Now 26 years old, the first time Sage the Gemini heard a song of his play in a nightclub was when he was 18. More eager to be in that sort of setting than he tends to be these days, the California native was undoubtedly the youngest person in San Francisco's City Nights that evening.

He struggles to recollect any specifics, though—not due to the vices associated with that type of environment, but because, by then, he’d already been well accustomed to his music receiving attention for about four years.

Sage’s earliest success as an artist came at the age of 14, as his viral hit aptly named “You Should Know” racked up over three million plays on MySpace in just a few months. The song spread so far, it eventually reached Atlanta legend Ludacris, who contacted the Bay Area upstart to share some words of encouragement.

“He don’t remember this for some odd reason,” Sage tells Complex in Los Angeles, certain of his own recall, “but Ludacris hit me on MySpace and was like ‘yo, keep doing your thing.”

With that much buzz swirling around his work so early in his life, one would expect the rapper to speak of his adolescence in Al Bundy-esque tales of grandeur. But aside from the Ludacris story, most of what Sage seems to remember from that time are bad grades, mischief, and uncertainty.

SAGE THE OUTCAST

On the exact day of our conversation, August 30, Sage the Gemini released his latest single: “Buss It” featuring Chris Brown. That alignment seems more like a result of happenstance than design, as the otherwise talkative rapper didn’t mention the song’s release until our time together was just about finished. Most surprisingly, he didn’t even recommend the song six or seven hours prior as we searched for music to play to energize the room, shuffling through the music library on his Diesel smartwatch.

Perhaps drained from the twelve years he’s spent making music, he confesses that he’s “not always in music mode.” That wasn’t the case when he initially plotted his course, though. A studio rat even before having an actual studio, Sage spent so much time perfecting his craft at night that he’d often show up to school late into the afternoon, if he ever showed up at all. Obsessed with nailing the trifecta of singing, rapping, and producing, he’d even skip showers to stay locked in on a song. “As far as girls coming at me,” he says, “they’d be like ‘damn, he stinks.’”

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Photography by Bukunmi Grace

Aware of his strengths and weaknesses, he notes his sense of humor garnered certain attention, but never enough to translate into the sort of popularity that would then garner very many friends. However scorned from his childhood rejection, the multi-platinum rapper now manages to appreciate that phase of his life, “because it showed me who's who.”

“Now I understand. I know I’m not ugly, but the way I was treated back then led me to believe so.”

SAGE THE MODEL

Far removed from the days he “didn’t have the best clothes, the best nothing,” there’s now a persistent swagger to the man in front of me. He’s quick to note his good looks (most frequently the color of his eyes), he jokes that he’s a Gemini with the sex drive of a Scorpio, and he seems to know exactly what to do on the set of photoshoot.

He knows which poses will best display the art on his tattooed hands. He knows which angles to avoid, as to not have the camera catch the glare off his touchscreen watch. He knows well enough to voice activate his Google Assistant from that same watch, ensuring we get some decent action shots.

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Photography by Bukunmi Grace

Somewhat embarrassed of his life before his record deal, he’d like to have you believe he learned this skill set post-fame. But astute researchers with time to kill on a six hour flight from New York to L.A. know Sage the Gemini was once an underwear model.

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Photography by Bukunmi Grace

To this day, he refuses to disclose which particular brand of briefs convinced him modeling underwear would be a good look for an up-and-coming rapper. So, naturally, he’s tight-lipped when I ask. However, not one to shy away from conversations about his physical appearance, he quickly oscillates from “I ain’t talking about that” to “you’re good, you got me talking about that.”

Somewhat coy, he explains “when you’re the kid who girls don’t like, and then all of a sudden you start getting a body on you, you start getting a six pack, you got long hair, you get your little chin hair—I wanted to be a sex symbol. I thought ‘oh, this will get me girls.’”

SAGE THE HOMEBODY

In his quietest moment, after a long day of poses and wardrobe changes only interrupted by his impulse to entertain the room, Sage is the calmest he’s been since first stepping foot in the studio a little over eight hours ago. Slumped on a couch, he admits he’s only this still when he’s tired. Having experienced his company for the equivalent of just one business day, tasked with recapturing his attention each time a notification on his smartwatch distracts him, I tend to believe him. But still, true to the yin and the yang his moniker implies, I can tell there’s an unspoken seriousness to his worldview, even if it’s shrouded in junevility.

Having had his first child at 19 years old, there’s an underlying foundation of maturity beneath his antics. This would explain why, at this point in his life, his own parents feel more like friends than disciplinarians. So much so that his father occupies one of the eight rooms in his three story, 8,000 square foot mansion. With that sort of living situation, the conversation of course reverts back to Sage’s favorite topic—his romantic life.

He assures me his father’s presence in his home doesn’t deter the company he keeps, even given the fact he’s not one for entertaining women elsewhere. When asked why he doesn’t go out on dates, and instead prefers in-house affairs, his answer is frank: “Because it never gets that far.”

“Girls always be like ‘you wanna take me out?’ But they don't wanna just come chill and talk. They say ‘nah, let’s go to dinner.’ First of all, you don't trust me because I'm a rapper, but you expect for me to spend money on you already? Why do I have to spend money on you and you won't even come sit with me for free?”

Raised by a mother feared throughout the neighborhood as a no-nonsense matriarch, the idea that a woman would naturally feel unsafe in the home of a man she isn’t familiar with doesn’t register with him, as he believes women are “the hardest creatures of all time.”

“Shoot, the safest place is the house,” he contends, doubling down on maintaining his own preservation. “I can't be out with [a girl] and then somebody takes a picture and says ‘Sage the Gemini got a new girl.’ Then I have to sound like I'm an a**hole when I have to say that's not my girl.”

What may seem like misguided cynicism could perhaps be read as well earned reclusiveness. Considering the less than pleasant experiences he’s endured with folks ranging from schoolyard crushes to underwear executives jeopardizing his credibility as a rapper, there isn’t much fault to be found in his unwillingness to venture outside of his comfort zone. The disorienting feeling of going from black sheep to golden-child in such a short period of time can do that to you.

Bold enough to step in front of a camera, and resilient enough to stay planted behind a microphone for over ten years, trusting the intentions of others is one risk Sage the Gemini isn’t willing to take. Independence isn’t just important to him, it’s imperative to his peace of mind.

To that end, he’s made sure to instill the same sort of self-reliance in his daughter. “My daughter is wild,” he says. “I try to raise her to not be clingy.”  When he leaves town for days at a time—for a tour, or shoot, or a press run—he plainly states to his seven year old “hey, I’m getting out of here.” Thinking of the way she accepts his departure just as matter-of-factly, the six foot five mountain of a man releases a deep sigh of satisfaction, suggesting his actual child is as unbothered as his inner-child would like to be.