London rapper, Ocean Wisdom, fronts a special edition digital cover with Beats.
Ocean Wisdom wears Beats Flex Smoke Grey
“The beginning of 2020 for me was crazy. So many people in my life passed away. There was madness. That, combined with the lockdown, was like, ‘What is happening?!’ At the end of 2019, I was hype and wanted to make that kind of music, but then I was trapped in my house. I had to go inside myself and spend a lot of time with my thoughts. I had to read the room of the world. I don’t wanna look back in twenty years and be like, ‘Remember when there was a pandemic, and I just carried on talking about how cool I was?’”
London-based and Brighton-raised rapper Ocean Wisdom felt the vast shift of the past year in all aspects of his existence. His most layered body of work thus far in ‘Stay Sane’ is an organic reflection of his grasp of the present, as well as his place in it all. While he built a career off of fast-paced and intricate bars (he holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest rap song), he realized now was the time to display his ability to create art that is more complex and human.
Wisdom’s debut album on his own record label Beyond Measure, while being timely, is also a long time in the making. He took the major label route initially with High Focus but realized that “It’s just a lot easier if you feel like you’re already steering the ship anyway, to do it yourself.” However, Wisdom had the wherewithal to know he had to first feed his core fanbase. Before he dropped a project with this level of depth, he released a mixtape so ‘Stay Sane’’s profundity would be felt and welcomed. “There’s gonna be learning curves, so I wanted to put out a mixtape (‘Big Talk Vol. 1’) first with a load of bangers everyone would be happy with to test the waters. Now I’m in a position to do my album justice.”
With Covid shutting the world down and magnifying cultural issues added to the previously mentioned set-up, ‘Stay Sane’ has landed at the ideal moment. The album traverses personal experiences with love and family to systemic racism and a universal need for self-care. On his second single from the project, “Uneven Lives”, featuring Maverick Sabre, Wisdom sonically dwells upon the life conundrum of catching feelings for a lover but catching that person at the wrong time. Oddly, that sentiment also feels like it parallels the inconvenience of heightening success interrupted by a global pandemic. Wisdom says about the track, “It’s rare you go into a relationship on the same wavelength, so it’s commenting on the difficulty of that”. The youthful need for balance and passionate love simultaneously is a dilemma. One much more potent to reflect upon whilst in separation from the world as we knew it. On the album, Wisdom continually feels like he is touching on the shared mental frequency of the time we are in.
The importance of family, especially in a time when many are losing loved ones to the virus, is a topic Wisdom approaches on the album uniquely. On the reggae-centric “Good Girl”, he explodes out of the box of the genre you’d expect from him. The track is an ode to the music his father played in his youth. “If I condensed down all the music my Dad was listening to in the kitchen in the ’90s in South London, it’s the chorus on “Good Girl”. I like to reminisce on those times when my Dad would sit with me across the table and school me about the deepest aspects of life. It shaped my character. I’d come up to see him and have two to three days to talk before I’d go back to my mum’s. I’d soak in everything, and in the background, there’d be these different types of riddim playing from when he was a kid. He’s named Courtney, and I nearly called “Good Girl” “Courtney Riddim.” He knows what it is. It’s a bit of what made me”.
Wisdom also spoke to me about his hope for a live collaboration with his percussionist brother coming out of the pandemic. It seems as if this album process not only inspired him to make music in honour of his family but to further think about making art with them. “What we talk about is how you can incorporate offbeat drumming patterns into an onbeat 4/4 section briefly, because you can flex into it, then quickly come back out and stick to the structure. There’s an art and a beauty just in that. I’m gonna do live shows as well, with a band coming out of this. I would love to have my brother on stage with me doing his thing. If that does happen, you’re gonna see each syllable of the lyric match up with something that happens on the drum”. Familial bond and significance are as central in Wisdom’s consciousness as the ills of society the pandemic highlighted.
On the ‘Stay Sane’ closing track “Can’t Breathe Either”, and visual for the lead single “Drilly Rucksack”, Wisdom explores two reactions to internalized rage from fear. On “Can’t Breathe Either”, he dives into the frustration he felt at the judgment of communities uprising against police violence. “If you keep being made to feel like an animal, eventually you’re going to lash out. It’s like people wanna prod and prod until you get to a point where you lose your mind. When that person does lose their mind, are they crazy, or are they a victim? I was so sick of everyone trying to condemn people’s actions who’ve been victims of systemic racism. You can’t torture people and then expect them not to react in an aggressive way”. On the track, Wisdom speaks in a cerebral tone. He analyzes one’s constant layering of trauma that eventually results in lashing out due to a mix of justified fright and frustration. But in the “Drilly Rucksack” visual, rather than a real-life human reaction, Wisdom envisions an escapist fantasy. “In the lyrics, I’m talking about savage stuff in quite a lighthearted way. I wanted the video to be a reflection of that and be a sort of adventure with an animated character and a rucksack that keeps them safe. It trivializes a gun in a bag. A rucksack that does drills. But in a lighthearted way, the character has a magical rucksack that protects them”. Said character travels through time, interacting with cartoon pig cops with backdrops of old-time video footage. This mixture of magic and reality on the album covers the expansive scope of processing the horror-filled imagery in a period of isolation.
