Ben Reilly talks ‘FREELANCE’ album, creative process, and more [Interview]

Raised in New York and Atlanta, Ben Reilly possesses an innate sense for crafting resonant, refreshing songs that feel explorative and highly detailed. Inspired by the love for comic books, film, and music he’s had since childhood, his songs paint an entire picture through imagery-rich lyricism and vivid soundscapes. Chatting with him, it quickly became obvious just how much thought he puts into all that he does creatively, from songwriting to production to visuals and cover art. This meticulous approach manifested itself in his debut album FREELANCE, a vibrant, atmospheric collection of tracks that weaved together concepts and stories that feel deeply layered, with each taking time to fully unpack. This release helped propel him into the spotlight as a revitalizing new voice in hip-hop, and his song “Maytag (Tax Free)” became a viral success on TikTok, spreading like wildfire across the platform seemingly overnight. We sat down with Reilly to discuss creating his debut album, his new music video for “Townhouse”, and what the future holds.

Reilly was raised in a single parent household in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and found himself surrounded by music at a young age, with his mother playing an array of old school hip-hop and R&B. It was not until he heard a specific song however, that he decided hip-hop was something he wanted to pursue. “I got super into hip-hop through my mom, but the song that first inspired me to become a rapper was “Nightmares” by Dana Dane. This is the song that made me say, okay, this is what I want to do when I grow up”. He also absorbed inspiration from family members who were involved with music, which created a sense of healthy competition. “My older cousin was rapping, and I used to try to keep up with them, even though they kept saying they weren’t feeling me as a rapper yet”. Sharpening his skills over the years and drawing influence from fellow Brooklyn artists like JAY-Z and Mos Def, he began to find his footing as a natural storyteller and prolific lyricist.

Then, partway through his adolescence he moved to Atlanta, another major music hub but one with an entirely different flavor. Here he was introduced to the vibrant, warm sound of southern artists like Andre 3000, and paired this influence with his New York upbringing to shape a style that was truly his own. “Both of the city’s sounds are completely different, with New York being very focused on bars, whereas with Atlanta it was more about melodies. With Atlanta, their lyricism is very catchy, and I try to be very catchy with my writing but still maintain the bars”. His beat selection also reflects his upbringing in the two regions, “I love 808s but I also really like dirty loops with boom-bap drums. I try my best to blend both of these elements together”. Alongside his collective Abstract Media, Reilly began to rise in Atlanta as an up-and-comer in the underground in the mid-2010s, as he recorded and performed together extensively. “We’ve been recording together for as long as we’ve known each-other. It was sort of a “steel sharpens steel” situation, I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for them”.

Reilly has also had a long-time passion for comics, even drawing his name from Ben Reilly in the Spiderman series. “Comics inspired my creativity a lot, because of them I’m very into world building. If I’m creating a project, I want to make sure you can submerge yourself in what I’m doing, I want it to feel like you’re a part of my world when you listen to it”. Nowhere is this more evident than on his debut full-length project FREELANCE, which collects detailed stories drawn from his inner creative realm and pairs them with immersive soundscapes.

Reilly said the ideas for FREELANCE came to him during the quarantine in 2020, saying he wished to create an album that felt freeing in a time that was restricted and stressful for many. “During quarantine, it was a depressing time for people, and I lost some people close to me. I would go for jogs around the neighborhood as a way to meditate on things and clear my mind, and I would often come across red cardinal birds. After a while I was like “why do I keep seeing these birds every day?”, and I googled the meaning behind them. I learned that they represented peace, freedom, and also a loved one who’s no longer with you coming back to visit you and tell you everything’s going to be okay”.

He chose to make this concept the heart of the album, titling two songs “Red Bird” and “Brown Bird” and even applying it to the project’s specific run time and track-listing. “Red cardinals are male and brown ones are female, and that’s why I made “Red Bird” a song about me and “Brown Bird” a love song. I also learned that the longest they’d lived in captivity was 13 years, and the longest they’d lived free was 28 years. So I challenged myself to make 13 songs in 28 minutes for the project”.

With an intentional creative process that finds him mindful of every detail, Reilly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to planning a release. “It’s very important for me to make sure I know what I want to talk about, and which direction I want to go with it all. I feel that if you don’t have a vision, you won’t go anywhere with it. For my album, the core theme is freedom, I don’t think it’s a concept album, but that theme applied to everything within it”. The theme is intrinsically linked to the album’s evocative cover art as well, “that’s why I’m on the cover with the rope around me and the birds, symbolizing the idea of no more strings attached”.

Considering that FREELANCE is such a layered, emotive record that takes patience to digest, it is interesting that it also inspired a viral moment on TikTok. Album cut “Maytag (Tax Free)” spread like wildfire on the platform, racking up millions of views and introducing his music to a whole new audience. “It felt insane, it was funny because the song was out for way longer than it was on TikTok. I recorded it two years ago originally, so it was pretty crazy. That changed my life abruptly, because of it I’m able to be who I’ve always dreamt I could be”.

Reilly has recently released a fresh new visual for “Townhouse”, a bouncy, infectious song from the album. The video is character-rich and warm, pairing his focused approach with charming, off-the-wall humor. “For the “Townhouse” video, I just wanted to have fun with it, as well as go into the bird theme even more. I built a bird nest myself for it, and we decided to re-create the “American Gothic” painting as well and just kind of parody that. I think I wanted to subvert the expectations around a typical music video, and show that we can have a sense of humor”.

As far as what’s next for Reilly, he and his team are planning to release a series of new offerings, “we plan on sharing new visuals, and after that a b-side version of FREELANCE. Before the year is over, you’ll definitely be getting some more new music as well”. Considering the creativity he has shown across his still-growing discography, there is much reason to be excited for what he has coming. A skillful storyteller and versatile artist, he has already shown that he can transcend simply crafting songs, and thereby immerse the listener in a world intrinsically connected to his wider creative process.

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