure,” he says, “but I care more about going Gold and Platinum. That’s way more important than a chart position. And it’s already off to a lovely start — it’s doing better than the last one, first week, so whether it finishes fifth or sixth, I’m still good.”
The first ‘Crop Circle’ was released in 2018 under Richard Russell’s XL Recordings, a label famed for signing the likes of Adele, M.I.A. and Giggs early on in their careers. Sonically, it was a step up from his debut album, 2017’s ‘One Foot Out’ — a more refined Nines, who went from being half-serious about rap to being fully committed and blessing us with modern-day classics such as ‘I See You Shining’ and ‘Oh My’. ‘Crop Circle 2’ comes at a time of what feels like a regeneration for Nines, who got sentenced to 28 months in prison mere months after ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ hit No. 1, for importing weed from Spain and Portugal into the UK. “I was gone for, like, three years, but I’m back now so that’s all that matters,” he says, with a firmness in his tone.
‘Crop Circle 2’, Nines’ fourth studio album, debuted at No. 2 on the UK Albums Chart, and, at the time of writing, remains firmly in the Top 10. Two days prior to the album’s release, I was invited down to the premiere of Crop Circle 2: The Movie — a regular accompaniment to Nines’ project releases, which are so well-shot and produced, you’re left wanting a full series on Netflix. The suited-and-booted affair was treated like a blockbuster, and rightly so, with what felt like the entire Black British music scene pulling up (Bentleys and all) to show their support: names such as Stormzy, Fredo and ‘CC2’ collaborators M Huncho, Wretch 32 and Little Torment. It must feel good to have that backing from your peers, I ask. “I always show love when I’m outside,” he says, “so when it comes to the things I’m doing, they just show love back.”
Inspired to write, produce and direct his own films after watching his two favourites, The Godfather and The Wolf Of Wall Street, Nines is showing those who look up to him that there are more lanes outside of just rapping to showcase their creativity. “I dabbled in bare little things before I found… I guess I always rapped, too,” he says, “but before rapping, I was a DJ and I also used to roll around with a camera and edit stuff. I’ve always been interested in different things, but film is definitely up there alongside music for me. In the film world, as I do more and more of it, I want my shit to go global… I’m not even working with the craziest budgets when I’m making these films. The last one I just made, people would never know we were still filming it 24 hours before the premiere. I made that in, I dunno, 10 days or so.” And it’s true: you’d never know it from looking at its shiny presentation.
Nines carries with him an aura that demands respect — and no, not because he’s this menacing figure his music can oftentimes paint, but because he’s in fact the opposite in real life: a friendly gangster, a humble hustler, one who greets everyone in the room with the same level of respect and doesn’t play up to the ‘roadman’ character that TikTokers love to poke fun at. Some of the TikTok generation’s ‘rap critics’ have even gone as far to say that Nines “raps about the same thing on every project.” But go back — starting from his 2012 mixtape ‘From Church Rd. to Hollywood’ — and you’ll hear his redemption story, his desire to be free from that sheisty street life, expand on every drop.
While the laid-back rhymesmith might not consider himself a G.O.A.T. in UK rap — “Who am I to say I’m a GOAT? It’s not for me to say” — his millions of fans would beg to differ. “I’m just rapping about my life, past and present,” says Nines. “Same shit, every day! If I’m talking about trapping in a different way, that’s because that’s what was really going on. When I first started making music, I was obsessed with trapper-rappers, people like Jeezy and Rick Ross, because they were talking that talk about their real life, which revolved around making money — to survive! I didn’t expect this to go as mainstream as it has, but there are people out there who love my music and don’t have nothing to do with trapping and stuff like that.”
Born and raised in Harlesden, North West London, a borough once known for its gangland activities and harsh realities, Nines, as he poetically tells us throughout his music, was a local Trapstar in Church Road — a millionaire before rap — who regularly blessed his ends with turkeys and trainers at Christmas. Despite what some of the leaders of this country might think (side-eye to Suella Braverman), poverty, disenfranchisement and racism are very real things — sometimes with all three at play — so off-roading down the wrong path can sometimes be inevitable for those coming up in these environments, many of whom aren’t afforded the chance to hope or dream of a brighter day.
