India’s biggest pop star Badshah is about to get even bigger, says GQ India.

India’s biggest pop star Badshah is about to get even bigger, says GQ India.

Badshah’s Photographs by Manasi Sawant

At the top of Badshah’s agenda is his new album Retro Panda, which he’s releasing in two separate parts. The first, consisting of four synthwave-y love ballads steeped in sepia-tinted nostalgia, dropped on 14 March. Neon-hued synths swell and swirl across the soundscape, leaving behind glittering trails of washed out sound. The drum machine pounds out simple four-four rhythms straight out of the big-haired, spandex-clad ’80s. Badshah’s (occasionally) autotuned croon pays homage to the lilting melodies of ’90s Bollywood and Indipop. It’s a hard left turn from the foot-stomping party anthems that propelled him to music industry dominance, and even from the more contemporary sounds he’s explored in recent years. “There’s just something magical about the synthesiser and synthwave sound,” he says, lounging on the couch built into the rear wall of his vanity van. “I really enjoy that process of taking a simple sine wave and building it into any sound you want.”

Badshah credits The Weeknd as a major influence— he’s been a fan since the House of Balloons days—but Retro Panda also draws from a much wider reservoir of inspiration. The synths evoke, in turn, the disco-funk stylings of Bappi da and the MIDI background scores of video-game keygens. The world that it conjures is deeply reminiscent of turn-of- the-century urban India, with one foot still in its socialist past, but the other lurching fitfully (and at dial-up internet speeds) towards a more globalised future. “I think all of that has subconsciously made its way into the sound,” he says. “I always say that one of my big strengths and weaknesses is that I never learned music formally. So, knowingly or unknowingly, everything I’m writing is a mix of all the things I’ve heard in my life. The only really unique thing about it is my perspective, the story I’m telling.”

His end goal is winning a Grammy, which would be a vindication of not just his own talent but also of Indian music in general. “[It’s] validation that I’m not sure we really need, but it will open a lot of doors for Indian music,” he says. “Having said that, don’t you think that ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ or ‘Urvashi’ were worth a Grammy? There’s also a bit of stubbornness involved. I feel like there’s a lot of credit due, and I want us to get it.”

The release of Retro Panda, then, is the first, tentative knock on that door. The next one, Badshah tells me, is going to be more like a battering ram. Just a few weeks before our meeting, he wrapped up the music video for his first serious international release: a collaboration with Colombian megastar and “Prince of Reggaeton” J. Balvin. “Universal asked me who I wanted to work with and I immediately said Balvin,” says Badshah. “He inspires me a lot, as an artist but also as a human being. He’s a humble, hard-working guy who is true to his roots.”

Universal roped in Puerto Rican producer Tainy—a regular Balvin collaborator who worked on hits like “I Like It” and “No Es Justo”—to make the music, and the two stars finally met on the sets of the music video shoot. “It was amazing; just being able to talk to him, about work but also about other stuff, was an education in itself,” says Badshah. “And the great thing about being able to meet and talk to super-successful people like Balvin is that they validate the fact that there’s nothing but hard work and honesty. That’s what got him to the top.”

Given his penchant for extravagant music videos, what can we expect from this one? Badshah is tight-lipped about the details, but assures me that it’s going to be flashy and fashionable. “It’s my introduction to the world,” he says. “I’m a new-age Indian man, and I want to show that to the world,” he says. “We’re changing, we’re not the old stereotype you have in your head.”“It might take time. If you look at what Balvin and Bad Bunny are doing, [reggaeton pioneer] Daddy Yankee started knocking on that door in 1995. And it still took them decades to get here. So I don’t know if I’ll even bear the fruits of this effort. But somebody has to do it.”

