Badshah’s crown of thorns
With his long-overdue debut album, the reigning king of Indian rap wants to reinvent himself
It’s not easy to be Badshah. The rapper and music producer—whose real name is Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia—looks exhausted as he walks into the all-white conference room at the Sony Music office in Mumbai. The night before, he was on set till 5am shooting for the singing reality show Dil Hai Hindustani 2. He has a packed weekend ahead of him, full of shoots, TV appearances and business meetings. But for now, he’s here to discuss his long overdue album O.N.E. (Original Never Ends), which released on 17 August, and has become something of an albatross around his neck since it was first announced in 2014.
“It feels like my life will be different (now that the record has) finally come out, like I’ve been trapped inside this album for so long," he says. “I’m happy but also nervous, even a little afraid. There are songs on this album that are so different that I don’t know if my fans will like them."
At 32, Badshah is already one of the most sought after music producers in Bollywood, the person to turn to when you need a club hit to get punters into cinema seats. His songs regularly rack up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube—with five having over 200 million views—and he has collaborated with the likes of Jamaican dancehall icon Sean Paul and American EDM pioneers Major Lazer. From working as a civil engineer in Ambala to being featured on the Forbes India Top 100 Celebrities list, it has been quite a ride for the boy from west Delhi.
The 17 tracks on O.N.E. chart Badshah’s evolution over his 13-odd years in the music industry. The oldest is Heartless, written in 2005. Over production that leans in on his Punjabi folk influences, he raps about the toll that being a struggling musician takes on a long-distance relationship. With its heavy industrial reverb and judiciously auto-tuned vocal lines, the more recent Call Waiting is a Drake-style pop ballad about, once again, the insecurities that plague a romantic relationship.
Such pop and folk influences dominate the album but there are also songs that draw from contemporary trap and electronica, such as the braggadocio cut Therapy. There are more nods to the underground rap scene, with upcoming New Delhi producer Sez On The Beat and Chandigarh newcomer The Boss providing beats on two tracks each. But O.N.E. is surprisingly light on the typical club bangers that his fans have come to expect, with only Light Kar Do Bandh fitting the bill. “I don’t think I can write Abhi To Party Shuru Huyi Hai any more, at least not for myself," he says. “My conscience doesn’t allow me to do it, though I guess for films I’ll still have to write those songs because that’s what gets me money. And I hate having to say that."
O.N.E. is Badshah’s attempt to break free of the constraints that stardom and his own brand have placed on his artistic ambitions. He feels trapped by the constant tension between what he wants to be, and what he feels he must be in order to support his family and the people who depend on him. During our conversation, he often veers between expressing pride in his runaway success and moments of self-reproach for putting professional duties over artistry. “The first song that I made was for myself, nobody else," he says. “And after that there were expectations, there was judgement, there were constraints, there were labels, there were films, there were briefs. Now, after almost 10 years, I’m doing something for myself as a musician again."
But even on a record ostensibly about stepping away from the image he has built for himself, there are limits on how far he’s willing to push his fanbase. For all his bravado, Badshah seems beset by insecurities and concerns about how his fans will react to this left-field turn. Those insecurities—and the stress that comes with being such a big and polarizing figure in popular music—has taken its toll. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and one of the tracks that didn’t make the cut for O.N.E.—called Andhera—addresses his struggles with mental health. “It feels like an abyss, man, like you’re just falling and falling," he says. “With death you know there’s going to be an end to it. You’ll die, and then you won’t experience what you’re feeling right now. But with this thing, you see no end. The only thing that has helped me is writing music. I’m going to put Andhera out at the right time, I think it’s my responsibility to bring it out."
There are other tracks—at least 12—that he didn’t put on the album because he felt that the lyrics were too intimate and raw for him to release just yet. Well aware that the Indian music industry rarely offers second chances, Badshah is testing the waters with O.N.E. Its release is just one step in a larger game-plan that includes his many business ventures—streetwear line Badfit, a label imprint, a film and TV production house and a club franchise. “The plan is to be a major content producer, while simultaneously just doing what I want to do, releasing albums that I want to release," he says. “The ultimate redemption would be to break out of this image and still be able to earn. That’s the end goal."