Nines understands this more than most, and is forever looking to give hood creatives a step up via the mediums of music and film. “I always try to show love and help all the young artists out there, and just young people in general,” he says. “Obviously, I’m one of the OG’s in the rap game now — I don’t know how that happened, but time flies — so when I bump into them, I try and give them the best advice that I can.”
Read this next: Ty and the history of UK rap
Community is a big thing for Nines. When it comes to creating bodies of work, especially, that’s a spirit he likes to create amongst his collaborators. For ‘Crop Circle 2’’s co-executive producer, Scotland-born, London-based beatsmith Show N Prove, whose name you’ll have heard dropped on many of Nines’ songs, helping to bring things together was a real honour. “I do a lot of work with a lot of rappers, but there’s something with me and Nines, I think, where we just click,” he says. “I feel like we just do really great work together. We have that ‘thing’ where he knows all the same music I know and we say the same things without saying them — on some real telepathic stuff. And credit to his character, because he’s really just on the ball; he’s on time, he manages himself, and he’s just super easy to work with.”
Jay-Z’s seminal 2001 album, ‘The Blueprint’, was an inspiration for Show N Prove, co-exec producer Karlos, and the rest of the team for ‘CC2’: “We kept saying in the studio, after making each song: ‘But is it Blueprint level though?’ We’re like, ‘It’s got to be Blueprint level.’ Not that the songs aren’t good, but it’s just being overly, overly harsh on yourself. Credit to Nines again, man. The Blueprint — metaphorically and literally.”
Speaking of Jigga, on ‘CC2’ closing track ‘Outro’, Nines confidently states: “Zino Records is the new Roc-A-Fella.” Bold call, considering how iconic the hip hop label was in the mid-90s to mid-2000s. I ask him how he plans to achieve this feat, but keeps his cards close to his chest: “Seeing is believing, man! Just let me get to work and you’ll see.” He’s already signed alt-soul act Lylo Gold — who features on ‘CC2’ album cut ‘Weedman’ — to the label, so he’s off to a strong start. “I’m out of my contract now,” says Nines. “I’m nothing to do with Warner Records. I might get a home distribution somewhere, but I don’t know right now.” While from the outside looking in, Warner seemed wholly invested in seeing Nines win, he did hint on the album that there may have been some friction between the two parties (“You ain’t nothin’ like me, n****/My label gave me a mill’, we don’t even speak,” he spits on ‘Nothing Like Me’, while on ‘Outro’ he says he “woulda slapped a couple A&R’s up but I’m tryna change”). Even before that, his verse on Potter Payper’s ‘Gangsteritus Part 2’ declares: “My line was 20K a week, that’s a mill’ a year/The label on me for a single, they must think I care.”
One Warner exec he did get on with, like a house on fire, was marketing manager Malaika Carr-Haji — who also just left for pastures new. “I was a fan of Nines before I worked at the label,” she says. “Assisting on ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ was exciting but, looking back, I was naive to the scale of the project and how grand Nines’ imagination could be. ‘Crop Circle 2’ is a full circle moment; managing this campaign, working side-by-side with Nines, I feel immensely proud of what he and the team accomplished. His dedication is relentless.” Malaika also agrees that Nines is inspiring a new generation of creatives to be great: “It’s super important and encouraging to see. Nines is a pioneer, a musician, a filmmaker, and an entrepreneur. He’s ambitious and has no ego regarding who he works with. If you’re talented and he believes in you, you’re in! He also proves that there is no one way to be successful, all whilst championing others along the way.”
With his penchant for cinematography blossoming into a promising career, and his label, Zino Records, ready to shake a few rooms, what else is there for Nines to conquer? “I’d love to blow up in America,” he tells me. “Who wouldn’t? If you’re a rapper, it just shows you that things are going well. But I’ve never put any importance on that. I’m trying to do numbers out here first, in Europe… In certain parts of Europe, they love the mandem — not just me, but the whole UK scene — so there’s still work to be done here before even thinking about the States.”
‘Crop Circle 2’ is out now, get it here
Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson is the Editor-In-Chief of Complex UK and the founder of TRENCH Magazine, follow him on Twitter