For the last year and a half, a baby blue 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme has sat outside of the Joseph Maxeau Auto Repair shop in Miami-Dade County. Shit is clean. The kind of car you would maybe see in Dukes of Hazards or Hawaii Five-0. The car — or donk depending on who you ask — sparkles when the Miami sun hits it right; The car shines, despite the fact it sits adjacent to the shop’s garish aqua blue walls.
The exterior of the car is gorgeous. The interior is trashed.
The Cutlass belongs to 25-year-old singer Twelve’Len, who has been slowly fixing up the car with his dad, who owns the shop. When I went to Carol City, Florida to visit the singer, in early August, Twelve’Len was about a week away from installing a new interior and finishing his donk. At this point, the car had only been driven once by Twelve’Len: to the shop. He purchased the car for $1,600 from an old Cuban who wanted $2,200.
“He didn’t speak any English but my dad speaks Spanish…So I called my dad. I was like “Ay, Papi come over here real quick,” Twelve’Len said. “[My dad] was like ‘How much you got on you?’ I was like, ‘Man, I only got $1,600,’ and he was like, ‘All right I’m gonna talk him down.’ So when they go to talking, the guy started shaking and almost crying or whatever because he bought the car when he came from Cuba and his son got into some trouble. He needed the money for his son.”
A 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme is an odd choice for an emerging singer in his 20s. Especially one from Miami. Because, listen, riding old school isn’t really a Miami thing. Maybe when you get to slower cities like Mississippi or New Orleans or even Jacksonville you’ll see someone driving a clean donk or vert. But Miami is a fast city, full of finessers and money-getters. A place where someone will hop out of a $250,000 car to get a $5 plate of food.
“I’m the only person in South Florida, period, with a baby blue Cutlass. I know that,” Twelve’Len said.
It’s clear bucking the norm isn’t new for Twelve’Len who was born, raised, and still resides in Carol City. For the last five years, the South Florida rap scene has been as fertile as it’s ever been. The city is rich with talented, tough rappers. Twelve’Len, who started out rapping, has been around them all. And yet, he’s built his name singing.
Rick Ross is the most popular Florida rapper of all time. Born in Carol City, Ross never strived to be Trick Daddy; he wanted to be JAY-Z. He made grand musical choices to appease a wide spectrum of fans.
And because of that, he shared Hov’s iciness. He was always cool, sunglasses were always on. Ross rarely showed you vulnerability. So while the songs always sounded good, and Ross was, at one point, a world-class MC, his music could be shallow. It always felt like Ross was striving to make a classic hip-hop album, rather than a classic Miami hip-hop album. Because of Ross’ ambitions, and his shapeshifting ability, he didn’t really dictate where Miami music was sonically.
While the Ross era could be defined by coolness. The next iteration of South Florida rappers were defined by heat.
It started with SpaceGhostPurrp (who provided A$AP Rocky with his first big look) in 2011. From there you had Denzel Curry, Robb Bank$, and eventually the deceased XXXTentacion, fireball rappers full of raw emotion who built a fanbase on SoundCloud.
And Twelve’Len stood next to all of them. He’s freestyled with Purrp and Curry (who he calls “gangsta Anime”) at Bel Air Academy; he’s lived with Ronny J, one of the architects of Miami’s current sound; and he’s had long, deep conversations with controversial rapper XXXTentacion. (Those are conversations that didn’t always sit right with Twelve’Len: “With him, I always have one eyebrow raised. You feel me? ‘Cause I didn’t grow up with him and I didn’t know him on that level and with me, with anybody, I always question your motive, even if you’re vulnerable.”)
Twelve’Len watched his peers blow up and turn Miami into a real scene. And while those peers brought the heat, Twelve’Len came with warmth. During the years when Miami took off (2013 to 2016), Twelve’Len was working with a live band, cranking out songs about love, loneliness, betrayal, seduction. His 2016 project Fri(end)s became a sleeper that year, largely due to the success of “Star Dust,” a seductive song about dancing with a girl.
You can hear the grit and soul in those records. A lot has been made of the fact that R&B singers nowadays aren’t being birthed by the church, but hip-hop. And while young R&B singers grew up listening to Drake, Twelve’Len sounds like he came up listening to Dungeon Family. (Which is actually true; his favorite album is Goodie Mob’s Still Standing.)
