Tierra Whack: Planet Whack

© Nwaka Okparaeke

Words by:

“Where are your notes? You don’t have notes…”

I’m in the back of a black SUV, and I’m here to interview Tierra Whack, but if I thought I was the only one doing the questioning today, I’m clearly mistaken. She eyes me suspiciously. After asking what my favourite songs on Whack World are – the innovative debut album she dropped last year – her face breaks into a grin, and she decides she’s glad I haven’t brought notes into the car after all.

Most interviews, she says, feel like therapy sessions, and having arrived in London from Berlin for just three days, she has more to come. After her Crack Magazine cover shoot, she’ll do a whistle stop tour of UK radio stations to record radio drops; quick, jovial messages greeting their audiences. “I hate doing them because I just feel so awkward, so weird,” she explains, gazing out of the vehicle’s tinted windows. “I did one yesterday and I just felt like a robot… so I did it in a robot voice,” she says, imitating her robotic delivery with a wry smile.

Magazine cover interviews and radio sound bites are something Whack will have to get used to. Although the 23-year-old Philadelphia MC has been on the circuit since she was 14, the release of her first album last year catapulted her to dizzying new heights. Whack World is like nothing before it. A 15-minute audiovisual album split into one-minute tracks, each one with its own accompanying visual. Opening with Black Nails, Whack sits in a nail bar getting a manicure. It’s all millennial pink and unicorn nail extensions until the same saccharine salon becomes the backdrop to Bugs Life; insects start crawling around the wall behind her while Whack – her face now shockingly bruised and distorted – slurs explosive lines through swollen lips, like “Probably would of blew overnight if I was white.”

With its release last autumn, the album cemented Whack’s status as one of hip-hop’s most promising new talents. In just 15 minutes, we see as many sides to the Philadelphia native, from the glossy, high heel-wearing Whack of Hungry Hippo, to the childlike iteration in Pet Cemetery. In the latter, she walks through a graveyard singing, “I kissed my dog/ I miss my dog/ I kissed my dog (all dogs go to Heaven)” over a surprisingly cheerful piano, while animal puppets pop out between the headstones. Critics have interpreted her vignettes as a comment on Instagram (the limit of a video on the platform is 60 seconds), but to Tierra, the format was simply a way of allowing her imagination to run freeflow.

“I just had so much music and I kept making new ideas; do I want to go this way? Do I want to go this way? And then I was like, you know what, let me just make them all the same width and figure out how to put it out all at once because… it just makes sense to me. It may be different or weird or unorthodox to certain people…” she looks at me straight in the eye. “But it got your attention, right?” She has a point. From robot voices to 15-minute-long albums, Tierra Whack is weird. Not weird in a contrived, trying-to-be-noticed way, but weird in her wilful creativity.

As she flicks through her phone trying to find one of her favourite DMX videos to show me, I ask if she gets distracted easily. Her manager scoffs knowingly from the front passenger seat: “Yeah, she does.” Whack leans forward and cackles over his shoulder. “Hey!” she yells in his ear, “I wish I had a window to shut you out of here…” The distraction doesn’t bother her. “If I can’t concentrate I go indoor skydiving or go-karting or to the arcade, or I get on my iPad and watch cartoons,” she shrugs. Meeting her in person, the absurdity of Whack World makes perfect sense. Her mind moves at a thousand miles a minute. At points she’ll burst into song, at other moments she’ll speak as if in character, adopting strange, cartoon-like voices.

© Nwaka Okparaeke

Whack World may be different or weird or unorthodox but it got your attention, right?”

Though still in her early 20s, Whack’s break happened when she was just a teenager. The rapper grew up with a largely absent father, but describes her mum as her best friend and credits her with instilling her early love of hip-hop. Whack grew up with her two siblings listening to Jay-Z, DMX, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes and Philadelphia legend Beanie Sigel. “Growing up there was a lot of crazy stuff going on, but I still had a good childhood,” she says. “My mom kept moving us up to better and better neighbourhoods. She did her job, she’s the best mom yet.”

When the pair were driving around Philadelphia one day – Tierra was 14 – they noticed a crowd of men, one holding a big camera. “We were like, what’s going on? The only time you see a camera in the hood it’s [the news] reporting somebody getting shot or killed or something. Mom was like, ‘wait, they’re rapping, you should get out and rap, do some of your stuff.’ I’m like, ‘no, mom’ but then she circles the block and makes me get out… I don’t argue with my mom.”

