Apple Music Up Next presents Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack clasps a buffalo wing between her thumb and index finger. Salt, pepper, ketchup, hot sauce—Whack likes her chicken fried hard not soft. Her nails are bright red, she’s wrapped in an Acne scarf, over an Acne sweatshirt, over leggings and sun-yellow Visvim Christo slides. If you don’t already know it, the North Philadelphia 90’s child is just about the most exciting thing to happen, not just to rap, but planet earth—truly in 2019 it’s Whack’s world, we’re just living in it.
Her phantasmagorical 2018 debut audiovisual album, Whack World, features 15 surreal tracks of roughly one minute long rap vignettes, delivered in a style that switches between pop-infused sing-rap and pure mumblecore. In just 15 minutes (truly a perfect album for the Insta age of depleted attention spans) the release cements Whack as a rap visionary, landing her a coveted selection as an Apple Music Up Next spotlight artist in the process. It’s a rapid induction into the imaginative world of Whack, a wake up slap to the face that switches between genres—slow jams, doo-wop, trap, Deep South country—as quickly as it does tracks. When 30 seconds into the record Whack proclaims “Best believe I’m gon’ sell if I just be myself”, it’s impossible not to feel her feeling herself.
The album is accompanied by a visual that’s as off-the-wall as the music that soundtracks it. The Whack World mini-movie has everything from a cemetary filled with Muppets, bedazzled coffins and a badly taxidermied dog. At times it’s unflinchingly grotesque—see Whack’s swollen and drooping face in the opening scene—unafraid to be ugly. It’s an aesthetic that’s already earned her demented dentist “Mumbo Jumbo” video a Grammy nomination, as well as Jordan Peele comparisons—it could easily be a deleted scene from Get Out.
Out-creeping Tierra Whack is not going to be an easy task but that doesn’t stop me trying. “I really don’t like gifts,” is Whack’s response when I tell her I have something for her. She eyes me dubiously, conscious of the nature of things regularly gifted to celebrities, but Whack is not your average celeb and neither is my gift.
“Wait, what?”, Whack inhales. “Oh my—You want me to have this!?” I pull a 1965, first-edition copy of the Dr. Seuss book, I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, from my tote bag. It’s technically a family heirloom, held together by packing tape. My Mum’s name is inscribed on the title page, I know the poetry by heart. I’d teared up the night before, but no one I’d ever shown the book to before understood its message—Whack would though. It was time I pass it on. “It’s crazy, you know,” Whack says, “this is what started it all.”
Growing up, the sound of gunshots might have been familiar sound on the streets of North Philly’s Norris Street Projects, but they didn’t disrupt life in Whack’s world. At home Whack’s mother was busy introducing her to The Cat in the Hat author, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s Dr. Seuss books. “I didn’t know words could rhyme like that”, says Whack of the revelatory effect Geisel’s work had on her, telling Apple Music “Just the rhyming words was like so crazy to me, I’m like, Yo, cat, hat, bat, sat, rat, flat…”.
At 10 years old Whack enveloped herself in poetry and when her uncle proposed she take her gift for wordplay and turn it into bars, it became Whack’s superpower. Whack enrolled at the predominantly white Arts Academy of Benjamin Rush as a vocal major and fine arts minor, but found it a stifling environment for her creativity. In contrast, by 14 Whack’s extracurricular activities saw her performing on Philly’s street-cypher circuit under the short-lived pseudonym: Dizzle Dizz.
Whack loathes Los Angeles and swears she’ll never move here, even recording a soon-to-be-released track about how much the City of Angels blows. “Everyone thinks LA is this dream place, and it’s not,” Whack asserts. “I’ll probably never move from Philly—that’s home. Philly feels grimy and good, and real,” adding that when she comes to L.A, even for the Grammys, she feels nothing. “I’m happy that I’m nominated and that I’m being acknowledged,” she says, “but I don’t care for the whole getting dressed up and going out thing. Just tell me who won so I can go about my business and keep doing what I’m doing.”
It’s not that Whack is ungrateful, she just doesn’t want to drink the industry kool-aid. “I don’t go out much. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. There’s just really nothing for me at parties, you know?” Instead she’s has been catching up on South Park in her hotel and thinking about the day job as a doorwoman (a situation likely to changed since signing to Interscope and being selected as an Apple Music ‘Up Next’ artist), 3000 miles away back in Philly, she has to get back to: “I didn’t quit and they didn’t fire me, so I’m still there,” she shrugs.
