At the beginning of 2019, NLE Choppa exploded on the scene with his fiery single, “Shotta Flow.” The record’s viral success led to a bidding war amongst record labels, with offers soaring to a reported $3 million.

Now 17 years old, NLE Choppa is closing out the year with a series of hit singles, a joint venture with Warner Records, a deal with UnitedMasters, and a forthcoming EP called Cottonwood. The EP was named after the block in Memphis where Choppa grew up.

Sitting for an interview at Complex’s New York office, Choppa reveals that every song on the project was freestyled, including “Shotta Flow.” He confirms, “I freestyle all my music. If I do a song with a chorus and a verse, it takes me about 25 minutes. If I do a song with two verses or stretch it out song, it takes me about 30 to 35 minutes.” 

Connecting with fans is a major priority for the young artist. He says he prayed for success every night for years, and now that he’s in a position of influence, he wants to use it for good. In addition to providing hype anthems that fans can dance to, he says he wants to help people get through tough situations. “I want to leave an impact on the world for people that suffer from shit. I want to be the reason for them to wake up,” he says. “When they’re down, I want them to be able to play my songs. And when they’re happy, I want them to be able to play ‘Shotta Flow’ or something like that. That’s what I’ve been focusing on—establishing a sound to help people. They can listen to me at their highest and their lowest points, because I’m with them.” 

Cottonwood is just the beginning of his mission to impact others. Choppa describes the EP, which you can pre-save here, as an “appetizer,” and confirms his debut album will arrive sometime in January 2020. “It is going to be one of the biggest albums ever.” 

While we wait for both projects to drop, NLE Choppa spoke to Complex about Cottonwood, his love for basketball, and how he prayed for success. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 

You’ve previously talked about your love of basketball and the NBA. Have any players reached out to you? 
Yeah, Lonzo Ball. He was somebody I looked up to when I was younger because I used to watch him hoop in high school, and I saw how cold he was. That meant something to me. Z-Bo, Zach Randolph, is like my big brother—one of my mentors.

What advice have you gotten from Z-Bo or Lonzo? 
Z-Bo told me, ‘Just keep going, young nigga.’ Little stuff like that. It means a lot to hear from somebody who is older than you and got money. 

I know you’re a Kobe fan. Have you talked to Kobe or met him yet?
No, I wish. I want to meet him. I want to play him. I want to hoop with him.

Who do you think is the best rapper who played in the NBA? 
I heard Kobe rap, that shit was terrible. Damian Lillard for sure.

You’ve been blowing up and released a lot of singles, but you seem to be taking your time as far as dropping a debut album. Why is that? 
I’m really just planning it out, trying to just see when’s the right time. Dropping EPs or mixtapes or albums is all strategic. I had to find out when I wanted to drop my album, and then see if have time in between to put an EP out or something like that. And we did. 

Cottonwood is named after the block where you grew up. Why was it important to title your EP that? 
It's just my first [project] and that was where I was first born. This is where life was given to me.  

What’s the best lesson you learned from growing up on Cottonwood? 
Don’t trust nobody. Don’t be easily letting people in.

Do you feel like you have to apply those same lessons to the music industry and being around other rappers?
I wouldn’t just say rappers. I don’t need to just be around rappers. It’s the people in the industry. 

Can you talk about the creative process behind this project? 
It was really just going into the studio, freestyling to the best beats that I heard.

You don’t write anything down when you’re in the studio? 
I freestyle all my music.

How long does it take for you to lay down a song or a verse that way? 
If I do a song with a chorus and a verse, it takes me about 25 minutes. If I do a song with two verses or stretch out the song, it takes me about 30 to 35 minutes.

Can you break down what that process looks like? You go in the studio, freestyle, and then what? 
When I freestyle, I do it by punching in. I say a bar, put one bar down, then stop. When I think of another bar, I punch it in on top of that bar. Then I keep going in. Or I could say all that I got in my head—start right there—and then punch in right after. It’s like a run-on sentence.

That takes focus.
I don’t know. A lot of people say it’s “weird,” how I record. I record quick as hell and make good ass songs quick as fuck. Every day with it. They just be like, “How the fuck you do that shit?”

At this rate, you probably have a lot of songs in the vault.
Unreleased, right now, I got around 300 songs.

Do you find yourself getting in a specific routine to get in the zone?
No, I’m already in that mindset. I was just playing with my music. I find a beat and I put my heart in it. I don’t have one song that you could be like, “Man, this shit is terrible.” I don’t have a bad song because I’m the type of nigga that if I’m recording something that don’t sound good, I’m going to stop say, “Alright, load another beat up, we finna try something else.” I put my heart into it.

What was your biggest inspiration for this project?
I just want to help people.

You’ve mentioned this a lot during interviews. Why is helping others so important to you? 
That’s what you’re here for. This is what I’m here for, to bless others.

What is your most personal song on this project?
All of them.

Is there one that other people have pointed out to you? 