As instructed, Whack got out of the car and approached the group who were shooting for We Run the Streets, a Philadelphia based hip-hop collective who filmed aspiring artists and release compilations on SoundCloud and YouTube. Whack introduced herself under her teenager rap moniker Dizzle Dizz and started spitting with them. In her freestyle, she raps with sharp wit and astonishing precision. The men surrounding her watch in awe, taken aback by her skill. The collective uploaded it to their YouTube channel, and by that same evening it had already garnered 6,000 views (today it’s on over 50,000).

“I'm up and down all the time trying to catch a vibe. I write about things I go through, my friends, people I don't know, people I do not like. Life, death everything”

Her viral moment marked a huge turning point. Not long before that point, she describes herself as a shy child. Growing up, Whack adored Dr. Seuss, and spent as much time as she could getting lost in the world of Matilda and Barney and Friends. She grows animated when she talks about these shows. “As a kid I wanted to be as close as I could to the TV, I don’t know what it was but I just gravitated towards certain things.” Cartoons are a huge part of Whack’s artistry. After years of absorbing these fantastical worlds, she’s now highly adept at creating her own. During the cover shoot, she crawls around the floor contorting her face from an unnervingly wide-eyed smile to a bitter screwface. Inspired by years of watching children’s TV and refusing to ever give it up in adulthood, Whack embodies different characters with a natural tenacity.

At school, she says her other love was writing poetry. A young Tierra Whack would regularly fill notebooks cover to cover. For a homework assignment where the class had to write their own pieces, she memorised her poem and performed it to the class in a way that won her the respect of her teacher and fellow students alike. “I didn’t need the paper, I was performing it, almost rapping it, so after that I was like, let me put this to a beat: I’m a rapper now.”

© Nwaka Okparaeke

She can’t remember much of her early material, but says her poems and freestyles were “crazy, weird but always had honesty behind them. I was doing what rappers do,” she explains. “I was just bragging about the things I liked, but as a child I liked bananas and strawberries.”

Having found her calling, Whack developed a newfound confidence at school. “I was the class clown,” she declares proudly. She began performing regularly at poetry slams and open mic nights around the city, growing in confidence and ability. In 2012, she moved with her family to Atlanta for her last year of high school, and by her return to Philadelphia three years later, she’d dropped the Dizzle Dizz moniker in favour of her real name. Back on home territory, she continued to write and began releasing music on SoundCloud as Tierra Whack. These early uploads showcased her ability to experiment with genre, and her penchant for comedy (case in point: 2017’s Saggy Tits, a funny and frustrated tirade about a particularly useless partner).

As important as humour is to Whack World, in all its absurdity her debut album still manages to encompass surprisingly emotional moments. Four Wings is one of Whack World’s standout tracks, which Whack wrote about her friend, rapper Hulitho, who was shot and killed in 2016. “Endless nights I cried when Hulitho died,” she raps over a melancholic beat. “My city needs me I promised I wouldn’t fail ’em/ If you love somebody I promise that you should tell ’em.”

The idea, she says, came to her in the studio late one night when she was thinking about her friend and her city. “In late night Philly, you go to the Chinese store, and you get four wings. That was [where we were] the last time I was with him.” Was it a difficult song for her to write? “Yeah, I guess, but you know, I grew up in the projects; it’s rough, it’s the hood. I lost a lot of people so it almost becomes the norm. Life is just as common as death, so it’s just… it is what it is.” Her response is to always represent her city and the people around her. “I’m in London and you’re asking me a question about my Philly friend. That’s cool,” she says. “I’m living for him.”

© Nwaka Okparaeke

In the studio, Whack likens herself to a rollercoaster. “I’m up and down all the time trying to catch a vibe. I write about things I go through, my friends, people I don’t know, people I do not like, life, death, everything.” I ask her what’s next, but Whack says she doesn’t think about the future. That said, her plan – or lack of – seems to be working. In the releases that have followed Whack World, the Philadelphia MC continues to showcase her dexterity as an artist, though she’s now working with full-length tracks. Only Child, her first single since the album, is a loaded takedown of an ex. It starts with almost childlike delivery before Whack launches into a more venomous rap: “Spiteful and malicious/ Hope that other chick got syphilis,” she snarls.

The 23-year-old musician already has Coachella performances and a Grammy Award nomination under her belt. She’s been co-signed by zeitgeist-defining artists like Erykah Badu, Solange, A$AP Rocky and André 3000, and her show at London’s Village Underground in June, fittingly sold out in just 60 seconds. Tierra Whack doesn’t need goals. “I just live each day,” she explains. “I could die right now, right after I see you. Then this would be my last ever interview… hey, do you like my socks?”

Photography: Nwaka Okparaeke
Styling: Yuki Haze

Tierra Whack’s latest single Unemployed is out now via Interscope

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