- Dress SHEATH
- Dress SHEATH
- Shoes GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI
Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is Whack’s favourite 2018 music video. Ironically, she’s up against Donald Glover for the Best Music Video award at this year’s Grammys. Whack says it’s crazy that she’s up against Glover (who ends up taking home the trophy five days later) because they’ve been “homies” for a while and Glover has become both a friend and a guide to Whack. In December 2018 Glover flew Whack to New Zealand to perform at his Pharos Festival for three straight days. The two “talk regularly,” and Instagram reveals she’s been in the studio with him on on numerous occasions. Whack’s also been spotted collaborating on some “fire” with Philly native Meek Mill, who she calls a mentor for all of North Philly’s kin.
Through bites of on-the-bone-wings, Whack confides that she feels misunderstood, that even though people are listening to her music, she doesn’t think they listen to what she’s saying. As a disciple of Seuss, Whack is invigorated by both the silly and grotesque, something that’s demonstrated in her penchant for poop and it’s emoji form—having told Noisey that: “I honestly just like to shit”. Whack works hard to determine a balance between her dark and her light sides. “It’s like, ‘oh, she’s so funny and crazy’,” Whack says with frustration, “but if you listen it’s actually really deep and dark.”
What fuels this darkness isn’t totally explicit in Whack’s work, though there are hints in conversation, like her estrangement from her dad, who she sings about too, labeling him a “dead beat”. Now she’s in therapy, processing the loss of loved ones and despite being a self-proclaimed loner, trying to improve herself and become more compassionate.
“The more people I started losing through death, it was like, you know what? I need to appreciate people more, I need to bring everybody together.” Whack continues, “Even if it doesn’t work out, I believe that you should try and if it doesn’t go the way you wanted it to go, at least you tried. That way you’re able to cope. But if you never try, you never know.”
Whack’s oddball aesthetic slots neatly into hip-hop’s legacy of weird. In the 90s a new generation of hip-hop titans who embraced their freakiness, pushing the boundaries of style to create future fashion spectacles. Director Hype Williams captured this era in videos for the likes of Busta Rhymes. Lil Kim and Missy Elliott—who became a trend setter with her out of this world “Can’t Stand the Rain” visual—using the medium to create commentary on issues of race and sexuality. Meanwhile the Hotlanta stank of Outkast blended genres and delivered psychedelic, hyper-real visuals. Young Whack was instantly drawn to these hip-hop visionaries, telling The Inquirer, “It was weird, but I liked that. It was like ‘Oh my God.’ I got closer and closer to the TV.”
On the flip side, Whack’s work is undeniably funny af, using humor to deflect pain, greeting motifs of mourning and heartache (both familial and romantic) with playfulness. A prime example drops eight minutes into Whack World, when “Pet Cemetery” pays ambiguous tribute to either a dead dog or a friend. The visual finds Whack wearing an outfit straight out of the musical theatre production Godspell, flanked by harmonising puppets in a graveyard that could comfortably double as the stage for a high-school play.
Whack uses humor as a coping mechanism, explaining how she laughs at the worst things: “You know, like, becoming famous, people may tear me apart for it, but I can’t help it. I laugh at dark shit. If somebody tells me their grandma got hit by a bus, I’m going to crack up. It’s not funny, but it’s how I react when I’m just like ‘oh, that’s crazy.’ When I’m in pain, I laugh immediately.” From that pain grows Whack’s art.
Does Whack consider imagination—the kind she possesses—something anyone can tap into?
“Yeah, because everybody can lie!”
Whack confesses she’s lied in at least six prior interviews, purely out of indifference, bored by interviewers asking the same old routine questions—’Who’s your inspiration? Who do you want to work with? What’s with the Dr. Seuss obsession? How do you characterize your music?’ “I could lie this whole time and you wouldn’t know,” she cheekily concedes, “but I’m not going to do that because you gave me a really nice gift. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
Whack’s truth is that she unapologetically likes what she likes. She likes Brickleberry, The Secret Life of Pets, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, streetwear brands like Ader Error and Lazy Oaf, and the color yellow, like the colour of her slides. She loves Lil Wayne, Faith Evans and Busta Rhymes. She doesn’t want tattoos but if she did get one it’d be “God” on the back of her neck written in simple, black letters. Nothing fancy.
The impact of Whack World has given Whack her first taste of internet fame—a double-edge sword that not only connects her with fans but brings trolls right to her feed. “My team doesn’t tell me like, ‘yo, you have to post this’. When I feel like posting, I post, and when I don’t feel like posting I don’t post,” she says of her social media regime. Whack acknowledges social media can be a force for good, especially for the underprivileged. “So many people make millions of dollars just based off of Instagram and having a following. I think that’s great.”
