It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Azure is in his L.A. apartment watching the new Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq. Although he’s lived here since September, the apartment has a sparseness to it that is less a reflection of Azure’s interior design aesthetic than an indicator of his busy schedule.
Since the fall, the 27-year-old rapper, born Justin Park in Pinole, Calif., has been on the road quite a bit, either touring with Bay Area rapper (and HBK Gang founder) Iamsu!, for whom he DJs, or driving back and forth between the Bay and L.A. to record music with his recently formed rap crew, Down 2 Earth. And though he enjoys staying occupied, all of the traveling has taken a toll. “It just eats up so much time,” says the MC, who has planned for the last year to drop his fourth album, Leap Year.
On the SoundCloud page for Leap Year, which was released on Jan. 12 (and was premiered worldwide by SF Weekly), Azure issued an apology to his fans. “2 my listeners from the early days, I know I took a few extra moments to deliver this project to your ears,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to give you something rushed so I took my sweet time widit.”
It’s been almost two and a half years since Azure (pronounced “azur-ay”) released Mint Condition, his mellow, laidback, early ’90s-inspired third album. He spent most of 2013 and all of 2014 working with the other members of Down 2 Earth on their debut, Wildfire, and he didn’t get around to focusing on Leap Yearuntil 2015. He timed the album’s release for the summer, but that deadline, he soon realized, was too ambitious. “There was actually a lot of finishing touches that were still needing to happen,” he says. Traveling with Iamsu! for his I Love My Squad Tour was another delay, albeit an enjoyable one, and it wasn’t until the end of December that he finally had his free time back.
Deliberation and fastidiousness, however, have always been staples of Azure’s music career. Though he started making beats and writing raps during high school, it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 — after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego — that he released his first full-length album,Illusions of Oasis.
It was also around this time that he started DJing for Iamsu! and unintentionally became part of a fad. “There’s this ongoing joke about how all these rappers have selected Asian DJs,” says Azure, who is Korean. “For whatever reason, that’s just how it is, and I became part of that movement.”
In the years since Mint Condition dropped, Azure says he has “grown and seen a lot.” In addition to forming Down 2 Earth, he moved to L.A., joined HBK Gang, and went on tour for the first time. Personality-wise, he’s also changed, becoming less persnickety and more experimental, especially in his music.
“I used to be the kid that was like, ‘Nah, bro, this underground rap shit is the dopest shit and it will be the dopest shit forever,'” he says. He was especially critical of beats made with the Roland TR-808 drum machine (“I hear 808s in every fucking song. Every genre uses it.”), and other common rap tropes like heavy bass and catchy-yet-banal hooks.
Leap Year marks the rapper’s first step in a new direction, namely through the inclusion of an 808. “I’m a purist at heart, but, at the same time, I’m the type of person that doesn’t want to fall behind,” he says. “I’ve definitely joined the movement in rap music right now where it’s bass-heavy and drum-heavy.”
Though he’s ditched the retro soul samples for more colloquial instrumentals, Azure’s raps are still far from mainstream. Lyrically, he takes after artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, and L.L. Cool J., who share his conversational, anecdotal, and confessional rap style. “I’m not the type of rapper who feels like they need a girl song, an underground song, and one for the club,” he says. “Fuck all that shit. This is about me. You listen to me because you’re obviously somewhat interested in my life.”
In Leap Year, he covers topics ranging from the stupidity of others and the triteness of common rap lyrics, to his move to L.A. and the difficulty of managing different social groups.
One thing you won’t hear much of in Leap Year is love. Sure, there are occasional references to girls, like in the song “Cut The Lights,” but they’re cursory and superficial. “I haven’t dated anybody in the last two years, so why would there be a love song?” says Azure, who admits there was a love song on Mint Condition, but only because “[he] was in a relationship at the time.”
Another thing you won’t hear in Azure’s music is the N-word. “I don’t care where you’re from or how many homies you’ve got that say it’s okay, that doesn’t mean the next set of people are going to be okay with it,” he says. “I kind of go by code: If you’re not black, don’t say it.”
Like a lot of rappers who fall into the underground or conscious rapper categories, Azure is averse to labels. He claims he’s not consistent enough to truly fit one category; he makes music about what he likes and based on what sounds good to him, not on what’s trendy at the moment.
“I’m a rapper with my own agenda,” he says. “As long as I’m making music in a focused way, where I know I’m making the best music I can, I know it’s going to speak to somebody.”