The inspiration for the music video came from Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ” visual. On what could be considered Wisdom’s most career-defining work thus far, he pulled much inspiration from his idols. On the track “Racists” featuring South London rapper Novelist, Wisdom plays on the lyrics of one of his earliest favourite rappers, Eminem. Wisdom flips the classic lyrics from “Superman”: “But I do know one thing though/ Bitches, they come, they go/ Saturday through Sunday, Monday. Monday through Sunday, yo”. He makes them fit the context of his own song’s idea that racism and the people that spew it are a constant as he raps, “True likkle one thing holds/ Racists they come and they go/ Saturday through Sunday, Monday/ Monday through Sunday, yo”. When I asked him about the legendary Detroit MC’s influence on him, he said, “I grew up listening to Eminem, so all the intricate technical things he developed as an artist I was blessed with from a young age as learning tools. I’ve got so much respect for the guy. I always said to my friends when I was younger, there’s two people who if I made a tune with (them) my life would be complete. Dizzee Rascal and Eminem. If I get the opportunity to collab, I’m creating a new flow bruv. Light speed”.
However, Wisdom has a very different relationship with his other main idol, Dizzee Rascal – one of friendship and consistent collaboration. That said, Wisdom constantly looks to Dizzee for advice and inspiration that carried into this project. Wisdom is continuously amazed by Dizzee’s prowess. We talked about a specific moment on a collaborative track between the two of them from 2020, “Don’t Be Dumb”. When Wisdom spits his fastest section on the track in a call and response style, Dizzee then goes, “Jesus that’s a bloody mouthful”, and then goes about rapping his section. It creates a moment of pure hilarity that Wisdom was wildly impressed and inspired by. “At the time, I didn’t clock what he was doing. I just saw it as like man’s making me sound wild good there. I was quite gassed. But then I was like, rah, that’s such a good bar because that’s what everybody’s thinking. He’s tapped in. These things aren’t accidents”. The genius and focused intention on creating mind sticking moments feels like it carried over into Wisdom’s full execution on ‘Stay Sane’. It’s safe to say he lived up to the expectation he placed on himself of executing art on a tier with those he looks up to.
While Wisdom may have been impressing his idols for some time, his harshest critic has always been his grandmother. The rapper said previously that she hadn’t given him any signs of approval except for when he was placed on the 2019 FIFA soundtrack. I had to ask him if he’d gotten any more compliments from her and was happy to find out she’d had a full 180-degree turnaround. “She was getting her hair done and bragging about me, and the person doing her hair was a listener. She’s not involved in the scene enough to appreciate certain moments when you’ve achieved a goal, but if the hairdresser knows you, that’s a big deal. Then she messaged me the other day and goes, ‘You should do a song with Billie Eilish’. She doesn’t realise you have like a huge global superstar, and you have like rappers on the come-up”. All I can say is, wait ‘till she sees the reaction to this album, and maybe her popstar collaboration manifestation won’t be, so far fetched.
Wisdom taps into the truth of now on ‘Stay Sane’. Everyone from myself to legendary rappers and his grandmother will hear it. The world as a whole is vast, yet a global pandemic creates a shared understanding through a common unknown outcome. When talking to Wisdom, I knew I had to, at some point, ask him a question that related as much to him as that idea. When he answered the question, “Is there wisdom to be found in the ocean?” I was taken by how poignant his answer was. “If anything, the expanse of the ocean is freaky bro. The depths and the things we’ve yet to discover. We’ve explored only five per cent of the ocean. So I’m sure there’s wisdom to be found, but maybe we’ll destroy the planet before we get to find it. Maybe there’s more plastic than wisdom right now to find”.
Wisdom and I talked at length about the tendency in this time for some artists to make music which ignores that a pandemic is happening. Some have stuck to what was working for them previously in versions of flex raps and monetary bravado. Wisdom felt an inherent drive to make sure his art reflected the current global energy. In the general soundscape of music right now, ‘Stay Sane’ is much more wisdom than plastic.
Ocean Wisdom’s debut album ‘Stay Sane’ drops 26th March 2021.