What is it about that track that stands out among the rest? 
It be catchy as hell. It’s like a fucking nursery rhyme or some shit.

How’d you put that song together?
I was just fucking with melodies—humming and filling it in with words. No cap, that’s all I do.

While fans wait for your debut project, what do you want fans to take away from the Cottonwood EP?
Every song is going to hit you in a different way. Every song is going to be relatable.

How would you describe your sound?
Different. My voice makes it different. I be doing some cool ass melodies. I don’t know where the fuck I be getting them from, but they be coming. I got some shit. On God. I got one in my head right now.

You have a melody in your head, what do you mean by that? How does that process work in relation to you making music? 
You just stand in front of a mic and say what you’re thinking. If somebody really go through something—got real pain or really been through something—they don’t got to write that shit down. They can stand right there and speak their shit. I can't freestyle. If a nigga throw a beat on and tell me to go and start rapping, I can’t do that. I could do it a little bit, but I’m not a cold ass nigga. But when it comes to making a real song, freestyling, I can do that shit.

Do you think that’s what separates you from your peers?
Well, it’s also how I was raised, and all the shit that I’ve been through—all the stuff I don’t say. That will determine how you’re going to act, the shit that you been through. The shit that you’ve been through, the shit that you’ve seen, and the shit that you’ve heard, this is what’s going to determine how you’re going to act. I been through different shit at an early age, so I just see shit differently.

What made you choose a positive path after all the stuff you’ve seen? 

You’ve spoken about God before, saying that you prayed for this success. Can you elaborate on that? 
I was just down. I wasn’t really too hyped on religion. I don’t really believe in a religion like that. I just believe that there is a God. There’s just somebody up there that listens to me, and they can show me better if I talk to them and build a relationship with them. So I made an oath to myself that I was going to make sure I prayed at night. That was two years before I blew up. Sometimes I fell asleep on accident and woke up and then prayed. I was doing that about two years straight. On God. Next thing you know, I started getting visions in my head of me just performing. That’s a real testimony. So I always tell people, keep God first. Just be yourself. This is sad people don't even really see it man. 

One of the first major artists to show you love was Birdman. Did he give you any memorable advice? 
Birdman and I really didn’t talk. I'm not going to lie, Birdman didn't talk. He's not a talker. I mean, he did say stuff, but he’s not a conversation person.

Are there any other artists most recently who have reached out to you or shown love that you were surprised about?
YG just reached out to me. He was showing love, saying he fuck with my shit.

Are you surprised by all the love fans and artists have shown you? 
I don't really feel too much love.

Why is that? 
Because I just be being me.

Unlike a lot of artists in your generation, you don’t seem to be on social media that much. Is that on purpose?
I don’t really like being on my phone. I make sure I do what I’ve got to do as far as keeping my fans tuned in and knowing what I’m doing, because I care about my fans. But I really just post a pic on it and post on my story and then turn my phone off or put it in my pocket or listen to music. I really just like making music and listening to it.

So you only listen to your own music? That’s similar to Lil Wayne. I know you’re a fan of him. 
You’ve got to, bro. I’m not going to lie, I was listening to other people’s music about three or four days ago. When I was recording, them folks’ flows was in my ear. So I’m like, “Hell nah, I got to stop.” That’s why I only listen to myself, so I can actually find my real sound.

You spoke about Juice WRLD’s passing on Instagram. What will you remember most about him? 
He was loving.

You also mentioned something about working with him? 
Yeah, we was about to get into working with each other.

You recently signed a venture deal with No Love Entertainment and Warner. What is next for NLE?
I’m looking to sign artists.

What's your main goal for NLE? 
I want this shit to be hot. I want to have a year like Quality Control. They had a great year. Shout out to QC. Black-owned, six billion streams this year just on Spotify. 

What’s the most important thing you want your fans to know about you?
I just want them to know that I’m just like them. I go through the same things that they go through. I just want to be the person that gives them hype music, but I got another side to me. When I want to get something off my chest or say what I’m really going through, I want them to be able to feel that side of me too. I want to leave an impact on the world for people that suffer from shit. I want to be the reason for them to wake up. When they’re down, I want them to be able to play my songs. And when they’re happy, I want them to be able to play “Shotta Flow” or something like that. That’s what I’ve been focusing on, establishing a sound to help people. They can listen to me at their highest and their lowest points, because I’m with them. 

What is your favorite memory from this year?
Being able to change people’s lives around me. This is really the reason why I do this. I know that if I stop, the people around me will be affected. So being able to make my dad not have to wake up at five o’clock in the morning or go to his job every day. My mama ain’t got to wake up at five o’clock in the morning, because I’m begging her to take me to school, because I missed the bus. I changed everybody’s life.

What’s coming next in 2020? 
My album is coming in late January. It’s [going to be] platinum. This shit going is to be one of the biggest albums ever. No cap. Hold me to it. I want you to schedule an interview with me after my album drop. We can review every song and you can tell me.