WHO Tierra Whack
BEGINNINGS Long before Ms. Whack announced her arrival with a stroke of pure audacity — “Whack World,” an absurdist 15-minute album and accompanying music video containing 15 distinct tracks and nearly as many styles and voices — she was a quiet, insecure child with a knack for poetry.
After filling composition books with rhymes, an uncle urged her to put her spoken word to beats, beginning with a freestyle over the local hero Meek Mill’s “In My Bag.” So began Ms. Whack’s career as Dizzle Dizz, a million-syllable-a-minute freestyle rapper in her city’s tradition of quick-tongued M.C.s. But despite earning an audience with figures like Meek and ASAP Rocky, who told Ms. Whack she had “that Kendrick flow,” she didn’t form an artistic identity until a move to Atlanta near the end of high school.
WHAT NOW? Reverting to her given name — yes, she was born Tierra Whack — the young rapper learned to combine the theatrical over-the-top-ness of her earliest outré obsessions (Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Outkast) with the grounding essence of her guiding light, Lauryn Hill.
In a test run of singles last year, Ms. Whack, who had returned to Philadelphia, toyed with modulating her voice, hopscotching between genres and just generally going for it, including visually, where she’s drawn to extremes. “I like to see people get chainsawed, their arms cut off, legs cut off — as graphic as possible,” Ms. Whack said, citing Quentin Tarantino and “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)” as touchstones. “I love when people overexaggerate. It’s so funny to me.”
“Whack World,” released last week, packs those maximalist tendencies into bite-size packages. Inspired by the 60-second limit of an Instagram video, along with the common promotional tactic in hip-hop of posting teaser snippets of songs (many of which are never released in full), Ms. Whack made a cohesive mini-album that can also function as a comment on streaming and social media.
The video, directed by Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Léger, finds Ms. Whack in 15 colorful scenarios (decorating a taxidermied dog, dancing with sock puppets in a pet cemetery) as the music shifts between free-associative wordplay over booming 808s, soulful R&B numbers and even a faux-country synth-pop ditty about her “deadbeat dad.”
Over the phone from Philadelphia, Ms. Whack — who works as a condominium doorwoman when she’s not recording and says she does not drink or smoke — was fittingly loopy, interrupting her own remarks with an opera-like falsetto and making nearly 20 seconds of tongue noises while thinking about an answer.
Chatty on every subject except her apparent relationship with Interscope Records — “Ooh, what? I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” she said coyly — Ms. Whack was also grateful for the word-of-mouth buzz “Whack World” has received so far, including from artists like Solange and Flying Lotus.
“I have so much built up inside,” Ms. Whack said. “To be able to put what I have in my head into real life is just an amazing thing.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What kind of place is Whack World?
It’s down, then up, down, then up. It’s scary, it feels good, it doesn’t. It’s crazy, it’s calm. It’s everything. That’s exactly me. Like, I was just washing dishes, eating grapes, now I’m about to go to the bathroom then I’m going to wash some clothes. Yeah. It’s like a roller-coaster ride. My mom says I have — what is it, A.D.D.? Can’t sit still.
Philly is known for its freestyle battle-rap scene. How did growing up there lead you to music?
Once I got comfortable enough to do my poems with beats, it gave me more confidence to want to get out and prove myself in the city. It was something that everyone was doing — all the guys, and I was a girl, so I had to work 10 times harder to get better than all the guys. It was in the battle-rap era, but I never was a battle rapper. It was like a cypher thing — I’m jumping in to prove myself. I’d see a camera, a big group of guys and my mom would tell me to show them that I could rap.
Did putting words together in a rapid-fire way come naturally to you?
I remember reading Dr. Seuss books, and he’s rhyming so many words together and I just loved the way it sounded. It became a challenge for me, to put words together that nobody would ever think about putting together. I had a rhyming dictionary, the dictionary — it was just practice and determination. Instead of going outside and playing, I was staying in the house and writing raps.
Did you work consciously on developing from someone who could put a lot of bars together to someone who could actually write a song?
Definitely. For some of these street rappers and battle rappers, it’s really hard to think of a hook. Listening to “Miseducation” by Lauryn Hill, and Missy and Busta and Eminem, I’m like, these people can rap but they’re also making great hit songs. I didn’t want to just be a rapper, I wanted to be a star.
When did you start to find your voice?
I was able to get my first job when I turned 18 at a carwash in Atlanta — a popping carwash. I washed 2 Chainz’s truck, T.I.’s car, but I missed André 3000. I was able to save up enough money to buy my own laptop to record myself. That gave me the time I needed to formulate songs, figure out a sound, flows and hooks.
What was the germ of the idea that would become “Whack World”?
I hope it doesn’t sound cocky, but I’m a lot to take in, a lot to handle. We’ll be talking and I’ll just see a roach or a dog — I’m all over the place, all the time. I just wanted people to get a glimpse: “Oh, she has so many different sides and emotions and styles.” And my age, my generation, we get bored so easily. I know how I am — I’ll listen to a new song and I only want to hear 30 seconds of it before I tell you, “Nope — trash.” I have a really short attention span, but I have so much to offer. I wanted to put all of these ideas into one universe, one world. I’m giving you a trip through my mind.
This is such a vibrant moment for female rappers and yet, outside of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, there continues to be a sort of commercial glass ceiling. Why do you think we only see a few women making hits at any given moment?
I think coming up, the male-dominated industry pits women against each other and we’re just crazy enough to go with it. But I’m not crazy enough to go with it. I want more females to join in and get the shine, and I hope to be part of the reason. Nicki and Cardi, Rico Nasty, all the Dolls. Everybody has their own aesthetic. It feels like when Lil’ Kim and Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown and Missy and MC Lyte were all in their own lane. I love it all, I really do.
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