Even in a city where independent hustle has long been the way of life for predominately Black hip-hop music-makers, working in the shadow of the predominately white music business and its inaccessible resources, PETTY’s commitment to artistic idiosyncrasy and idealism have set him apart.
He’s spent his entire life in Nashville, writing and rapping for roughly the last decade of it, creating mostly in isolation. He’s made authenticity his brand, and not in the much-overused sense of the term; his songs acutely express his attitudes, emotions and ideas.
It’s not that PETTY doesn’t pay attention to what his peers are up to. Plenty of his fellow Nashville rappers describe chopping it up with him in deep conversations on his porch. But he seems to measure his work against a standard all his own, built both on restless imagination and respect for musical forms.
Over the years, he’s grown increasingly conceptual, more prone to explore the narrative potential of themes and impose parameters to challenge himself. He devoted a whole song cycle to the dissonance between seasonal depression and Christmas cheer, and another to unfurling a movie-style horror plot ahead of Halloween, and still another to a an album’s worth of warm, familial vignettes timed to Thanksgiving. The ultimate proof of his determination not to get stuck in a rut was a self-assigned writing exercise that involved using one set of beats as the basis for two wholly different collections of songs.
The schedule that PETTY maintained in 2021 was a rigorous one, not least because he launched a weekly series dubbed 53 Fridays. Not only did he deliver a new track every week — asking area producers for instrumentals, coming up with verses and hooks in an array of styles and including features from artists who represent different circles and scenes in Nashville hip-hop — but he also used painting and collage techniques to create visual art for each one.
And there were other projects besides — one, Hold the Applause, that he wrote and recorded using crowd-sourced song titles as a jumping off point, then paired with revealing documentary footage of his process, and another, Better Than Silence, that was entirely a capella, its beatboxing, hummed bass lines and other animated vocalizing adding up to full, frisky sound. A final EP that dropped on New Year’s Eve got him across the 100-song threshold for the year.
Some of that music is like a sketch, an invitation to eavesdrop on his brainstorming, but a bunch of it feels confidently complete. Those are the moments when PETTY is so present in his performances — teasing, brooding and philosophizing, singing slouchy, soulful hooks in a coarse drawl, rhyming with precision and lively personality — that he delivers his thoughts and feelings in ultra high-definition.
On the Record: A Q&A with PETTY
Jewly Hight: You came up here. It wasn’t like you moved here because you thought the city promised musical opportunity or anything like that. Can you tell me about the Nashville that you experience growing up and living here in adulthood, and how that has shaped the way you talk about the city and the very self-sufficient way that you have moved as an artist?
PETTY: It used to be like if fans listened to one particular [Nashville rap] artist, that was the only artist they would listen to, and they wouldn’t even give other artists a chance. It was almost like the tribe is only listening to whoever they consider their chief. You know what I’m saying? And it painted this false narrative that the artists really weren’t rocking with each other. That’s something I noticed early on when I first started. And from there, I tried to make it visible for the people to see us, as artists, standing next to each other or in the same rooms, whether it’s at a show, a party or whatever. Because the people listening to the music assumed that the artists weren’t cool, and it kind of made people think that there was this tension or this beef or whatever, when it really was never the case.
This is a competitive place to make it out of; that’s our first adversity. And then being in the country music capital, whether it’s the genre not being respected or just not being accepted. Because certain venues have it noted on their sites or at the venues[that] they don’t really just rock with rap music much, for this assumption that it’s going to bring in a particular crowd, and that’s gonna — I don’t know—maybe bring problems to the night, when that’s furthest from the truth. So we just try to get on whatever opportunity we can, whatever shows or stages allow us. And now it’s turning into more venues opening their doors, when at a time, it was hard to perform anywhere that wasn’t a club or a bar. But it’s still challenging. Things go back to being the same every now and then.
We know the type of work we put in and we know the sacrifices we make to produce the work. And we know it’s quality in comparison to what’s going on in the industry, as well as in comparison to where we used to be as artists, because we are growing, we are getting better. And that is that’s one of the reasons that I feel like the quality of Nashville music is more potent, because it’s forcing us to be more innovative, be more creative.
JH: You’ve got a decade of experience at this point, and you’ve gone through different phases as an artist. Early on, you would, like a lot of rappers establishing their artistry, maybe rap over some borrowed beats or familiar tunes, and then you evolved into trying a lot of different things with storytelling and concepts. What do you feel like it took to really start to earn respect for your ideas and your abilities here and to establish yourself as someone to take seriously?
P: It’s like when everybody goes left, you go right. When they go up, you go down. I look at rap music as a sport competitively [where the competition is based] throughout the whole world. So it can be the biggest artist or somebody just starting at home, but I try to go outside the box that everybody’s trying to go outside of.
Another way to separate yourself is concept pieces, whether it be me doing a Christmas album, me doing a Halloween album that has a storyline in between the song, so it turns into a psychological thriller, making a double album where you’re rapping on the same beats in the same order, but each album has completely different verses, different hooks. Just separating yourself as much as possible. Most people say quality over quantity. I feel like I can give you both, and just to try to be the exception.
JH: There’s often kind of a rhythm to artists’ output, especially in the music industry, where they ramp up to putting out new music to maximize the promotion. It works as a cycle, but it’s clear that you do not play by those rules. You go through these periods of unparalleled productivity, like you did last year, where it seems like you just don’t stop. And then there are times when you might go quiet for a while. What drives you? What enables you to get to work and be so productive and be so creative? And then what makes you step away sometimes?
P: So I tell artists, “If you make a song and you get this urge to make a post or the post a snippet or to say, ‘Man, I just wrote the best song in my life,’ don’t do that.” Whatever sparked that feeling, let that motivate you to make another song and another one and another one. Next thing you know, you might make an album in a week, or you might make so many songs that that fifth song you made was the best song you made out of all of them you did, because you kept the excitement in. That’s one of the reasons why I take a step away, because I’m always working and I’m letting that spark multiply before I open it bottle and say, “Hey, I just did something good. I just topped myself.”
I want to spend more of my time making something, leaving something behind, something concrete, because we all can go at any time. I plan on being old, but, you know, life happens. We as artists, some take a couple of years off before they release music, and it’s like, I don’t want the last memory of me to be a project I released multiple years ago. And I don’t want to put all this responsibility on somebody else to get my legacy out there when I have the opportunity right now.
You can live to be 100 years old; you’re going to be dead a whole lot longer. So what you leave behind is going to live on and knowing that, why not push the button and drop 100 hundred songs?
JH: I do want to talk about those 100 songs. You just wrapped up a massive undertaking, your 53 Friday’s project, an entire year’s worth of weekly track drops that featured different guests, different producers, an array of different stylistic approaches. How did you come up with that idea? What did it take to pull it off while you were still doing other projects, other EPs, other mixtapes? And what made it worth doing to you?
P: I wanted to set a personal goal and see if I could paint this picture or be this example of consistency, whether it pays off or whether it doesn’t. But being fulfilled with knowing that you did it, knowing that I witnessed myself accomplish a big goal that, at the time, I didn’t think anybody had ever done.
It wasn’t easy. I had most of the song — well, about all of them, minus maybe 10 or something. I was sitting on those songs and I was going to drop a folder of everything all at once. But I know people wasn’t going to consume that unless it’s something that people talk about, right? Like “Game of Thrones” — you’re not going to binge all eight seasons unless people are talking about it and making you want to watch it.
But it was a weekly process, because although the music was done, you have to edit things, and I had to make the artwork for every [track]. I cut out letters from magazines, and I hand-painted all of the pieces myself.