The Story Behind One of the Best Album Covers of the Year, 6LACK's 'FREE 6LACK'

When 6LACK came to the office to play some of his new music, he walked in quietly. Dressed in all black, with his hair covering most of his face, and he answered questions humbly, mostly in a few words at a time. The Atlanta artist's music is intensely personal, but that's not a quality that he seemed eager to share.

After an hour or so of hanging out, I got the first glimpse of 6LACK's personality when we started talking about the striking cover of his upcoming album FREE 6LACK. It's a picture of him sitting on bed next to an enormous bear. "People always think it's CGI," he laughed. "That's a real bear, though!"

The next day, I called him to ask about that bear, and while I was thinking I'd get a fluffy story about what it's like to work with a bear, I ended up getting an even better understanding of 6LACK himself.

When you first started thinking of ideas for this album cover, what did you want to get across?

Initially, I kind of felt like whatever we did, I wanted it to be a direct reflection or representation of who I was. Although I’m not an out there, in-your-face, flashy person, I still wanted to have that effect of something that was powerful when you saw it. I think the image of me next to the bear is the ideal thing. I didn’t have to step out of my element, I didn’t have to be in front of anything I didn’t want to be in front of, or around anything I didn’t want to be around. It was just a photograph, and the photograph alone tells the story.

How did the idea first come up?

It’s crazy because we knew we wanted the bear for the ["Prblms"] video shoot. We didn’t know it would be the cover. It was like, we’ve got a bear here, we’ve been trying to figure out the cover, and it was just the perfect opportunity. Right on the set, we were like, “Let’s get the album cover.”

How hard was it to get the bear?

To get the bear was easy. To actually get the bear to do what I needed him to do, that was a whole different story. The first day, the first six hours were dedicated solely to the bear walking in the room and looking around. Everyone was kind of holding their breath, hoping the bear would do what it was supposed to do. You can't make a bear do anything.

the first six hours were dedicated solely to the bear walking in the room and looking around. You can't make a bear do anything.

He would walk in, look around, and walk back out to the trailer. It did that shit for literally six hours, just sticking its head halfway in and being like “nah” and turning around and going to the trailer. Whenever he goes to the trailer, they have to lock him up because that’s how he’s trained. So he goes in, they lock him in there, give him time to chill, then let him back out 15 minutes later.

So they did that for six hours, and we realized we just had to do the video shoot. Then we finally we got him comfortable on the second day, because the first day was completely a fail. The second day we got a hangar so he could have more space to be in, and that's when we got the photo.

6lack Bear
Image via 6LACK

Did the bear have a name?

Yeah, Bam Bam.

What kind of vibe did you get from Bam Bam? Did it have a personality?

Around everybody else, he was comfortable, in general. But when it came to me and him, we were making eye contact and he would kind of shy away. I didn’t know what to think of it, at first. After a couple of days with the bear, I was seeing how he moved and how he acted, and he reminded me of myself in a lot of ways.

I don’t know, it was just like… [Long pause] I’m sorry, I’m actually, like, reflecting on this bear right now. Honestly it was the shyest, I-don’t-even-know-if-I’m-a-bear personality a bear could have. You know, the bear is a 700-plus pound, 17-year-old grizzly bear, and it doesn’t even realize that in five seconds it could fuck up the whole video set and fuck up everyone on the set. I don’t think it really understood that, and every time I would make eye contact with it, it would be a quick little stare down, and then he would back off. And I was like, “Are you the bear? Am I the bear? Do I scare you? Aren’t you supposed to scare me?”

Overall, there was never a point when I felt like we were in trouble or anything was about to go wrong. It was just a matter of this bear being comfortable and doing what we needed it to do.

What did he eat?

They pay him in snacks. So that was Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, Pop-Tarts, and marshmallows. That’s when he knows he’s working, when he gets that shit.

And you were allowed to feed him?

Yeah, definitely. Every time I did it he would have his snack and then he’d remember like, “Oh yeah, it’s that guy again.” Any time I came by he’d be like, “Oh shit, here’s the guy.” And he’d come up to me, eat the snack, then go back to his trailer.

6lack bear 2
Image via 6LACK

You kind of touched on this already, that this bear is kind of representation of you in a way. Does it have any deeper meaning in the context of this album?

Yeah. I feel like as big and vicious as a bear can be, a bear also has grounding qualities. They’re peaceful in a way, and they have qualities that are healing in a way. With this album, I wanted it to be powerful, I wanted it to be aggressive, but I also wanted it to be calming. I want people to feel something. Regardless of how personal it can be at sometimes, and how intense the message is, it can still give you a soothing feel. That’s what I feel when I think about a bear.

I’ve seen just from Twitter, people are talking about you and this album, and that bear emoji is becoming a thing that everyone’s using and attaching to you. Was that the plan? Are you going to keep encouraging that?

The bear has been moniker for the longest, but it was never on the forefront. What’s been on the forefront is just my name, 6LACK, and the number 6 because the number 6 is an important number to me. But the bear has been a moniker, but it was actually a piece of an old song. It was a cover art photo for an older song called “Merry Go.” On the cover, there was a bear logo on this carousel. And we actually just went back to it one day and looked at it while we were going through a little rebranding phase, and I looked down and saw the bear and was like, “Oh shit, that might be it.” So we went back, got the files for that cover art and just pulled the bear from it. And that’s pretty much been the campaign since then.

Going into it, I felt small compared to the bear. By the end of the shoot, I felt like the bear.

So do you see the bear being this album, and then you’ll move on from that? Or do you think this is part of you and what you want people to associate with you from now on?

It’s definitely a part of me. But that’s not to say that every project will always incorporate the bear or that logo. For that matter, I think the name is something that’s already understood. So whether we play off that or take it in another direction, I think the bear will always be there. And fans are always going to stick with it too.

Do you think you’ll ever see Bam Bam again?

You know, if I did see Bam Bam again I don’t think he’d be very excited. [Laughs] He had a long two days on set and I think he was just ready to go home.

Just being around an animal that huge and powerful, did it have any effect on you? Did it make you think about things differently, just knowing that you’re two feet from something that could rip you apart?

It was definitely humbling, because like you said, it could have went that way. Obviously when we went into it, we had to read all the safety shit, and prepare for any situation. We had to prepare for the worst. But it was humbling, and it puts things into perspective for me. I make sure I process everything that happens in my life. Going into it, I felt small compared to the bear. By the end of the shoot, I felt like the bear.

@6lack feeding Bam Bam the bear at the shoot that led to his album cover. FREE 6LACK comes out Friday. 🐻

A video posted by Pigeons & Planes (@pigsandplans) on Nov 15, 2016 at 9:48am PST

6LACK's album FREE 6LACK comes out on Friday, November 18. Pre-order it here.

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