In an interview with Pigeons and Planes, back whenTwelve’Len was pushing Fri(end)s, he talked about why he chose to sing instead of rap:
If I wanna stand out with this shit, I gotta do something different. I went back to my roots, I started playing around with melodies in my records and it began to evolve. As far as the sound that I create now, I didn’t do it on my own. I was always influenced by rock, that’s why I like to call my music rock & soul more than anything else.
In early August, Red Bull released a documentary about the singer called Definition of a Florida Boy. In it Curry, who is also from Carol City, talks about the singer:
“Twelve’Len is one of the hardest rappers you’ll hear in your life… and he was just like fuck that I’m finna do some different shit because everyone rapping.”
Twelve’Len should probably have a new project out now. He had been working on an album with Ben Billions and Infamous. But he scrapped it. On a whim. He was done with the project when he realized he wasn’t being “honest.” It was a conclusion he came to while watching the excellent Nina Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
“She was just like saying like she believes that it’s an artist duty to reflect. And my whole thing with this album is to be able to get replay value and make people resonate to the album because when people are able to connect it replays,” Twelve’Len said. “So how do you do that? By being honest. How do you be honest? Reflecting. Reflecting on times and moments.”
He’s learned to trust those whims. In 2013 he quit his decent job as a security guard to do music full time. At the height of his security guard career, he was making $18 bucks an hour, which isn’t bad for a Carol City kid who didn’t graduate high school. But the boss was a dick, and kept sending him out to further workstations. Twelve’Len stopped picking up his calls. It wasn’t easy having no steady income. But he got through it by picking up little shows here and there and gambling when things got really tight (he claims to be undefeated with slot machines).
He was also putting out music constantly. But something wasn’t right. And a deep depression hit during the 2014 to 2015 years.
“For a year I fasted,” Twelve’Len said. “I fasted from like eating red meats. I was fasting from social media. I was fasting sexually. Like I was fasting a lot of different ways.”
During this time he would take weekly trips to the beach. Every Sunday he would skip out on church and go for a long swim. The goal? try to have some sort of breakthrough.
“I’d go out in the water and I’d talk to myself,” Twelve’Len said. “And I just kept talking to myself and I just started like, a bunch of stuff just started coming to me. You gotta do this here. You gotta smash this show.”
It was during this time when Coach K, who manages Migos, Lil Yachty, and Cardi B, contacted him out of the blue.
“He called me and we just started talking for hours and he was like, ‘I’m a big fan bro,’ Twelve’Len said. “And we became entwined, immediately. He started introducing me to different people…And that’s what I love the most about him is that he didn’t come in as management. He just connected me.”
Soon he was rubbing shoulders with industry insiders. He was doing deals with brands like Red Bull. And he was being gifted books from people like Tuma Basa, who was at Spotify at the time but is now the Director of Urban Music at YouTube. (Tuma gave him numerous books, including Hit Men, the one thing you must read if you’re trying to break in the music industry.)
Twelve’Len is an interesting figure to spend an afternoon with. When you lose him in a conversation you know it. Ask him about certain past details he becomes non-descriptive. Things start to feel like an interrogation. “I was somewhat of a delinquent…I was just somewhat of a menace at a certain time,” he said sheepishly when asked about what he was like as a kid. Or when you ask him about his time with the band, and why he left, he’ll get a curt: “I just started discovering new sounds and new things.”
But when you have his attention, you really have it. Ask him about future projects he’ll talk about the new album he’s been recording, called Precious, and how he’s adding subs to his songs (but not trap drums — because he hates trap drums.)
Or ask him to talk about Miami, and you hear all the love. He goes on about being a kid and watching Rick Ross and Poe Boy members walk in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade; he reminisces about where the old Flea Market used to be (it’s a Burlington Coat Factory now.) He glows when speaking about Snappers, a local chicken joint that serves fried wings dusted with Lemon pepper and Kool-Aid sweet lemonade. He gleams with pride about the chain and Flordia pendant his sister made for him. And about the clothes he wears: “This is [all from] my homies. All I wear is local brands. Everything you see I have on is always local.”
But then you also see Twelve’Len start to think bigger than Miami. His favorite city is Seattle. He randomly has season tickets to the Green Bay Packers. He talks about doing most of his recording in L.A. He wants to travel abroad and make memories. And he goes on about doing other shit besides singing.
“I love music, but music has only opened doors for me,” Twelve’Len said. It’s amazing to have these doors open up and to be able to do other things outside of music, like organize events and come up with concepts for different people and brands.”
He also talks about his next car: a 1981 BMW 528i. Either convertible or hard top.
(Editor’s note: Red Bull flew out the writer of this piece for a screening of the documentary.)
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