In attempts to uncover what Paradise means to him, Helen Herimbi hung out with Pretoria’s own, A-Reece.

We’re standing in the reptile section of the Museum of Natural History in Pretoria when A-Reece’s hands grip his arms in a wide X across his chest. I can’t see beyond his shiny pair of shades but the rest of his face is a mixture of disgust and an attempt to play it cool.

“I can handle it,” he says before I ask if we should leave. “I don’t like snakes,” he laughs. I wonder whether we should go back to the Sun room – which explains that ball of fire in the sky’s relation to the earth – but instead, we just venture forth into another space and settle in front of a wide-open jaw of a whale.

The 19-year-old rapper who was born Lehlogonolo Mataboge has not had to deal with snakes in his professional capacity yet but he is confident that when he does, he will be ready.

It shows in this Ambitiouz Entertainment artist’s sheer confidence in himself beyond the 18-track debut album, Paradise. On it, he lets the listener into a world of debauchery, vulnerability and growth over lush, layered beats by the likes of Tweezy, Ruff and MashBeatz. Aside from the catchy Couldn’t featuring labelmate, Emtee, A-Reece ropes in Amanda Black and his brother, P-Jay as the only other features.

His star is on the rise and I specifically wanted to meet A-Reece (named for his zodiac sign) at this particular museum to talk about how he has found himself in the evolution of South African hip hop.

Pitori aint shit without Reece/I said it, I mean it, believe it

Pretoria, where we find ourselves on a scorching day, has given us many rappers. The striking difference is that most of them refer to it as Cap City Rap City while the Westview-raised A-Reece defiantly (and frequently on the album) calls the place where everything began for him: Pitori.

“Growing up around the streets, you have all these motherfuckers who pull up on you and what they have in common is the dialect and mannerisms,” A-Reece starts. “So they’ll say to me, for instance: ‘eh, Joe. Obotse bafana ba gore onna Pitori [tell these boys you live in Pretoria].’”

“Growing up with that kind of slang is very interesting because it’s what I know as genuine. I thought I might as well take that and do it for the realest in Pitori. If someone asked me what my mother tongue is, I’d say s’Pitori. Because in that, you have Tswana, Afrikaans, Sotho, Zulu – in one. I’m a patriot like that.”

“The streets have a lot of influence on my music. Following my brother around and me hanging out with my friends in the streets, it led me to understand so many different perspectives that I put in the music. How can your music not have discernment when you live here? I’m proud to represent on a platform where everyone is watching.”

No hard feelings/Jody told your ass that Imma do it better

In high school, A-Reece’s peers watched as he churned out mixtape after mixtape. With the support of his older brother, Phologo AKA P-Jay AKA Jody – who is part of rap duo, B3nchmarQ, which signed to Ambitiouz before young Reece – A-Reece ensured that he’s coming for everything in the game.

So this year, he released the Cutaways EP which featured five songs that didn’t make the cut for the album. I’m Winning, off the EP, is reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s I Get So Lonely. Not strange for the kid whose love for nostalgia led him to release the chart-climbing single, Mgani, sampling Blackstreet’s Don’t Leave.

A-Reece is sitting on the museum’s carpet – we’re tired of walking – as he explains: “I want people to know as an artist, I fuck with the old school.” But you diss rappers from the old school, I counter. “I don’t hate old school rappers,” his laughter reverberates in a sinister manner amongst eery taxidermy.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he explains. “Hell yeah, they aint got next. It’s over for them. I feel like I fight for the shift. For being you no matter the circumstance. I’m here because I’m hot and I’m hot because of the people.”

That confidence matched with his love for a throwback is what guided the process of making Paradise. “Can I play you something,” he excitedly looks up at me as he fishes his phone out of his pocket. After playing a snippet of a Rick Ross song that, thanks to synesthesia, embodies the Liberace it is named after, A-Reece is beaming.

“The sound is very rich and very shiny and very white, gold and… Paradise. When I was working on an album, I already had the title. I wanted to make sure I had those elements on that album,” he tells me.

“I live off nostalgia. The fact that I pierced my ears was because I was watching an old Omarion video. I was like: ‘shit! I miss these days!’ That’s one of my favourite eras. In terms of sound, the process of Paradise was inspired by that feeling.”

While the South African Hip Hop Awards nominee lives to remember, there are some memories that don’t evoke happiness in him. On Family, featuring P-Jay and Amanda Black, the rapper takes us into his domestic life. The strained relationship between his parents, his own rejection of his father and ultimately, how becoming his own man meant redemption for his father.

We’re upstairs and the museum staff keeps walking past us pretending to be cleaning. I realise: A-Reece speaks animatedly – even when he’s recounting how his brother got shot. But when I ask about vulnerability on a song – a medium that will outlive him – he seems to retreat and his voice gets softer. “Sometimes it’s hard,” he admits.

“Even the chorus on Family – Amanda says ‘some things I can’t sing in a song.’ But if I feel like I need to put something out to the world, I do. I believe in frequencies. If I put it out into the universe loud enough, that shit might be reciprocated as something good.”

“I made a choice. This is music and music is about honesty and being relatable. It’s supposed to be therapeutic so I’m saving someone’s life by explaining my side of the story. Imagine.”

Then he looks at me as though snapping out of something that secretly occupies his thoughts and then exclaims: “And I’m getting paid for it! We’re out here doing an interview for me and this is what I’ve been dreaming out in my little room in the hood. I’m in Paradise right now.”