ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley returns with the Bills to his home state for a huge Thanksgiving game against the Dallas Cowboys, he'll have a lot more on his mind than facing his former team.
In his first season with the Bills (8-3), Beasley -- 49 catches for 525 yards and four TDs -- is on pace for his second-best season in terms of receptions and yards. Buffalo has the inside track to an AFC playoff berth, and Thursday's game (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Cowboys (6-5) is an important test for Beasley's new team.
But football is just part of his story.
Dallas is home. He played his high school football on Fridays less than an hour from where he played Saturdays at SMU and Sundays at AT&T Stadium. It's also where he ruined a family computer or two downloading songs onto CDs to play for his friends, where he used stipend checks to fuel a burgeoning hobby and where that hobby morphed into a second craft as a rap artist.
Beasley, who spent his first seven NFL seasons in Dallas, has an album out and another on the way. He's progressing as a receiver and an artist, and he's ready to share that maturation.
"I'm getting more comfortable as I go, and I really care," Beasley said of his music. "It's a little bit more loose with the stuff that I'm working on now, a little more realistic. The other stuff [on the first album] was me, too, but it wasn't that much in-depth, really."
Beasley isn't the first athlete to start his own record label -- ColdNation Records -- or moonlight as a rap artist. But he has garnered respect from established artists -- on Wednesday, he is releasing a single, "Adrenaline Junkie," featuring DMC of legendary rap group Run-DMC and Destani -- and players who have pursued music in the past, including former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson.
"I know he's got skills, and it ain't no game," Johnson said. "When you listen to it, you understand. There's people who can get into that situation, and because of what they have, they can create the studio and their own business, but they're only doing it because they can. You can tell with [Beasley], it's different. I appreciate the words that he speaks. He's giving us stories."
As his music career evolves, Beasley said, he has a better grasp on his writing process.
The tricky part, he said, is finding the time to get in the studio. Although he has finished roughly 10 songs on his second project, Beasley said he generally gets one or two days to record. To maximize his studio time, he said, he wrote about 80% of his content from the Bills' training facility in Orchard Park, where he gets feedback on his work from fellow receivers Andre Roberts and Duke Williams.
Williams first noticed Beasley's music when former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant tweeted it out in 2018. Once Williams realized he would share a locker room with Beasley this offseason, he reached out and asked to be kept in the loop.
"It's something you can really vibe to," Williams said of Beasley's music. "Most football players, they make music, and it's garbage, but Cole's music is nice, though. You can tell he put his heart into it, and it's not something he just plays with."
A trip to the studio
Beasley released his album, "The Autobiography," in May 2018, four months after gaining popularity with the single "80 Stings." He'd long been a fan of rap, dating to his time at Little Elm (Texas) High School. He was the music plug among his friends, burning the latest songs onto as many blank CDs as he could get his hands on.
He transitioned to the other side of the speaker during his sophomore year at SMU, when he purchased music editing software with the stipend checks he received as a student-athlete. He and a couple of friends mixed songs that never left the room, all recorded on Beasley's laptop's internal microphone.
It kindled a flame. Rapping was a hobby that took a backseat to football. But that didn't stop Beasley from tinkering in his spare time, even as he worked his way from undrafted free agent to the Cowboys' primary slot receiver.
Bills WR Cole Beasley discusses with ESPN the difficulty of balancing his football and music careers as he prepares his second album pic.twitter.com/i9dnbSRQ8k— Marcel Louis-Jacques (@Marcel_LJ) November 26, 2019
"I was big into mixing stuff," he said. "I would just lay a verse and play with it on Pro Tools and lock myself in [a room] for, like, four hours. It'd seem like 30 minutes."
Even during those hours of creative solitude, Beasley wasn't planning to put an album together until he met Dallas-area producer Victor "Phazz" Clark, who worked with several of Beasley's Cowboys teammates, including Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox. They met in 2015, when Beasley showcased some of his work at Clark's studio.
