Lost ’til I Found My Way: The nouns of Tierra Whack

whackworld

Advice for young songwriters: Don’t underestimate the power of concrete nouns. Country ringers Natalie Hemby, Luke Dick, and Rodney Clawson wrote a tune for Miranda Lambert called “Pink Sunglasses,” which could certainly be heard as a song about self-confidence or about the importance of perspective, but mostly it’s just a song about pink sunglasses—how Miranda wears them, how she loses them, and how they always seem to find their way back to her. There’s something wonderfully grounding in songs about stuff, something tangible and earthbound. It is no small pleasure, then, to hear all the songs about stuff on Whack World, an imaginative and charmingly specific EP from Tierra Whack. A young rapper from Philly, Whack confidently juggles syllables and bounces rhymes off one another, exhibiting a keen ear for crisp, percussive language, paired with a poet’s eye for everyday detail. There is a song here about the game Hungry Hungry Hippos. There is also one about a pet cemetery. One song is about fruit salad, and while it’s redolent of broader, more abstract concerns, it is fundamentally a song about fruit salad. The record is filled with these concrete particulars; by the time it ends, you’ll be able to name Whack’s favorite brand of bug spray, or her go-to Chinese food order.

And it ends a lot more quickly than you might expect, whizzing through 15 songs that each clock in at 60 seconds on the dot. Sure, it’s a gimmick—but also a helpful limitation, a self-imposed obstruction that focuses and clarifies Whack’s writing. There’s just room enough in these tunes for Whack’s concrete nouns to imply, insinuate, and evoke; these songs are like still life paintings, exercises in observation imbued with personal weight and meaning. One is reminded, and not for the first time, of master-teacher Orson Welles, who said of his filmmaking style, “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that… Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” One might also recall former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, whose immaculately-sculpted poems—hymns to concrete particulars, with titles like “Blue Chine Doorknob” and “Sharks’ Teeth”—feel like riddles and brain-teasers; they are as economical and as provocative as haiku, full of negative space where the reader finds meaning. And so it is with Whack’s little packets of song—each one an instant paradigm shift, both an object lesson and a catalyst for flights of fancy. The one about “Fruit Salad” champions the value in self-care, and it does so in the most pragmatic, prescriptive way possible (“Worry ‘bout yourself and don’t worry about nobody/ Drinkin’ water, eatin’ fruits, and take care of my body”). The one about a “Pet Cemetery,” meanwhile, manages to reflect both a narrow and specific experience as well as the more universal questions that it entails; it’s plainspoken and mysterious in exactly the same manner as Erroll Morris’ Gates of Heaven. “My dog had a name,” Whack raps—but now, her dog is gone, and questions about mortality exist as both cosmic consideration and daily experience. It’s not the only time death hangs over Whack World, either; “4 Wings,” the one with the Chinese food, references a fallen contemporary before pivoting to Whack’s own hardness (“I do not like soft,” she says), hip-hop bravado as a mask and a tonic for brokenness and vulnerability.

Whack World has an accompanying movie, and any one of its songs could be sliced off into an Instagram video—but if the artist’s chosen medium is a sop to the social media age, it’s also steeped in punk. (Compare with Turnstile’s latest hardcore fantasia, Time & Space: 13 songs in 25 minutes.) At least a couple of Kanye West’s recent Yeezy Season entries proved that brevity is no guarantee against torpor, but Whack’s album buzzes with kinetic energy, songs colliding with one another and gaining vibrancy through their close quarters. She’s structured it as a suite, sequencing the album according to its own internal, emotional logic but also leveraging disruptions for dramatic effect; and she’s given each song a single clear, indelible vocal hook. Maybe it all sounds like a blur on the first listen, but go back for seconds and notice how many tunes you can hum, and how nimbly Whack moves between voices and flows; in the first three minutes alone she flits from trap melodicism (“Black Nails”) to half-mumbled introspection (“Bugs Life”) to sing-song nursery rhymes (“Flea Market”)—and that’s before you even get to her helium-huffing drawl on “Fuck Off,” squeaky C&W that draws a straight line back to Erykah Badu or Goodie Mob’s southern-fried eccentricity. That song’s choogling zaniness is the oddest turn on an album that generally favors clean and uncluttered beats over anything too fancy; Whack World is faintly reminiscent of the warm, gleaming grooves on Noname’s Telefone—a connection nourished by the performative, slam-poetry feel in Whack’s vocals—and there’s much wisdom in how she allows her verbal dexterity and melodic ease to do most of the heavy lifting. But these tracks aren’t exactly spartan, either; they’re sleek but textured, adding up to a collage of subtle, washed-out psychedelia: “Cable Guy” is featherweight synth-pop peppered with Migos-style asides, “4 Wings” leans on a rickety funeral-home piano, and “Silly Sam” decorates bluesy guitar with tinkling bells and keys. There’s no instrument or production effect as compelling as Whack’s own voice: Listen to how it rises and crests on “Fruit Salad,” cutting through the antiseptic, lounge-lizard groove; or to how she modulates it on “Dr. Seuss,” forming her own tiny choir of oddballs and outcasts.

The brevity of these songs compels most of its pleasures to be small ones, yet its greatest conceptual feat is how all the fragments add up to something immersive and whole—an album about preserving your mental health even while accosted by loss and grief. It’s telling that, on a record marked by its precision first and foremost, “Fuck Off” takes the time to repeat its cheerful dismissal twice (“I hope your ass breaks out in a rash/ You remind me of my deadbeat dad”); the narrator is tracing her scars, but then she moves into healing: “I wrote this cause I feel ten feet tall,” she boasts, answering traumatic memory with an affirmation of dignity. And then there’s “Fruit Salad,” wherein the humblest of subject matter offers eruptive catharsis following so many songs that are haunted by death: She’s putting one foot in front of the other, taking care of herself, telling her story through riddles and metaphors, scene sketches and concrete nouns. Whack World transmutes its songs of stuff into songs of the self—and it saves one of the best for last. “I was lost ‘til I found my way,” she raps on the closing track, named for the GPS app “Waze” and folding an entire coming-of-age tale into that single line. It’s a story about particulars that any of us can relate to, as no one but Tierra Whack could tell it.

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