Michael Jackson’s album Off The Wall was not the singer’s solo debut, but it represented such a radical departure from his earlier work that it feels like it could be. Released by Epic Records in the summer of 1979, it was intended by Jackson as a firm break from the style of the four earlier albums he’d put out under the Motown label and the sound he’d become famous for alongside his brothers in the Jackson 5, announcing his arrival as an original artist with an aesthetic all his own. It unveiled Jackson as the King of Pop — no group necessary.
It’s also an album that has been on Offset’s mind a lot recently. The Lawrenceville, Georgia–born rapper, who came to prominence as part of the hip hop group Migos, has long revered Jackson, whom he considers no less than “the best artist to ever do music.” But lately this influence has been running even deeper. Like Jackson, Offset has stepped away from the family that made him famous to forge his own path as a solo artist, exiting Migos on contentious terms in 2022, before the shocking death of member Takeoff by stray gunfire late last year made the band’s dissolution tragically final. Now, like Jackson, Offset has released his own Off the Wall — a boundary-pushing, career-defining album that, while not technically his solo debut, he hopes will kick off a new Offset era.
“I just feel like Michael [Jackson] felt: wanting more creatively, challenging myself to be a better and bigger artist, and to leave the old stuff in the past, move on to the better things, the bigger things. I’m ready to focus on self-expression and self-identification to the world.”Offset
“I feel like this is really my first album, my first really solo-career album,” Offset explained to me over Zoom in a recent call from his studio in Los Angeles. “I just feel like Michael felt: wanting more creatively, challenging myself to be a better and bigger artist, and to leave the old stuff in the past, move on to the better things, the bigger things. I’m ready to focus on self-expression and self-identification to the world.” This album is the way he wants to do it. Whatever you think you know about Offset, let this album be your reintroduction.
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The album is called Set It Off, and it arrives on Oct. 13 after a deluge of anticipation. Following his first solo outing, 2019’s Father of 4, and his final record with Migos, the acclaimed 2021 double album Culture III, Set It Off finds the immensely talented rapper charting bold new territory, exploring a dynamic new sound while tackling difficult themes with surprising candour. Although still recognizably Offset, the album is a far cry from the blood-pumping trap anthems that shot Migos to hip hop superstardom, trading out the staccato pop verve of “Versace” and the platinum panache of “Bad and Boujee” for a darker, more brooding introspection. It’s still Offset, but it’s heavier. More soulful. Raw.
And raw is the watchword. To hear Offset tell it, that’s just what the audience demands. “Like, honestly, man, people be wanting it raw,” he says. I mention something he said in an old Migos interview that caught my attention — that, more than fellow members Quavo and Takeoff, Offset was the one who “brought that pain and that rough side that some people are scared to go on.”
“People just want to see what’s raw and hear what’s raw. I said that line years ago, but especially right now, people want the raw, and the real, and the answers to whatever the fuck been going on in your life.”Offset
Why does he like going there? “It’s like, if you do a post for Instagram or for TikTok, it doesn’t really resonate the same way if you do it with a camera, instead of with an iPhone,” he explains. “It’s ‘cause people just want to see what’s raw and hear what’s raw. I said that line years ago, but especially right now, people want the raw, and the real, and the answers to whatever the fuck been going on in your life.”
There’s been a lot going on in Offset’s life. Besides the passing of his lifelong friend and partner Takeoff, he’s lately had to contend with a contentious and highly public lawsuit with his record label Quality Control Music over the ownership of his back catalogue (the dispute was recently resolved and the lawsuit dropped); and the death of his grandmother, Sallie Anne Smith, from bladder cancer, which has inspired him to become involved in cancer fundraising initiatives and work with the American Cancer Society. Then there are the various beefs and internecine conflicts that fill the gossip pages on the regular. The day of our interview, Offset is in the news over a row with Nicki Minaj’s husband Kenneth Petty, who allegedly sent the rapper threatening DMs.
Offset doesn’t want to talk too much about his private life or the gossip that surrounds him on a practically daily basis, and he’s especially reluctant to talk about Takeoff and how his death affected him emotionally. But what’s interesting about the rapper is that he does want to address this stuff in his music — getting right into it, candidly, even brazenly, on the songs. The astonishing album opener “Said My Grace,” a collaboration with long-time peer Travis Scott, deals overtly with Offset’s grief over Takeoff’s killing and with the sense of injustice he feels around his grandmother’s death. The refrain is a jarring confession of pain: “Ask God, why didn’t I get an answer? / Why lose my brother to bullets? / Why lose my Grandma to cancer? / Why me, God? / I need answers.” (Offset in “Said My Grace”)
“I don’t write down anything — I just plug it in, bar for bar.”Offset
This level of sincerity is rare in hip hop, and given how fresh many of these feelings still are for the rapper, you’d think such candour wouldn’t come easy. But when I suggest as much to Offset, he bristles. “Nah, nah,” he says after I ask if it was hard for him to open up on “Said My Grace” and other tracks. “I was just going on exactly how I felt. Like, fuck it. I ain’t hold shit back.” Letting all of this out was as simple as walking into the booth and rapping the first things that came to mind. (Amazingly, Offset swears he never writes lyrics, but improvises over each beat. “I don’t write down anything,” he says. “I just plug it in, bar for bar.”) Being real, “saying a lot of honest shit,” is how Offset connects with his listeners. “People relate to the real shit that goes on in your life, not the lavish luxury.”
