Tierra Whack Went From Rapping on the Corner to Being the 2018 Rookie of the Year
Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack was the breakout artist of 2018. In the midst of the G.O.O.D. Music rollout, she dropped her whimsical 15-minute debut Whack World, one of the finest albums of 2018.
One minute into Whack World, Tierra Whack removes her hoodie to reveal a grotesque growth on her face. This scene sets the theme for the rest of the video. In the world of Tierra Whack, every visual is exaggerated and stretched to fit within the confines of one-minute songs.
The music video itself is a mirage of colorful sets, diverse hairstyles, and pop culture influences. Throughout the video, she alters her voice —11 different times— and adopts different vocal styles. Whack’s strengths lie in her ability to morph into different personas while still maintaining her sarcastic tone, making her one of the most versatile rappers in hip-hop.
At the beginning of the summer, Kanye West announced he would be releasing five G.O.O.D music albums: a new album every Friday, each one produced by Kanye himself. The rollout was a disaster. While Pusha T’s Daytona reached lofty expectations, most releases after proved to confuse and disappoint fans.
In the midst of that rollout, Tierra Whack quietly dropped her debut album, Whack World. Immediately, the album was praised for its ingenuity. Described as a “visual and auditory project,” Whack World is 15-tracks, with each song being one minute long. The accompanying 15-minute video, which plays the entire album, is a glimpse into the zany mind of Tierra Whack.
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Tierra started to pop up on the scene seven years ago, when she was only 15, battling in her hometown Philadelphia. She was going by the name Dizzle Dizz. She freestyled in front of Philly’s underground rap music collective We Run The Streets. After the video was posted online, she hung around the local radio station, rapping for the likes of Meek Mill and A$AP Rocky, who compared her flow to Kendrick Lamar’s. In old videos, you could see that Whack, who started out as a poet, was still trying to find herself. In an interview with High Snobiety, conducted this year, she told the publication:
I didn’t want to get boxed in as just being that rapper in the streets. I want to be a superstar. I want to be able to touch all different kinds of people, all different genres. I didn’t want it to just be rap.
Even with Whack’s street beginnings, you saw her creativity start to peak out. (In the 2012 music video “Dog Backwards,” Whack is dressed as an old lady, rapping and twerking next to a giant muppet.) It isn’t until the releases of a stream of singles — “Toe Jam,” “Shit Happens,” and “Child Please” — that Whack begins to curate an original sound that is sarcastic and dark. On these singles, she belts out melodic hooks intertwined with quick paced raps. Various themes span across these three songs: “Child Please” talks about childhood romance and heartbreak, while “Shit Happens” uses a car as a metaphor for her life success and failures.
But the newly Grammy-nominated “Mumbo Jumbo” is the single that puts her on the map as an artist to watch. The song is incomprehensible; Whack mumbles incoherently on the beat. In the video, Whack sits wide-eyed in a dentist’s chair as they operate on her. To fit with the theme of her love of horror films there is blood, roaches, and other creepy motifs. At the end of the video, Whack appears with a forced smile on her face and goes out into a world that is dark and grim. Many critics saw this song as a critique of mumble rap, which was not her intention. For Tierra mumbling on a beat is a part of her creative process. She told Pigeons and Planes:
When I’m recording, I usually just mumble and hum a melody and then fill the words in as I go. This time I just decided not to. It felt so good to me and my engineer, so we stuck with it. It actually had nothing to do with mumble rap initially, the timing was just right.”
On Whack World, Tierra presents herself as a true visionary; the themes that float through each track are just as fluid as she is. Songs like “Flea Market” speak on wanting more from a significant other. While “Cable Guy” examines the loss of a friendship. “Fruit Salad,” is a self-care anthem about eating right and taking care of your body. On “Pretty Ugly” and “Dr. Seuss,” Whack is braggadocious, calling out other rappers for their lack of authenticity. On the album’s surprising faux-country song, “Fuck Off,” Tierra snips at red balloons while she compares an old lover to her absent father. As she cuts balloon strings she continually flashes a creepy smile at the camera. The track itself is an unusual sound heard on a hip-hop album, but Tierra’s biting lyrics and humorous delivery shows that she has the ability to combine both genres into something unique.
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The throughline of the album is Whack’s focus on reaching success and the struggle to stay authentic in an industry that works against those who look like her. The industry does not pay attention to rappers like her, unless they’re light skin and overtly sexual. For dark skinned women in hip-hop, their accomplishments are always erased, their own sexuality either ignored or deemed unacceptable. For example, many praise Missy Elliott’s futuristic music videos but downplay the sexual themes in her work.
Tierra understands that even those she idolizes don’t receive the recognition they deserve. But like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and many other female rappers before her, Tierra chooses to ignore industry trends. Whack is making music about subjects that relate to her. Tierra does not address the issues of sex directly, but talks about the perils of romance. She sings about the loss of a friend who was looking for more and the aftermath of breaking someone’s heart. Whack addresses these tired themes against the fresh backdrop of her carefully constructed world. In her world, there are singing muppets and sequined coffins. She knows that she’s different and her attraction to the eccentric proves that.
The Whack World visual combine seamlessly with the music; the two cannot coexist without the other. By playing different characters —a beret-wearing dog lover, a dog groomer, a chubby gym rat— Whack keeps her audience engaged. This visuals only serve to add an extra layer of meaning, one that may be intentional or not. The limited sixty-second videos seem perfect for Instagram. Each video a short snippet into the imagination of Whack. In “Bugs Life,” half her face is deformed as she whispers: “Probably would’ve blew overnight if I was white.” In “Hungry Hippo,” she brings the beloved game to life as they eat pearls off of a man, a symbol of sexual awakening. In “Dr. Seuss” she uses imagery from the surreal classic Alice In Wonderland. She’s trapped in a small house, as she grows larger as if to say that her talent cannot be contained. The Stephen King-inspired “Pet Cemetery,” shows Tierra in a cemetery surrounded by muppets as she laments the death of her friend, fellow Philadelphia rapper Hulitho.
In many interviews, Tierra states that she is not looking to be boxed into one genre. She frequently mentions being scatterbrained and struggling to stay with one sound. In various interviews, she talks about her need to experiment with different styles when in the studio. Artists are constantly reinventing themselves and exploring different sounds which account for different “eras.” In just one album, Tierra explores various themes and genres without bombarding the listener. Whack World is not of a singular sound or theme, so there is no telling what her music may sound like next. As a rising artist, she’s still trying to find herself and understand what she wants others to take away from her music. Tierra set the bar with her whimsical 15-minute project and the world will be waiting to see how she tops herself. But Whack isn’t going to limit herself to one-minute songs, telling the Guardian: “I never do the same thing twice.”
Feature Illustration by Laura Alston