The Epic Records roster expanded last month with the signing of 25-year-old Gilbere Forte. The Philadelphia-based MC is riding high after settling in his new label home, where he felt a strong creative connection to Epic CEO L.A. Reid and President of A&R Tricky Stewart. “It’s a completely different energy,” Forte recalls on their initial reactions. That genuine impression was a deciding factor for him to sign on the dotted line.

Now, with Forte's upcoming Pray EP due out in May, he spoke with XXL on his Anigma/Epic deal, which international British R&B singer inspires him, and what to expect on the project.—Eric Diep (@E_Diep)

XXL: When did you meet Seal?
Gilbere Forte: My mom was in town in LA and a good friend of mine wanted to take us all out to this place called the SoHo House. It's a cool loungy spot in West Hollywood. And Seal walks in and I'm like, "Oh shit, that's Seal." I've always admired his work and I've always dreamed of working with him one day. So my boy was like, "Oh I know who he is. I know 'em. You want me to introduce you to him?" I'm like, "Nah man, I'm cool. I'll wait. I'll meet him when the time is right."

At the end of that evening, I was on the elevator coming down and a group of people pour into the elevator. The next thing I know I'm standing next to Joel Madden from Good Charlotte and Courtney Cox and in walks Seal and I'm just like, "Oh Shit!" We're all on this elevator for 19 seconds and I'm like, "Do I talk to this guy? Do I just stand here?" But luckily he's a really cool guy and he was entertaining everyone on the elevator, cracking jokes or whatever and I ended up meeting him in the lobby. And we were just chopping it up about general stuff and that was just inspiring for me. I've always told myself that I'm going to meet the people that inspire me and randomly it happens and they initiated the conversation.

What do you see in Seal that inspires you?
The type of music he makes, man. How growing up, listening to his music, it kinda opened my mind a little bit. To other sounds, to other forms of music. Just the writing, the way that the songs are structured. I'm like, "How is it possible to blend that with hip-hop?" So I've kept that with me. If I can create that same experience, but with a hip-hop feel, that's my premier focus for making music. So a lot of the new project is definitely that. I found a way to make it happen.

Let’s talk about “Pray.” What’s the story behind the song?
For the past two years, I've been studying music. I've been studying myself and I've been trying to figure out the overall approach that I want to have on this next project. And I took some time to figure these things out and I was in the studio with my boy Raak, who produced the record, and we were just listening to a bunch of different records and we ended up getting the sample sent to me by my brother and he's like, "Yo, you gotta flip this." So we're listening to it and Raak starts manipulating it the way that he does and the next thing you know—cause she's actually saying "brain" in the song but we found a way to make it sound like "pray.” So when I heard that I knew actually the way I wanted to approach it. I felt like this was the record that was going to be that raw, introductory song all over again for me leading up to this new project. I was like, "I wanna make this one super special."

Going into the music video, I wanted to change the scenery of how someone may view the song just from listening to it. Who knows what they may think? So I'm gonna try to stretch that and do some different shit. Hip-hop is evolving as a whole and I wanna be on the forefront of it evolving whether it's visually, musically, whether it's genre-bending or me working with eclectic artists and I'm bringing them into this hip-hop world. So these hip-hop fans can listen to it and say, "Oh shit. I never listened to this guy before but this shit is amazing. I'm not just listening to hip-hop music. I'm actually listening to this now." It's a way for everyone to stay educated with music as a whole.

Where did you shoot the video?
I felt like it was all over. Yeah, it was crazy. It was in a few parts of the world. A lot of people are like, "Yo, are you really in the swamp? Are you really in that type of terrain? Rainforest?" And I'm like, "Yeah, it was real." I just felt something so worldly in the track and the way it made me feel, I was like, "I have to capture this visually, the same way." Because it wouldn't have the same effect as when you heard it.

You recently got this joint deal with Epic Records. They got a lot of different cats on there. Vinny Cha$e and Ca$h Out—Why did you feel it was the right home for you?
It's interesting because I met with all the labels and my thing is a lot of labels have great rosters, they have great systems, but to me if I'm sitting with an executive or I'm sitting with someone who's in a position of power and can change my musical career or enhance it any way, if I feel like I have to sell my music to you or sell myself, you're wasting my fucking time because if I play the music and you see me and you see my personality, you should already get it. And if you don't get it then we shouldn't be having this conversation.

I kept that approach with everyone I met. I'm not gonna say any names but there were people who felt like they needed a second opinion or whatever and I'm like, ‘To be honest, if that's how you guys feel—great. I'll see you when I see you." But I feel like Epic was a home. It was such a refreshing system because of the type of artists that they have and the one's that they're signing and it being the home of Michael Jackson, it being the home of Sade, it being an open space and looking at the roster, I felt like this was an open room for me, which is exactly what I want.

What was it about LA Reid when you guys were talking that you felt that connection immediately?
With him, I felt like, because he's a creative guy, he understands music. I had a conversation with both him and Tricky Stewart and I knew these guys are like creative geniuses. So me having no limitations to where I wanna take my sound and my music, I knew there wouldn't be any boundaries working with these guys because they're music first. And that's what's important to me.

So you played some songs for LA and Tricky, what were their initial reactions? What did they say about it?
I walk into a conference room and I played two records off the project and there's like 60 people in the conference room and LA's at the head of the table and Tricky is standing next to him and I'm performing this record. And I'm walking around the room just rapping my heart out and everyone's like, "What the fuck is this in the room right now? It's completely different energy." So everyone was speechless, hanging onto each line and LA was like-it was my first time meeting him-to see the excitement that he had and that Tricky had. They were really feeling the music. It was to the point where LA was like, "Yo, yo, yo. Stop the music. I don't need to hear anymore." And I was like, "No, I got one more record for you to hear." And I played that second record and that's when it was over. It was a crazy experience because I was fearless.

I was so confident in the music and the message I wanna put out to the world that I'm fearless and nothing is going to stop me. I'm not gonna be afraid to open my mouth or say what I want to say or express how I feel. To see the genuine reactions from these guys, like I said, breaking down my music in technical terms in conversation, it was just like, "Wow!" You guys listen to this type of stuff everyday and then you got so many different things on your plate every day. For you to have the time to just talk about my music with the technical terms is crazy.

Do you think "Pray" is the song that got everybody checking you out?
Oh, absolutely! The responses I got from it, from people from all walks of life talking about how refreshing it is, how it kinda reminded them about the hunger hip-hop is "missing" or "lacking" from new artists. So it reminded all of those people about that and they're like, "Oh shit, what is this? I wanna be a part of this. This is exciting. This is brand new. This is refreshing. Fiona Apple? Why Fiona Apple? Who does this guy think he is?"

"Pray" is going to be on the EP. You're working with somebody off the Watch The Throne project. Can you give me a name?
I'm just gonna allow that to come up in the credits when I release this project.