Anees the Rapper’s car is integral to his career.
A black 2010 Ford Focus with cloth interior and an empty Domino's pizza box always visible through the rear windshield, it often serves as a practice space and stage for the Lebanese-Palestinian rapper, who lives in Washington, DC.
"The car's nothing special," Anees tells The National. "It has roll-up windows. No Bluetooth. No bells and whistles. I love it."
His fans are no stranger to the vehicle. The hundreds of thousands who follow him on TikTok and Instagram have seen him perform some of his best-known songs, such as Slip and Maybe, live from the car several times. They've even heard snippets of tracks that were nothing more than an idea at the time.
The star's newest single, Love Is Crazy, released on June 7, first found form in the car, too.
"During a live stream, I asked my fans to throw me three words," he says. "They came at me with 'love is crazy' and 90 per cent of the song was written right there, which is beautiful.
"I think that's why the song has been blowing up, getting a lot of playlist and editorial coverage, and in some way outperforming Slip."
Slip did extremely well, in part because Anees performed it on an Instagram Live hosted by Justin Bieber in April. He did so from his trusty Ford Focus.
"Yes!" Bieber said, once he had finished. "Yes! You're so talented! [Bieber's wife] Hailey is over here just tripping. Oh my god, you're so talented bro."
That performance put Anees a comment's reach away from more than 60,000 people. It was his chance to demonstrate his willowy, uplifting brand of rap to a whole new audience. He did not disappoint.
“My Instagram numbers went from 20,000 to almost 90,000 after that performance. It’s mind-blowing,” he says. On TikTok, his follower surge in the past few months has been even more astronomical, increasing to more than 270,000.
This may give the impression that Anees the Rapper is an overnight success. While it's true that he gathered a larger public following only a few months ago, the musician's accomplishments have been years in the making. The Ford Focus reminds him of that.
“I delivered pizzas for eight years in this car,” he says. “I keep the Domino's box back there as a reminder of what my time delivering pizzas taught me, how bad I want it.
"I learnt how creative I can be in this car, freestyling whenever I’m in it. I also used this car in the beginning stages of my relationship with my wife and would drive 10 hours to and from where she lived. This car is my stallion. It’s been with me for all my journeys and the acoustics are excellent.”
The Focus was also instrumental in helping Anees hone his springy lyricism and flow. In 2018,Anees was studying law when he decided that was not a future he wanted to pursue. On the drive to and from school, he'd often freestyle to stave off an encroaching sense of anxiety.
“I felt my creativity sapped,” he says. “I was on a certain track and not liking it. You don’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel, but you feel terrified that getting off this track would be even scarier, because you think your community will judge you and your family will be disappointed, and you might not be financially stable.
"It was a scary place to be in. So I’d freestyle every day. I would freestyle on the way to law school and I’d freestyle when I was supposed to be reading.”
It didn't take long before Aneesrealised music was his future, turning his back on a career in law. Unfortunately, he had recorded very little up to that point and so the freestyles from his earlier days have been lost.
“The beautifully sorrowful thing is that some of my best work will never be heard,” he says. “It was just depression-inspired freestyle. They didn’t see the light, but they brought me right here.”
He's emphatic about the support he's received from his family, wife and peers, as well as his wider community.
"The Arab community was hands down, from the very jump, incredibly supportive," he says. "From the beginning, Arabs were pushing me up like crazy. Big Hass comes to mind as one of the foremost Arab musical influences who had my back from day one."
Much of his online audience also comes from the Middle East, something that has spurred daydreams of performing in the region sometime soon.
“I think the sooner I can get out to the Middle East and perform, the more I’d feel true to my art, because my art is inseparable from my roots.”
For the time being, he says his most immediate projects include compiling an EP by the end of the year and continuing to perform on his social media platforms.
He admits the pandemic has actually been good for his music, in more ways than one.
"Covid-19 has been terrible," he says, "but I can't deny that because TikTok exploded during the pandemic, it took my career to the moon."
Now, all he wants to do is share a stirring but sober sense of positivity through his music, the kind that usually doesn’t get showcased in the entertainment industry.
“What I’m trying to do with the music is spread a certain spirit,” he says. “We’re all going through this human experience at the same time. It can really be dark at times. I want my music to feel more like the everyday human, to be relatable. The more my music is relatable, the more my message is connecting.”