First Look Friday: Baltimore Rapper John Wells Found Urgency In Grief
For March’s First Look Friday, we talked with Baltimore MC John Wells about how grief and his neighborhood sparked his recent creative streak.
The latest album from Baltimore MC John Wells is intentionally arranged like a film. The album, appropriately titled The Apprehension of John Wells, climaxes on a six-minute story entitled “No Drugs In Heaven.” The tale is told from the perspective of Wells’ deceased father from the place beyond the pearly gates as he reflects on his addiction, regrets, complicated existence, and most importantly pride in his son’s breaking of a generational curse.
The idea for the song was spurred by a conversation Wells had over a year ago with his partner. In a moment of vulnerability, she revealed that his father would sometimes appear in her dreams. “She was saying whenever she sees him in a dream, he’s happy and he’s better. Not on drugs or anything like that,” Wells told Okayplayer. “I was like, ‘That’s ‘cuz there’s no drugs in heaven.’ I had always pictured the afterlife as a perfect place absent of all that goes on in the world. Then she went upstairs to take a shower and I started listening to beats because I just had the idea in my head. I was like, ‘I’m going to tell my father’s entire story.'”
The story is a blend of real-life stories and conversations. When Wells was a child his father revealed he was going to rehab because he had problems with cocaine. Later on, Wells would get his hand on a letter his father wrote to his mother apologizing in detail. Using his experiences and that letter as a reference, Wells wrote a story based on how he perceives his father’s elevated perspective in heaven. “When you’re not in the real world, you’re a little bit smarter and knowledgeable,” Wells said. “You think, ‘Alright, this was fucked up, but I’m a human being. This is the way I lived and this is not the way everybody should live. And it could be something I can make into something positive rather than keeping it hidden from everybody else.’”
Released in December of 2022, The Apprehension Of John Wells’ is John Wells’ good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s a project that, in addition to exploring catharsis through sudden death, captures the universality of the specificity of a city and its surrounding areas. As an MC, Wells leaves no detail unexposed in a sprawling and guttural display of seasoned rapped storytelling which he fuses with an accent and perspective as Baltimore as a bushel of old bay-dusted crabs next to a chicken box with western fries and a half and half.
On the opening track, “The Fent,” Wells raps, “The way we speak some of y’all would call it coded language, but as long as my brothers understand I don’t do no explaining, bro it’s places you ain’t never going where we feel the safest.”
The path to Baltimore royalty
Eminem to Lil Wayne to Kendrick Lamar to King Los to OG Dutchmaster to Butch Dawson, according to Wells, is the essential white rapper from Baltimore’s starter pack of influences. He describes Eminem as the gateway, aka “ the marijuana of white kid rap,” but then reveals Wayne and Kendrick to be the sources that solidified his early sound. “I remember going back to old Wayne tapes and I appreciated the way he just felt natural and raw,” Wells said. “Like, this is just a regular motherfucker, who just happens to rap really well. As opposed to Kendrick who feels like there’s some responsibility in what he says. I was trying to find that happy medium. I do have a lot of shit to say, but I want it to seem like I’m just a regular person talking to you.”
Then came the barrage of influence from Baltimore itself from the smooth street imagery on “PSA” by local legend OG Dutchmaster to witnessing a 25-minute freestyle by King Los at a now-closed downtown store called PedX to connecting with Butch Dawson’s raps about moving from Pennsylvania Avenue in the city to Woodlawn in Baltimore County. Early on, Wells himself moved to a county neighborhood called Middle River about ten miles east where he mostly grew up. However, this collage of references could only bloom into an opus once it collided with the urgency of grief.