YOU JUST CAN’T interview Badshah 10 years after the release of his first hit (“Saturday Saturday”) without asking him to reflect on the past decade, with its highs and lows. “The problem with my career as an artist is that it’s always been on the rise. I haven’t really seen that many failures or low points.” I ask if he misses anything from those days, or the years before that when he was a part of Punjabi rap insurgents Mafia Mundeer, along with Yo Yo Honey Singh, Raftaar, and Ikka. “I think we belonged to a generation that was bringing about serious change,” he says. “We felt like we were underdogs and that made us feel stronger; we wanted to change the whole scene. But now we’ve become the establishment we wanted to change. So the challenge is to stay the underdog, to keep that hunger alive.”

I prod further. Does he feel any regrets about the group’s acrimonious split? Mafia Mundeer broke up in 2012, partly due to a row over Raftaar and Badshah not being given songwriting credits for a couple of tracks on Singh’s solo album International Villager. Badshah has refrained from making such specific accusations, though he hints at similar problems. “Forget Mafia Mundeer, you don’t even get along with your parents, your family,” he says about Singh. “So it was inevitable.”

“We were young and reckless,” he continues. “With time I understood that our perspectives were too different. We were bound to move apart. It was painful, because when you lose any relationship like that, it hurts. But I have no regrets, I’m quite happy.” He knows where I’m going with this. Settling back into his seat, he continues speaking. “Like I said yesterday, I feel very blessed to have been able to do this for so long. But there have been some low points, especially those six months [in 2013] when I had a depressive episode. That was a time when I’d lost all hope, I didn’t think I’d ever make music again or even be normal again.” Badshah was diagnosed with clinical depression and severe anxiety disorder, and was given prescription meds. The storm clouds slowly receded and he went back to work. But anxiety has a bad habit of rearing its head when you least expect it. He would be sitting in meetings and suddenly start sweating. One night, he went to watch Lootera in a cinema. When he walked out, he could feel the depression sinking in again. “I ran home and took a double dose of each medication,” he says. “In the morning I called my doctor and told him what I did. All he had to say was ‘Beta, do one thing. Make sure you don’t watch Raanjhanaa under any circumstances.”

Badshah has collaborated with a string of independent hip-hop artists, including Sikander Kahlon, Bali, and Fotty Seven. He has a keen eye on MC Stan (they’re in talks about a possible collaboration), and says he’s excited to see Divine’s career trajectory go skywards. “I’ve always kept an eye on the independent scene, but there was nobody who was really exciting to me,” he explains. “But these guys challenge me, they make me want to work harder on my lyrics and music.”

Another upcoming artist he’s very excited by is Punjabi Canadian rapper AP Dhillon, who leaped to the top of the UK Asian charts with his posse cut “Brown Munde” in 2020, following it up with a sold-out six-city Indian tour last year. “He’s like a breath of fresh air,” says Badshah, telling me about how he tried to call Dhillon up the day before his gig in Delhi, but couldn’t get through. When Dhillon called back two hours later, he apologised and explained that he was at the soundcheck. “I was so happy to hear that because that means he’s not complacent. One day before the gig and he’s already at the soundcheck. He’s not about the hype; he’s about the work.” Every 10 minutes or so, Badshah comes back to that word: “work”. His laser-focused work ethic is what propelled him to the top and keeps him there, but it has also taken a toll on his personal relationships. “I have no personal life; I don’t really have a family,” he says. “Everything else is secondary for me, except my daughter. I don’t think a family man can do everything I’m doing. I’m available for my music 24/7.” There’s something exceedingly heartbreaking about that sentiment, but Badshah has no time for pathos.

He’s also already thinking of his next album, which will fuse his Western hip-hop and pop grooves with a wide array of Indian folk and classical sounds. And the one after that, which will return to the heavily rap-and hip-hop-focused sound of The Power of Dreams of a Kid. And I’m pretty sure there are a few other irons in the fire that he’s keeping to himself. Just trying to imagine Badshah’s daily to-do list is making me dizzy. How does he do it?

“At this point, I don’t even think of it as work,” he says, gulping down the last of his coffee. “This is just who I am. I was born to chase this vision, because I have nothing else. If I don’t have music, I don’t know what will happen to me. Every single day of my life is about executing that vision, because it’s all I have.”

Published by perfectwomanmagazine

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