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Offset’s personal business is so often tabloid fodder that he’d be forgiven for wanting to maintain a little bit of mystery in his music, but that’s not his approach on Set It Off: these songs deal with his feelings, his relationships, even his wife and his kids. As for the tabloids themselves, Offset has learned to ignore that stuff: “You got to tune it out, bro,” he says, adding a lengthy ‘psshhh’ for emphasis. “There’s nothing I can do about it. My life is just public — it is what it is.” As for writing songs that get personal, he says it’s more a matter of getting out in front of the gossip and, where possible, setting the record straight. “You might as well give your own feelings on it, before somebody else try and tell you what the fuck is going on.”
Since marrying Cardi B in 2017, Offset has found his life under even more scrutiny than might be usual for a successful rapper, and the somewhat tumultuous nature of their marriage — it was reported that Cardi had filed for divorce in 2020 after several high-profile cheating scandals, only for the two of them to happily reunite shortly thereafter — has made them perennial fixtures of tabloids, celebrity news blogs, and gossip on social media.
It’s important to be communicating with your fans, because they see shit that you don’t see.”Offset
Professionally, however, Offset and Cardi B have simply continued to do what they do best: collaborate. The new record features yet more duets between the couple, including the hit single “Jealousy.” “We don’t make it weird because we’re husband and wife,” Offset says of working with Cardi B in the studio. “We’re trying to make a great song and we have fun doing it.” The only stipulation the pair has when working together is that they avoid the most obvious cliché of any romantic duo: “We don’t want to do that love song shit.
If Offset and Cardi B are on a track together, expect “some turnt fun shit,” not tender ballads, because “that shit’s what you’re expected to do.”
“You gotta put that work in. You gotta tell a story. It’s gotta be the full package — people want to know why they should tune into you.”Offset
Work on Set It Off started more than two years ago, and the album was originally set to be released in November of 2022, until Takeoff’s death caused Offset to push the date back indefinitely. But, while the grieving process was the impetus for the delay, the rapper seems relieved that he had a chance to go back and work on the album all over again from the beginning. The version meant to hit shelves in 2022, he says, “wasn’t fully completed,” and he wasn’t satisfied with how it had been shaping up. “I felt like I was kind of rushed to put a product out, just ‘cause I was feeling like I didn’t have any product out at the time,” he says. “And then I sat back and I was like, I don’t want to rush this. It wouldn’t be fair to myself or to the music.” He went back to the studio, and as he puts it, he “made 10 better songs” than what he already had. It taught him the value of patience. “It’s okay to be patient. It’s okay to perfect it. Don’t rush the process — that shit feels good to me.”
Offset cares — a lot — about his listeners and his fans. And he is keenly aware that, for rappers like him, audiences are more fickle and demanding now than they ever have been before. “Albums got to the point where people were just dropping whatever music and would get away with it, but now it’s not like that,” he says. “You gotta put that work in. You gotta tell a story. It’s gotta be the full package — people want to know why they should tune into you.” To really resonate with today’s modern listeners, Offset says, you need to show them that you can “lock all the way in” and make something truly special. “Make noise, man. You gotta make some noise.”
And if you think for one second that a certified-platinum rap star is above catering to his fans on a personal level, you’re wrong. Offset knows exactly what his fans want because he listens to them every day — on Instagram and on Twitter, in the comment sections below videos and on his fan pages. “I read my comments, to be honest,” he says. “I’m very open to opinions and to what people say. I know some people say that they don’t look at it, but I look at it because I feel like my fans are letting me know what I should do and not do. It’s important to be communicating with your fans, because they see shit that you don’t see.”
Obviously, with a platform as large as Offset’s — more than 22 million followers on Instagram alone — there’s plenty of trolling to see in the comments, too. But Offset doesn’t sweat it. “When it’s super negative, I feel like it’s not coming from a genuine place. So I don’t really give a fuck about that.”
“You never know if people want to hear what you have to say or not. But when you get a response from people, it lets you know: ‘Okay, maybe I’m doing something good.’”Offset
In the past, both on the Migos records and on his collaborative album with 21 Savage, Offset had the benefit of sharing the creative duties with other artists. And, although he loved being the only one calling the shots on this album — “there’s no better feeling than having creative control,” he says — that also meant he held sole responsibility for whether or not the album worked. “The pressure is all on you. There’s nobody to lean on,” he confesses of whether it was hard to shoulder the burden alone. He poured his heart and soul into Set It Off, channelling “all the different events that happened to me to where I’m at in life, people counting me out, or not believing in me, or not thinking I can do certain things, but then I ended up doing it,” he says. As for whether it paid off, he swears he doesn’t know.
“I won’t know if it’s good until I hear the reaction of the people after it’s out,” he says. “You never know if people want to hear what you have to say or not. But when you get a response from people, it lets you know: ‘Okay, maybe I’m doing something good.’”
Photography: Lea Winkler
Hair Designer: Kya Bilal
Set Design: Romain Goudinoux
Photo Assistant: Roberto Kozek
Location: Dust Studios LA
Creative & Fashion Direction: SheShe Pendleton
Master Barber: Joshua Meekins
Stylist Assistant: Crystina Bond
Art Assistant: Omer Levy
Production: Fox & Leopard