In January 2020 Wells and his good friend and engineer Scotty Banx met up with his father outside a homeless shelter. Wells had for the past few years seen very minimal advancement in his career due to overthinking his rollouts rather than being consistent with releases. Seeing his father’s decline scared him into persistence. “He told me they were about to kick him out and everything felt bleak,” Wells said. “I was like ‘Fuck this shit, I’m gonna drop as much as possible,’” even if it’s just once a month. So I dropped a song in February, March, April, and May of 2020. Then in June, I found out my father was in the hospital in Florida about to die. My mother was in contact with my uncle and he was telling her it was fucked up. So I took that month and I didn’t drop shit. In the middle of June, he told me they were giving him a year to live so I went to see him at the hospital in Miami with my mother. He died on July 6th.”
Wells, out of necessity, quit his day job at a car dealership and took a month to grieve. Then in August, he recorded the Luckee Jordan EP which he released that September 6, on his birthday. (Luckee is a nickname his father gave him when, as a kid, when he fully recovered from breaking his leg after doctors told him he may never walk again.) Upon the release of the EP and a few accompanying music videos, suddenly there was a shift in attention. “That consistency kind of paid off,” Wells said. “I started doing crazy numbers on streaming services and my shit was going viral on Twitter. I got like 100,000 views on one of my videos. Then I dropped another one in October of 2020 and I got like 800,000 views on that video on Twitter. People were taking notice of me and I had actual fans that were looking for me to drop.”
Wells put his father front and center on the tape and combined his lingering aura with an added sharpness from being consistently in the lab. “My dad’s voice is at the beginning of the last song taken from a conversation we had right before he passed away,” Wells said. “I knew the time was coming so I started recording every conversation we had because I didn’t have too much recent history of my father. We didn’t take too many pictures together when we saw each other but I wanted to have these conversations to live with him last forever. In this conversation, he was telling me how I’ve exceeded all of his expectations and how proud he is of me. Like if I keep going, I’m gonna get to where I need to be.”
Wells heeded his father’s advice and used Luckee Jordan as the beginning of a runway. Luckily, he had been making music since 2012 when his mom bought him an $80 mic from Best Buy on his 15th birthday. So dropping 20 singles, two mixtapes, and two albums in two years was something he was prepared to execute. Luckee Jordan was the immediate musical reaction to tragedy, everything from then to December 2022 was sonically figuring out how to process it all.
Then, finally, The Apprehension Of John Wells is a profoundly composed present reflection.
The Apprehension of John Wells
On his 21st birthday, Wells went to pick up gold fronts at a shop in the hood. He was robbed at gunpoint of his wallet and keys while he was in the store and the staff was in the back grabbing his merchandise. However, because of his reputation, the story took a positive turn. “Twenty minutes later (a known local rapper’s) cousin came into the store and had my wallet and my keys in his hand,” Wells said. “He was like “My bad yo. That shit shouldn’t have even happened” and gave my wallet and keys back. I don’t want no gun in my face, but generally, I’m good ‘cuz I’m not a dickhead.”
On the essential third track, “Y’all Some Whores,” Wells raps, “I think God from Baltimore, I hope when I move away the whole world just like Baltimore.” Wells continues later in the verse, rapping, “My barber said stop wearing hats or I’m just gon be Balder-more, I swear the stress be hitting hard they pack me up swear y’all some whores.” This exemplifies a quintessential Baltimore jeering session that Wells know is an expression of love. “That’s just the way you interact with your homeboys,” Wells said. “My boy made this video with me a while back where I was like, ‘What’s up, bro? What are you doing forreal?’ Then he was like, ‘Shit yo ready to go beat the shit out ya grandmother, love you shorty be safe.’ I always saw it as like that’s my brother and I love him to death so we can joke like that. Having a somewhat dark sense of humor helps with whatever happens in life. There’s room to laugh in all the bullshit that goes on.”
Wells closes the album on the back half of the track “Tropicana” explaining a phrase his father told him in his youth “pain is a sensation.” His city taught him to laugh through the pain and his father taught him that pain too shall pass. While Wells admits it’s “necessary to acknowledge your pain” he took the phrase as encouragement that he can always think his way through it until it subsides. After his father passed though, just thinking wasn’t enough. He had to rap like he was running out of time.
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.