It’s a Wednesday in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the late afternoon light shines through the glass walls of Treehouse Recording Studios where OnCue, 25, is seated on a black leather couch. He’s preparing to do one of the final mixes for his long-anticipated album, Angry Young Man, which, after two and a half years of production, is just two weeks from release.
OnCue, born Geoffrey Sarubbi, stretches across the couch, wearing a pair of high-top black boots, faded and slim-fitting jeans, and a familiar black v-neck. He takes periodic long puffs from an electronic hookah, slowly blowing the smoke so that it briefly dangles in the center of the room. His phone buzzes against the leather every few minutes, due to the fact that he released “So Much Love”, the album’s second official single, shortly before I arrived. “We’re number eighteen!” he shouts, sitting up slightly, after taking a quick glance at his screen. He’s referring to the Billboard Emerging Artists list. His last single, “This View From Here”, peaked at number four. He composes a quick tweet before settling back into the couch, and tossing his phone across it, out of reach.
His manager, Jason Salmon, who OnCue met in 2007 after booking his Hartford studio, owns the five-room suite, which serves as the base for his production company, AtWork Music. After first meeting, the two became friends, and when he opened Treehouse in 2010, he signed Cue. “We really bonded over Lost,” Cue says offhandedly, with a laugh. “I was like eighteen. I think I was just about to graduate high school.” They’ve split work on the album between here and Stadium Red, Just Blaze’s Harlem studio—who happens to be the album’s executive producer.
“Just and I actually met really organically through a mutual friend. He came here right before we dropped the ‘Feel Tall’ video and we played him Can’t Wait. I remember he was sitting right here, exactly where I am, and when he heard ‘Running’ he was like, ‘Dude, I can hear this on the radio!’ That was the first record we did together, and it really set the bar for the production of the whole album.”
The iconic New York producer, who rose to prominence in the early ‘00s while crafting a batch of Roc-A-Fella hits (Jay Z’s “Song Cry” and “Girls, Girls, Girls”, Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy”, and Freeway’s “Flipside”—just to name a few) has production credits on six of the album’s twelve songs, and is responsible for its overall heightened sound. “I like to call it the Just Blaze filter. I mean, really, that’s what it is. If you’re familiar with him, you know everything he fucking does is huge. He doesn’t do minimalistic shit. So whether he was working on the record or someone else was, we knew what the final goal had to be.”
In addition to his impact on the production, Cue didn’t take it lightly that he’d be rapping on the beats of a producer who’d worked with many of hip-hop’s best lyrical talents, including Jay Z, Eminem, Big Pun, and Talib Kweli. As an artist known as much for his melodic song-craft and pop ear as for his lyricism, he made the choice to really hone in on his raps for this project. “When Just co-signed me, I made the conscious decision to really tighten up my flows and my rhymes. It was kinda like I woke up one day and I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I’m making an album with Just, I need to go ham! I need to make him look good.’”
That dedication to his writing is immediately apparent on the album, especially on songs like “Don’t Forget Your Coat” and “So Much Love”—the latter, a song about a boy being abused by his father, is one that he spent the better part of a year constantly revising. These songs, like many on the album, showcase OnCue’s newfound gift as a storyteller, as he ventures more deeply into his own story, as well as that of others. “I was really inspired by records like Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, which is this world-renowned pop song, but it’s actually about his drug addiction. I definitely wanted to push myself to write records like that, where the lyrics are subtle, so that it doesn’t drag the song down, but when you keep listening you start to pick it up.”
Other songs venture into his own childhood, powered by a grace he’s developed as an introspective writer. On the title track, backed by a blazing, Yeezus-inspired synth line, Cue raps in third person about his difficult childhood, especially in relation to his father—a common topic on AYM as well as his earlier works: “He tells his son to his face that there’s no cheddar / Claims he’s sober, but he grew to know better / That ain’t skepticism, that’s defense mechanisms…”
Throughout the different narratives of the album, which Cue calls “semi-conceptual”, the unifying force is the title, which he felt was perfectly representative of the story he wanted to tell. It comes from a biography of Billy Joel that he borrowed from a friend, called “The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man”. While he knew the direction he wanted to take with his next project even before that, once he saw the title, it all came together. “As an upcoming artist, unfortunately you get bunched in with artists that you don’t necessarily like or respect, and when I came across the title, I just felt like, ‘this is fucking me, you know. Like, I’m finally in my own shoes.’”
The universality of his story has been the focal point of his marketing, conveyed by the marketing phrase, “AYM is all of us”, which has become ubiquitous in his social media. He hopes that the theme of being born into what he calls “a broken situation” will have resonance with his listeners, and he’s excited about that aspect of his role as a performer. That is most vivid in the album’s closer, “This View From Here”, where he declares, “I’m proud to be these broken kids’ icon.” OnCue’s perseverance and honesty is frequently present in his songs, and the emotion he invokes in his most personal records has earned him his fiercely dedicated and passionate fan base.
As the album whips by, it becomes clear how incredibly precise OnCue and his team of producers were in crafting each record, down to every note and lyric. Cue’s writing and vocal performances are consistently potent and vivid, even as he shifts into a more arrogant part of the storyline, on cuts like “Every Last Dollar”, and the R&B-inspired “Roleplay”. While Just Blaze is undoubtedly—as Cue best put it—“a wizard of drums”, on songs like “Stories to Tell”, I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t listed in the credits. “I guess we figured out his recipe,” Cue says, his smile slightly clouded by his last puff.
At the end of the song, Cue straightens his back, takes off his hat, and hits pause on the SoundCloud player on the studio monitor. “This next song is a lot of people’s favorites. It’s one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. It’s the resolve of the story.” He puts his flat-brim back on and hits play on what is arguably the album’s most poignant record, “A Rolling Stone”. Cue is powerfully candid while talking about his father, with lines such as, “Love my father / But not the mess he made,” and the hook, which states, “They say I look like my father / I say, well I’d rather be a rolling stone.” The production has a Passion Pit feel, and he refers to it as a continuation of “The Geoffrey” from Can’t Wait, though “ten times better.” His father has yet to hear the album, though he’s asked for it, but they did have a talk about his role in Cue’s music. They now speak regularly, and his father claims to be fully sober.
“We had a discussion about the fact that he’s a recurring character in my work. I told him, ‘I can’t stop writing about it.’ I said he’d become a symbol within the music and that people relate to me on a super deep level because of it. I can’t just remove him from my music.” His father often tries to introduce people to his son’s music, which is kind of ironic, given how he’s often portrayed in it. “He’s always like, ‘Yo, listen to my son! He’s awesome!’ And they’ll listen to it and be like, ‘Uh, George, have you actually listened to this?’”
What really matters most to OnCue, though, is creating art that is meaningful for himself and his fans. It’s that dedication to his work that has kept him in the studio daily, perfecting Angry Young Man for two and a half years. It’s that drive that has pushed him to analyze and revise every lyric, to make this album a dramatic improvement from an already uncharacteristically deep-seated effort in Can’t Wait. On September 3rd, Angry Young Man, a creative and commanding look into the lives of several products of imperfect childhoods, will be yours. But what is most arresting is Cue’s own self-portrait, an absorbing narrative of his flawed youth. Before he hits play on the album’s ardent encore, he sifts through several words before saying, “I went through these things, whether they were for a reason or not.” As he taps the play button for the final time, there’s a palpable sense of pride in the room. “This is who I am.”