"He played something on his cell phone of him rapping over a mixtape beat," Clark said. "I was like, 'Wow, is that you? Bro, you've got real talent.'"
The following year, they founded ColdNation Records, and Beasley's album was underway. Beasley was in, though he was hesitant to announce himself to the public.
"At first, I was just going to do it under an alias because I didn't want to be a distraction to anybody," he said. "But then I was just like, screw it, so then it completely changed."
The first album
Inspired, Beasley pieced together the 13-song "Autobiography," packing thoughtful lyrical content into a 46-minute album.
It's diverse. He spent his debut project experimenting with cadences and voice inflections, even singing the hook on the opening track, "I Am What I Am."
Cole Beasley and De$tani - United Hate of America pic.twitter.com/HEbWMtKcgF— ColdNation Records (@ColdNationRecor) February 1, 2019
"It was just kind of showing people that I could do it, that I could rap and also do different things with my voice," Beasley said. "It was just kind of showing a little bit of my skill set, but even then I feel like I kind of rushed it. I feel like I'm way better than what I put out there.
"It was cool for my first thing, but it's not something I would be like, 'Hey, go listen to this.'"
He's being modest. "The Autobiography" peaked at No. 7 on the iTunes Hip-Hop/Rap charts, and Clark thinks that on this trajectory, Beasley could set a new standard for athletes in the music industry.
"It's something this man truly loves to do," Clark said. "He will be the first NFL guy to really successfully cross over into the music world and really be big -- like Shaquille O'Neal was back in the day."
All Beasley's favorite artists are lyricists; as such, he kept his focus on his music's lyrical content, tapping into his past as he explored his craft. He touched on a range of topics, from race to social media.
On "Stereotypes," he tells a story of a 5-year-old child asking why Beasley and his son have different skin colors. On "United Hate of America," he recalls the vitriol he received from fans in 2014 after he lost a fumble during a Cowboys win. That included insults levied at his infant son via Instagram.
His music became therapeutic, a way for him to constructively express his thoughts and highlight the moments -- and people -- who made an impact on his life.
Perhaps the most transparent moment of the album came on Beasley's favorite song, "My Baby," in which he details a conversation between himself and his wife, Krystin, who brought to light the toll his work ethic was taking on their family.
"A big part of my life and me coming up how I did was about proving people wrong," he said. "I would just become so fixated on proving those people wrong that I'd probably grind way more than I should at times. I kind of would beat myself to death to kind of prove to everybody what I think of myself ... That kind of wore on me mentally. Maybe when I'd come home, I'm frustrated because maybe I'm not getting the results I want.
"That [song] was just her kind of being like, 'Who cares what they think? It's not about what anybody else thinks. It's more about what your family thinks, and we know the deal. This isn't as important as you’re making it out to be. We're what's important, and you're kind of losing sight of that.'"
Taking his time
Beasley's second album is progressing at a far more deliberate pace than his first did. A believer in taking his time, he's doing exactly that.
"I don't have a release date because I don't want to limit myself or my creativity," he said. "The last album, I didn't start with any concepts. I just kind of made songs and threw them together. This one is more planned out. I don't know if it's going to come out this offseason, next offseason or what. I have a lot done, so it could be this offseason, but as I go, I keep coming out with more ideas and more things that I can do."
Johnson, a San Francisco native, said his style was more raw than Beasley's "finely tuned" content, but he said they are similar in that they both speak to their experiences. Johnson could also relate to Beasley's tightrope routine in finding a balance between football and music. He said as long as Beasley continues to prioritize, he'll find success.
"Obviously, it's football first and family, then you get to the music -- and when you get to it, that's when you get to it," Johnson said. "So just be comfortable in that ... Find your own balance within your days. I think that'll come as he continues."
This week, Beasley continues to pursue his balance between football and music in the city where his career began.
Both careers, that is.