It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday in Hollywood and Halsey just hugged me. “Hi, I’m Ashley,” she says, though the woman needs no introduction. We’re in a cramped green room peppered with plates of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese at Voila!, a Los Angeles event space where Gerald “G-Eazy” Gillum, who Halsey is dating, is set to preview his third studio album, The Beautiful & Damned, for hundreds of fans who pre-ordered it.

Halsey and G-Eazy’s entourage eventually leave the room and I’m left with the 28-year-old Bay Area rapper in private to discuss the impetus behind his new work, a double album that also boasts a short film. At the time our meeting was arranged, I, like many, had only a superficial knowledge of his music and rap skills, which has speckled top-40 radio over the past two years in the form of collaborations with Bebe Rexha, Britney Spears, Kehlani, French Montana and most recently, teen hearthrob Charlie Puth. But entering 2018, G-Eazy, who sports James Dean-esque looks with a Jay Gatsby-like mystery, is now an act of his own, eager for his confessional new work, out December 15, to hit the masses.

“Who, really, is G-Eazy?” is the question I’m hear to answer, and it appears the man himself may be trying to answer that too. His ongoing efforts to navigate common coming-of-age dilemmas, such as achieving balance between professional responsibilities, personal relationships and partying—in other words, adulting—in the context of increasing celebrity and recognition is a central theme of his new music, as are the dualities of Gerald versus G-Eazy, his alter egos who, he acknowledges, are at war with each other.

“On a day-to-day basis, it’s a back-and-forth between G-Eazy going out at night, drinking, partying, and then Gerald waking up the next day having to clean up G-Eazy’s mess,” he tells me. He is polite and thoughtful—almost shy. Mind you, this is the man who grinded with Spears on stage at 2016 MTV Video Music Awards while spitting, “All the way and I’m able / To give you something sensational / So let’s go, yeah.”

No song on The Beautiful & Damned’s 20-long track list speaks more to the dichotomy of Gerald and G-Eazy than the haunting title track, which features throaty vocals from Zoe Nash:

You don’t know ‘bout the fame, what it do to me
I’m talking to myself like every night
You could try to be a better guy
But to understand a Gemini
Angel, Devil, it’s both him and I

In the green room, the bass that’s vibrating from the stage beneath us booms louder and louder and the cheering begins to punctuate the final few minutes of our interview. The crowd is clearly ready for him, and tonight, he’s focused. By the time someone opens the door, the sound of the crowd has reached an anticipatory roar.

Some 15 minutes later, I’m downstairs in a dark warehouse with high ceilings dripping with chandeliers made of white icicles and silverly hand sculptures. I watch from the VIP balcony as the rapper holds court over a sea of lit-up iPhones, working a mixed crowd of industry people and younger fans—many of them female—who G-Eazy bussed in for this special listening party. Save for a group of drunks knocking back shots of Stillhouse by the bar, the majority of the room is either dancing or filming it on Instagram. This includes Halsey, who is singing along from a bodyguard-lined corner to my left.

After performing a handful of tracks from the new album, which is inspired by Fitzgerald’s similarly titled second novel and includes collaborations with A$AP, Cardi B and Son Lux, he turns the attention to his woman, yelling “Give a shout out to the most beautiful girl in the world!” before breaking into the pair’s steamy duet, “Him & I,” which they’ll drop a couple of days later via simultaneous Instagram posts. (Since then, the song has reached more than 60 million streams on Spotify and YouTube combined).

The guy performing in the leather jacket on stage is bolder and darker than the man I end up interviewing twice—once at the show and again a few days later, after I discovered the crowd’s energy drowned out playback on my recorder. Like his music or not, this much is true: G-Eazy has something to say with his latest album. His stage presence is undeniable and Gerald/G-Eazy’s increasing proximity to fame with a capital F will continue to earn him fans, secure him radio airplay and help us all—even him—answer “What does this beautiful, damned rapper from Oakland stand for?”

__Halsey and G-Eazy at the Forum in early November.__ Grady Brannan

Halsey and G-Eazy at the Forum in early November. Grady Brannan

How do you feel right now knowing there are hundreds of people downstairs about to hear your new music?
Excited. Anxious. Nervous. All of that. When you tour, and you play songs that are already out, those are the songs fans have already built a relationship with. And you usually only play the popular songs. It’s a victory lap. You’ve already won them over. With new stuff, you don’t know. It’s testing out raw stuff and they’re hearing it for the first time. I get a little nervous, but at the same time I’m excited to share this. I worked hard on this project.

