Record of the Week: Tierra Whack’s “R&B?,” “Pop?” and “Rap?” EPs

Listen to an audio postcard from Tierra Whack; the transcript can be found below

Tierra Whack is close in age to loads of twenty-somethings whose music gets described as “post-genre” because of how their embodiment of fluidity carries over to the collapsing of distinctions between style, and registers as freedom from categories.

The Philly rapper, singer and multimedia maximalist moves differently. It’s not that genre boundaries hem her in, or keep her out. Really, nothing that captures her curiosity is off limits. But it’s the identifiable characteristics of different genres that give her something to play around with — something to take up and try out in the spirit of artful experimentation.

Whack tantalized listeners with the sheer amount of possibilities that her imagination supplied on 2018’s Whack World, a 15-minute album that collected exactly that many tracks, to kaleidoscopic effect. She took each of those short songwriting and recording exercises just far enough to show that she’s more than comfortable ranging from hard-rapping precision to hooky eccentricity.

There’s been new music since then — several loosies and a LEGO collab — but no larger projects until a trio of EPs, Pop?, Rap? and R&B?, late last year. They were still concise, just three tracks apiece, but those tracks were of a standard, three-minute length, and gave Whack a little more room to explore what she could do with musical forms. The fact that she grouped the results by genre and tacked a question mark onto the end of each title is another display of creative mischief: she’s inviting us to inquire along with her into how determinative or elastic those categories are.

Often, Whack entered the studio with a particular reference point in mind, applied her expressive abilities — her deft use of tone and inflection, her theatricality and shrewd phrasing — then allowed herself detours to unplanned destinations. With the Appalachian singer-songwriter side of Dolly Parton’s catalog in mind, she got ruminative over a 5-string banjo figure, but still sang with teasingly gnarled and thoroughly contemporary enunciation.

Whack also got into an Aaliyah headspace, ready to cultivate cool, cutting-edge vibes, only to write a nearly gospel tune that envisions loved ones in the afterlife, her low murmur in call-and-response with a crisp, digitized choir. And when Whack decided to honor her fans’ request for the hip-hop staple of blistering bars delivered from a puffed-up posture, she came up with her own version: witty, aloof couplets that slouch against a rumbling, robotically syncopated bass pattern.

Trying to keep up with Whack’s unpredictability is its own kind of brainteaser, and a very satisfying one.

In audio snippets from our interview, here’s what Whack had to say about how Outkast inspired her to create “Stand Up”:

And the Aaliyah and Jagged Edge listening that set the tone for “Heaven”:

And the Dolly Parton-related origins of “Dolly”:

And the fan requests that spurred Whack to create “Body of Water”:

I also asked Whack to recount how she came to trust the multitudes upon multitudes contained in her imagination, and here’s how she told that story.

Tierra Whack: When I was young, I always had a wild imagination, always been silly and just naturally creating my own world, just to escape the reality sometimes. Because I didn’t grow up in, quote unquote, good neighborhoods. So, you know, there were some crazy things going on. And I just had to always find a way to escape.

I just was exploring, trying new things. I was drawing, I was painting, and then I started writing, and that just felt like the best, the best form of expression. So poems, poetry, it just became my thing. And a lot of my poems didn’t make sense at first to other people, but I felt like it was the right thing for me, like, it felt OK to me.

My mom was playing [me music] like Lauryn Hill, and I just remember a bunch of Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes. She gave me a really good layout musically. So I’m just listening to all these cool musicians and artists, and I’m like, “Wow, I love this. This does something to me.” Then ventured off into singing a little bit, but I didn’t really think I had a voice. It just was something that I enjoyed doing, but I’m like, “If I practice and let my mom know that there’s something I want to do, then hopefully eventually I can become actually like, good at something that I like.”

I think at a very young age, I realized that I had so many different interests that I’m just like, “I got to find a way to get this out,” you know? I ran into a few people who were like, “You can’t do so many things at once. You got to pick one.” And I didn’t like that at all. I’m just like, “No, I like doing this one day and then doing this another day, but I’m practicing all of these things equally. So it’s like, how can you tell me I can only choose one?” After a while, I met people who were down with it, like, “Yo, forget that. You can do what you want to do. If these are things that make you happy, we’ll find a way to make it work.” Yeah, we pushed, and that’s how we created Whack World.

Every day we were in the studio just creating different sounds and genres and just doing whatever. We were just trying new things every day. I’m like a sponge, so whatever I hear, I’m soaking it up and then I’m trying to figure it out for myself. You know, [making] the EPS was really fun for me, because I’m always in the studio and we’re just always making music, things that we want to hear. And when I say we, I mean, my producer, my engineer, my mentor and me. We’ll just always in there just doing us and having fun and experimenting.

I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries and just feeling really inspired, and that’s usually how I like go into the studio. I have to have something solid [in terms of inspiration]. So, you know, Monday, I’ll be in the studio and coming off of [watching] a Tina Turner documentary, so we’ll tap into some rock instruments, me and my producer, J Melodic, and then we just see where it takes us. We just love to just try new things, try new stuff. I mean, we fail sometimes, of course. We have a lot of attempts, but for the most part, when we’re trying something, we usually find common ground and we’re like, “OK, this is like really cool.” And it’s always still true to me, like, even though I’m stepping into new territory, it always still comes back to me, like two Whack.

So I remember the specific time I was creating the song “Heaven,” which is on the R&B? EP. I remember we were listening to some classic R&B, it was Aaliyah and Jagged Edge — it was a smooth groove kind of vibe in the studio — to just, you know, get some inspiration. And my producer J Melodic started to make the beat, and I’m like, “Yo, this feels really good.” And when I sat down to start writing, it just like — I don’t know — became gospel almost, you know, from R&B to gospel. We started at one place, but we ended up somewhere else.

We have “Body of Water,” “Dolly” and “Lazy” on Pop?. Some people may see “Dolly” as country, but then I saw some people saying that it kind of still feels like it has an R&B feel. So it’s just a big debate, you know? And I like to hear what the people are saying, what the fans are thinking.

You can start one place, end up somewhere else. But it’s all really cool, because it just mixes well together. Whatever happens happens. We’ll figure it out. That’s life.