The sun is high above Lakewood. Late afternoon in early June feels like the flesh-searing, rolling blackout days of August. Somehow, Nhale doesn’t sweat, not even when he dons a thick, black corduroy shirt jacket for a photo shoot in the alleyway behind his grandmother’s home. But Sky, one of his grandmother’s sweet, ever-grinning pit bulls, needs shade. After Nhale brings Sky a bowl of water and leads him to a patch of asphalt that won’t scald his paws, the shoot moves to his grandmother’s partly-shaded front lawn.
“I come here every morning and check on the dogs,” Nhale says before mapping the daily trek from his Fullerton home to Lakewood to whichever L.A. county studio he’s recording the latest addition to his neo-G-Funk catalog.
He also visits to check on his grandmother, Becky, who kindly hands me a damp washcloth when Sky streaks my pants with a thick slick of mud and saliva. She expresses her pride in Nhale in the same breath that tells him to pick up the dog shit in the grass. While Becky and I marvel at the towering, multi-story stalk that shot up from the center of her massive aloe vera cactus for the first time in 25 years, her 25-year-old grandson grabs a plastic bag, stoops, and scoops.
“She means everything to me,” Nhale explains. “I want to put her on a private jet and show her things she’s never seen. That’s one of my top goals.”
Nhale sheds the black shirt jacket mid-shoot, his bare shoulders revealing tattooed portraits of his mother and late father, the other people who mean everything to him. Even casual West Coast rap fans will recognize the man sporting a bandana. It’s Nate Dogg, once the undisputed king of hooks. From the early ’90s to the mid-’00s, his warm, deep baritone floated on countless hits from Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and more — while bringing shades of soul and gospel to G-Funk and rap writ large. Drive around L.A. while tuned to 93.5 KDAY, and you’ll hear his inimitable voice crooning about women, weed, and weather several times an hour.
A decade after his father’s passing, Nhale has become one of LA’s most promising rap talents, reimagining the genre his father helped define while defining his own sound. “I like [G-Funk] because I come from it. I didn’t choose G-Funk — it chose me,” Nhale says. “But if you put on me and my pops, it sounds completely different.”
Nhale’s second full-length project, The Next Episode, is steeped in tradition yet feels fresh. Most of the beats from producers AC3 Beats and L Finguz play like reverent hybrids of G-Funk (synths that dance like sunlight on gold Dayton rims) and the sparse yet equally slamming sound of contemporary L.A. rap. Nhale’s voice can be slightly grittier than his father’s, but he can still shift seamlessly between deep croons and smooth, melodic rapping. Though Nhale confidently reprises the role of the perpetually stoned and cruising mack (“Options”) — sometimes with help from his father’s former collaborators (Kurupt and Battlecat) — he’s more emotionally vulnerable and openly conflicted. Nate may have never met a girl he loved in the whole wide world, but Nhale is searching, uncertain whether he’s found love (“Let Her In”). The differences are essential to Nhale, but the project’s title pays homage to his father for a reason.
“When my pops died, I didn’t feel like he got the respect he deserved. I decided that if I was going to do music, I was going to shine a light on him. He made this shit possible.”
Born Naijiel Hale, Nhale is his mother’s only son. When I ask if he has siblings outside of his older half-brother, Nathaniel, who once rapped as Lil Nate Dogg, Nhale quips, “I have five half-siblings. You listened to [my dad’s] songs, right?” His father maintained an active recording and touring schedule, but Nhale fondly remembers trips to the arcade at Lakewood’s Cal Bowl bowling alley, marathon video game sessions at dad’s many houses, and VIP treatment whenever Nate brought the kids to amusement parks.
Unfortunately, Nate’s health declined rapidly following a 2007 stroke. When he passed away in 2011, his family, closest collaborators, and 1,000 fans mourned him at a funeral inside the Long Beach Cruise Terminal, an enormous geodesic dome that once housed one of Howard Hughes’ planes.
Instead of channeling his grief into music, Nhale increased his devotion to football. A local star on Snoop Dogg’s Pop Warner team, the Pomona Steelers, Nhale became a national prospect at Bellflower Catholic high school St. John Bosco, where he played wide receiver and cornerback. By the time Nhale committed to Washington University, 247Sports had ranked him the 23rd-best cornerback in the U.S. Unfortunately, he was shot in the forearm while getting a haircut the day before his high school graduation. Nhale healed in time for his freshman season, but he began smoking weed to cope with the lingering physical pain and psychological trauma. When he failed his inaugural Washington drug test, random tests became mandatory.
Nhale gritted through the pain and thrived as a defensive back at Washington. During the off-season, though, he started smoking again and a failed drug test led to his dismissal. After transferring to Montana State, he was arrested in connection with an on-campus drug sting, charged with felony distribution of dangerous drugs and a misdemeanor count of possession of dangerous drugs. The drugs in question were Xanax, and cops only found weed at Nhale’s apartment. After the trial, Nhale, one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, finished his college career at a Division II college in Colorado.
“I was upset with myself because I shouldn’t have been around that stuff. I should’ve been focusing on school and going to practice. But that’s what happens when you come from a misunderstood neighborhood and [the coaching staff] is only worried about what you do on the field. They need you to feed their family because your talent is so good, but they don’t care that you have a brain in there.”
Nhale spent his post-grad years honing his inherited musical talent in Lakewood. He followed his first project, Young OG, with the auspicious Young Dogg EP. In the wake of The Next Episode, Nhale’s career has bloomed like his grandmother’s cactus. He’s received offers from record labels and has several notable 2021 performances, including a set at Once Upon a Time in LA, where he’ll perform on a bill that includes Snoop, Warren G and more of his father’s peers. Nate will be there in spirit, but Nhale hopes people are ready for him.
“[My dad taught me] how to hold certain letters at the end of a word or how to basically make those silent, but I was so young that it’s hard for me to remember. When I remember little bits of it, sometimes it’s enough for me to go off of. Then I just add the rest of me in there.”