Devin Nyshawn Arnold, better known in the Denver rap scene as DNA Picasso, released his fourth full-length album in three years on February 12. But this latest release, titled Picasso Gvng University, is much more than a DNA Picasso album. A collaborative project spotlighting more than twenty different artists and producers, it introduces the world to Picasso Gvng, his new record label repping artists he handpicked.
After establishing himself as one of Denver hip-hop's finest, Arnold felt like forming his own label was a natural next step for his career.
"I feel like I just wanted to be creative and have my own vision and start my own thing. I was tired of trying to be a part of everyone else's movements and visions when I already had my own, and I felt like I could take it to the next level," he says. "I already had people close to me who I had been making music with, who are very talented, and they all deserve a shot. I feel like in this scene, people get closed out, so I definitely wanted to highlight them and open up more doors for more artists out here."
Along with DNA Picasso, the label's roster includes Forty $even, SixthAve, Jamaal Lyndell, psmikerose, Jus-CJ, Dom G and Biz, all of whom are based in the Denver metro area. (The most recent addition, K$avagee, was signed after the completion of Picasso Gvng University, so he does not appear on the album.) On top of that, the label has an international group of twelve producers, spanning the globe from Colorado to Venezuela to the Netherlands. While Arnold already knew many of the artists, the rest of the crew actually approached him about a potential collaboration.
"They knew of me, and they reached out to me after I put up a series of posts introducing or teasing the idea of having a label, just to see who might want to be down with the movement," he says. "I got a lot of messages from artists, and I picked people who I thought would be the best fit."
The newly forged Picasso Gvng was thrown right into the fire, kicking things off with intense group sessions at the Lab Studio, where Picasso Gvng University was conceptualized and recorded.
"I had all the artists together and about 80 percent of the producers, so studio sessions were big. But it made for a quick workflow," Arnold relates. "Quick" might be an understatement: "Half of it happened in one eight-hour session. I think we ended up with 25 songs in three sessions. We make a good team."
With a surplus of material to work with, they picked their fifteen favorite tracks for the album.
Of course, it helps having a pro like Arnold at the helm. With so many moving parts and limited studio time, he made sure to take advantage of every moment.
"I love productive studio sessions. If you know me and you see me in a studio session, you see me like, if I'm not rapping, I'm sitting looking at the computer making sure that the mixes are right, orchestrating things, making sure certain artists are ready to go on a certain song. You know — 'Who's ready? Who's got a verse?' Everything is quick, on the fly, and I did it that way just to make those creative juices flow," he explains. "It's a different beast when you have to come up with things on the spot."
And going from freestyling to writing to recording in a matter of hours has its advantages, too.
"For me, I'll write something, and I won't go to the studio for a week or two, and then that emotion, that feeling I had when I wrote that song, isn't necessarily the same when I go to the studio and record it," he explains. "So when I have the opportunity to freestyle and come up with stuff on the spot, you can hear that emotion, you can feel the authenticity of what I'm saying, and I feel like the bars are better that way."
That off-the-cuff technique lends Picasso Gvng University a unique playfulness, successfully channeling the raw energy of a packed house party (remember those?) into fifteen catchy, club-ready tracks.
Naturally, the sheer number of artists involved with the album makes Picasso Gvng University different from any of DNA Picasso's past work.
"It's way more collaborative. Every single song is a collaboration. The album as a whole is a collaboration. The beats are a collaboration. There's a lot more singing on there," says the rapper. "Personally, I've stepped into a whole new bag on this album. I'm showing a different version of DNA. This album is an example of us all pushing each other, stepping outside of the box, stepping outside of our comfort zones and making some real music."
That said, he admits that sometimes it felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen during the recording process.
"That's why during my mixing and mastering sessions, it was literally just me and the engineer," he says. "Because it came to a point where there were so many ideas, so many opinions, so many people in the room, it was almost hard for me to think and make decisions."
But using his experienced hand, he was able to distill the studio sessions into polished tracks while leaving the spirit of a rousing cypher intact. You'll be reminded why DNA Picasso has become a fixture in Denver rap, but you'll also probably discover your next favorite Denver rapper among the lineup.
Recording an album with twenty-plus contributors is an ambitious undertaking no matter what, but the challenge was exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions and the need for new safety protocols.
"It was a bit of a process," Arnold says of ensuring Picasso Gvng's health and safety. "Everyone had to get tested and make sure they were negative before coming to any studio sessions or video shoots. It was hard that certain people couldn't make it. Like with the "She Love It" video — Carmeezy, the one who produced the beat, as well as a few other producers, couldn't make it to the shoot because they had been exposed to somebody who was in proximity to someone else with COVID. We had to definitely be responsible."
Luckily, since Picasso Gvng has a whole team of artists and producers, the video, which they released on March 20, is still fully populated.
Arnold knows what direction he'll be taking the label in next: "Up. Up, up, up, up, up. I'm absolutely focused on my artists right now, but I'm also looking at expanding. I think it's just going to come in due time. When it happens, it happens.
"I'm looking into building my own studio and just making everything bigger," he adds. "Getting everyone bigger deals, more opportunities to be an artist and get paid to be in the service of your gift. That's everybody's dream."
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