The party downstairs is a kind of full-immersion experience. You get to keep them all in the room and show them a vision.
I wanted them to come inside my world, you know? From the film to the entire album to every other part of the experience—from the layout of the venue and the painting, to the food, to the culture of the fan base—like, to come enjoy this whole experience.

How did it come about that a 20-something-year-old from Oakland made a double album that’s inspired by—
An F. Scott Fitzgerald book?

–from 1922?
[Laughs] If you think about the 1920s, it was a time period when people were living an out-of-control lifestyle of overindulgence, going out most nights, drinking into oblivion, partying–that whole culture. But what they didn’t know was that the Great Depression was about to hit. The party was over. I’m in my twenties living a similar kind of over-the-top lifestyle and on a day-to-day basis, it’s a back-and-forth between G-Eazy, going out at night, drinking, partying, and then Gerald waking up the next day having to clean up G-Eazy’s mess.

And be a grown-up?
And be a grown-up. And try to be a good person. And that back-and-forth of just trying to find the balance.

Is that something that you’re still wrestling with?
Yeah. It’s like, this lifestyle’s really fun and its wild and it’s crazy, but you wonder if it can sustain, and if it can, then for how long? And when I was reading that book, that was the question and that was the subject of that couple in the story. They drink themselves into oblivion. If it wasn’t for the last couple pages changing the story, it seemed like they were very doomed.

Consumption is a theme on different levels in that book, which is a literary account of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s volatile relationship, including excesses of money and love, and you have a duet with Halsey. What was that collaboration like?
Easy. Because it’s real. I think the best stuff comes from an honest place. And that’s when it’s the most effortless. It’s a “Bonnie & Clyde” song. It’s a “Crazy in Love” song. She and I are both crazy. Crazy in real life. Crazy about each other. And it’s also crazy to try to make love work in this business, in this lifestyle we both live.

Halsey was on the cover of playboy’s music issue earlier this year.
Yeah, I have like, five copies at home [laughs].

You had a big year last year, with two top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. You’ve performed on the MTV Video Music Awards, at Lollapalooza, on The Tonight Show and at the Jingle Ball. How has your life been different?
Success can be isolating in terms of how it changes your social life, how you relate to people, how people treat you. It’s easy to become closed off. But on the bright side, it’s brought me a lot of blessings. Getting to take care of my mom—she’s in New Orleans now. I got her a spot there and she lives very close to my little brother who is out there. And just to be able to make a living doing what you love is, I think, one of the most special feelings in life. I mean, we all have to make a living, but if you can do it working at what you truly love doing, that’s one of the best feelings in the world.

__A BTS moment captured by Gerald

A BTS moment captured by Gerald’s longtime friend and photographer Grady Brannan Grady Brannan

Your world includes a lot of people who you’ve known all your life. How does that influence you?
As an artist, your friends are the people who you work with. That’s pretty much the extent of your social life. The people who you tour with, the people who you make music with, the photographers and sound guys who go on tour with you, the artists who open for you, and the artists who you make songs with. So keeping the friends around that I literally started with is essential for my stability and staying grounded.

At the listening party, you performed “Eazy,” a song you say is your favorite, and you asked everyone in the crowd to turn off their phones. Why is that song your favorite?
It’s the last song on the album. It kind of goes on the whole journey, from being a kid and trying to figure out my place in the world and what I wanted to do, to falling in love with making music, to following the dream all the way here…The people who have helped me get here, the friends and family who have played their parts.

Now that you’ve reached a new level of mainstream, is being labeled part pop artist, part rapper, as Billboard did in its review of The Beautiful & Damned, something that bothers you?
If anything, categories and labels and genres in music in today’s world are being knocked down more than ever. I think my music is genre-friendly.

Is it the same with being a white a rapper? Is that a non-issue for an artist in 2017?
Can I pass on that one?

Sure. How did “Him & I”, your duet with Halsey come about?
I had been a fan of hers for a while, and I had always wanted to work with her. And then we started seeing each other. But it was all about finding the right moment. Finding the right song. Finding the right vibe. When all of that comes together, I think you get a really great result where it’s not forced or rushed.

The Beautiful & Damned short film explores the battles between what we might want to do and the what we think we should. Your character struggles to keep the relationship he has with his girlfriend afloat while resisting temptation on tour. Is acting a bigger goal for you?
Yeah, one day. It’d need to be the right time and right role. Right now I’m just focusing on releasing this album and touring for most of 2018.

What’s the most important thing that you took away from making this album?
[Long pause] Finding a resolve between Gerald and G-Eazy. It’s still a constant process. I don’t think that struggle is over yet.