The Metro FM award winner talks victory, vulgarity, style and making money.
Pinning down AKA for an interview turned out to be very difficult. He'd stood me up twice already, although apparently to no fault of his own. So when I was invited for lunch with AKA (real name Kiernan Forbes) and his manager Tibz, I was doubtful about him showing up.
But when I walk into a very quiet Japanese restaurant in northern Johannesburg on a Friday afternoon, I'm pleasantly surprised (and relieved) to find him there. Seated alone, fiddling away on his BlackBerry, he's wearing Buddy Holly-style glasses - but not because he has bad eyesight ("I eat all my carrots," he jokes later) - teamed with a grey blazer, white tee, black jeans and black sneakers.
He's got his 'hipster in GQ' look on (he was recently named one of the most stylish men in the country by GQ, by the way).
"Sometimes I dress like a rapper and sometimes I dress like a clean rapper," he says. "I just believe that you should be multifaceted in how you can appear because a huge part of people's perceptions – or one of the biggest parts – is image... so when I dress up I just like to make a statement."
AKA doesn't come across as the arrogant jerk he's often accused of being. He seems like a level-headed young man (he's only 23) but has a cheekiness that makes him endearing rather than offensive. He does get a little cocky at times, but it's to be expected: whether he approves or not, AKA is a bit of a superstar for both his music and his looks.
But everything else is secondary to the music. He won three Metro FM awards last weekend: Best Newcomer ("It was a big one for me, especially since I was in a very tough category," he says), Best Hip Hop ("Which is no surprise, really," he chuckles) and Best Produced Album for his debut Altar Ego. The awards were determined by public votes.
Having really blown up over the past year or so, AKA feels he's gone "from zero to hero". On the Altar Ego skit New Year, New Naira, comedian Loyisa Gola says no-one wanted to work with the rapper a year ago.
AKA says: "I'm not gonna say nobody but I mean last year the line of people who wanted to work [with me] and wanted to talk business and whatever the case may be, people who wanted to associate themselves with me – the line was considerably shorter.
"And now I think I'm in a bit stronger of a position. Now I can pick and choose… Cos now they're coming to me, I'm not going to them." He chuckles after that statement, something he does often after saying something that can be perceived as arrogant.
We talk about his debut single Victory Lap, which announced his arrival as a solo artist, having started his career as a member of the teenage rap trio Entity (he doesn't cringe in embarrassment when I bring up one particular Entity video which involved a boat and some dodgy dance moves).
"Victory Lap is about me stepping out," he says. "It is just a reflection of 'Hey, everybody, look at me. Here I am. This is my victory lap'... I mean, look at what that song did for me. I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't for Victory Lap."
The song's video won AKA a Channel O hip hop video of the year award.
He says: "The concept was just me in the video and I think that was very appealing for people to see because there were no girls, there were no cars, there were no planes, there were no boats [or] anything of the sort."
When I ask him why it took so long to release Altar Ego, he says: "I wanted it to be perfect. I put a lot of time into crafting the album because I had to make sure that people had been waiting so long for it that when it came it wasn't a disappointment."
He's had a good reception to the album, something he appreciates. "I think that I've been validated in all the time that I took to make the album," he says. "I mean you can't rush genius." He laughs, but I get the feeling he means it and is mighty proud of the album.
With subject matter involving troubled relationships (All I Know), making mistakes (Mistakes), life after high school (High School Cool) and a hunger for success (I Want it All), Altar Ego seems to be the chronicles of a young man's life.
"You hit the nail on the head cos that's all it is, really," he says. "Altar Ego is me documenting what has happened in my life over the last two years. And all the things that have happened to me. The transition into fame – I hate using that word – and all the challenges that come with it, from how it might affect relationships with the ones that I love. How it affects relationships between friends or family, you know."
He says it's a personal album, telling me that he's "not afraid to appear vulnerable through [his] music."
AKA says his musical process starts with beats he gets from producers. "When I get instrumentals and beats within 30 seconds I can tell like, 'Okay this is something I can work with, this is something I can't work with'," he says.
"It needs to be organic. It needs to speak to me. It needs to say something to me. It needs to be like, 'Hey, I'm a sad beat, write about this – hey I'm aggressive, write about this.' It needs to give me a feeling."
While he throws in the F-word here and there on Altar Ego, there is a refreshing lack of vulgarity on the album, especially considering that hip-hop music is infamous for being littered with profanity. "I use swear words for emphasis and not for lack of vocab," he says. "A lot of people use it because they lack the words to articulate themselves… I'm not a super-vulgar rapper."
Oh his Twitter bio (he has close to 25 000 followers), AKA describes himself as the "prince of SA rap". If he's the prince, who's the king? Tumi, HHP and Teargas, he says. He goes on to praise Tumi's vast experience and great backing band (The Volume, aka 340ml) and HHP's wide appeal. Teargas, he says, are the "benchmark" when it comes to music videos and endorsement deals.
Referring to all three artists, he says: "They can have the throne. For now."
An ambassador for clothing brand Head Honcho, AKA reckons it's very possible for musicians to make a living in South Africa.
"You need to treat it like a job," he says. "You need to have a plan, you need to have a good team to execute those plans. And I just believe that the industry has grown in leaps and bounds. Endorsements, sponsorships and business opportunities that weren't really afforded to artists a couple of years ago are now popping up left, right and centre."
He says he would love to work with Kanye West, while locally he's worked with almost every artist within the genre. Outside of hip-hop, he mentions Blk Jks, Cassette and Gold Fish as ideal collaborators.
"I’m pretty open-minded but I hate gimmicks," he says.
When he's not in the studio, in interviews, playing shows, filming videos or winning awards, the musician likes to play PS3 and watch TV shows such as Modern Family and the Cleveland Show, and he admits he's having a hard time getting into Emmy-winning fantasy series Game of Thrones.
When I ask him for parting words, he gives a PR-friendly answer: "Thank you to everybody who has won me these awards. Going into 2012 we're going to make it an even bigger year than 2011. I'm really looking forward to the Samas, I think I have a very good chance of winning. But I wouldn't wanna jinx it.
"But I think I have a good chance and I hope everybody gets behind me and rallies behind me and continues their support that I'm very thankful for. Keep buying the album. And I'll see you soon."
Strangely, I believe he's being sincere.