What about the inevitable online haters?
“If you take time out your day to go pull up my name, tweet about me and tweet to me, you want my attention,” Whack flatlines. She doesn’t take it personally and never considers clapping back—after all her Mum taught her that if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it. “People are miserable and they need attention, help, hope, and prayer.”
“The world is fucked up… actually, it’s not even the world, it’s people. They say life is not complicated, people make it complicated. But I’ve been doing so good. I’ve been trying to just better myself that I don’t really let anybody control how I feel.” She recounts how her manager, Kenete Simms (who also produced half of Whack World), recently gave her some advice—a hard pill to swallow for Whack as a self-confessed control freak. Simms words of wisdom were that when you give haters the satisfaction they crave, you’re also giving them control over you.
“I like to be in control,” Tierra claps back. “It’s the Leo in me. So to let you piss me off and ruin my mood is like, that’s weak of me, you know? So when he said that he was like, ‘you know, you shouldn’t allow people to control you.’ I was like, ‘wait, what do you mean ‘control’!?’” Whack admits she used to have a short fuse, allowing slight criticisms to piss her off but instead of wasting time trying to improve others, she’s decided to work on herself.
“This is this new thing I’m leading with. I’m not going to let you ruin my day. I just can’t afford it. I’m doing good for myself, taking care of myself. I help my family out. I’m traveling. Anywhere I want to go, I can go, you know, like, I’m good. I’m in a good space. Why would I let somebody else dictate how I feel?”
At this point Tierra’s left leg has begun violently bouncing up and down. “You can tell my mind is wondering because like my leg is shaking,” she says, something else she learnt from therapy. I ask if she believes in astrology, telling her she and I were actually born five years and one day apart. She tells me astrology is “corny”.
Impending fame was the catalyst for Whack, who identifies herself as a “loner”, to dip her toes into therapy. “I know I’m about to be famous,” she responds, matter-of-factly. “Fame is a lot, it’s going to be a lot, and people forget you’re human. It’s scary. I know that I’m talented and that whatever I put out will do good and but that equals more fame and it’s just like, it’s scary,” say Whack. “I want to be able to handle it and handle it in the best way possible. I just want to be a better person.”
“This is all I cared about my whole life: Music. When you eat, sleep, dream it… when you work on something so hard, there’s no way you can’t get it. It’s destiny, it just feels right. This is what it’s supposed to be. I want my fans to grow with me. I want them to walk by my side. I know I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to say and do dumb shit. I’m learning from every mistake to be a better person, to take steps forward. I just want them to—if they really believe in me—just stick with me.”
Tierra thinks about death a lot, which innately impacts how she lives. “When I die, I want to die and still like have a good image. I want people to see me in a good, healthy state. I don’t want to die and then you have to pull a picture of me from when I was younger, where like, that’s the last time I looked good.” says Whack, “I always think about that. I want my obituary to be fire, like 3D pop-out crazy.”
Whack is sober, abstaining from drugs, including alcohol: “I don’t think it’s cool to smoke or drink and when people say you need to do certain things to fit in, it’s just like, I don’t need it. I’m cool the way I am.” It’s a stance that makes sense when you learn that she’s experienced her grandma’s alcoholism first-hand. “I hate the way she’s just going downhill.” Whack’s real drug of choice, as cliché as it sounds, is music. “Sometimes I get down and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this shit anymore.’ But I’m addicted to it. It’s like a drug. It’s my drug. It’s my natural high,” Whack admits.
“I’m new to the industry and I don’t want to come down and try to take and pull from everybody,” says Whack, explaining that conversely she doesn’t want the vultures who see her as fresh meat, “pulling” from her or getting “in the stu” either. “I just want to come in and say ‘hey everybody!’ and just join in and watch the game with everyone, or just watch cartoons or whatever. I don’t want to come in like, ‘Hey, yo, we got to do this! I’ll get you on!’ That’s too much. If it happens, it happens, you know?”
Tierra asks for a sheet of paper from the printer stationed directly behind me. I ask if she wants to write something down, but it’s for the buffalo sauce on her hands. Does she need a napkin? “No way, I’m from the hood, this is fine!” She presses her hands into the paper, leaving behind a hot sauce Rorschach test. “Look!” Whack exclaims, “it’s art now!”
Each month Apple Music’s Up Next emerging artist initiative spotlights rising talent from around the world with an introductory short film shot entirely on iPhone XS, an interview with one of Apple’s own Beats 1 anchors, plus a late night TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!