There’s something liberating about operating under a name that has no immediate ties to you or your past. It’s what makes the idea of superheroes so appealing. It’s the reason writers use pen names other than their own and it’s the reason (most) rappers have a pen name in the first place.
The ability to recreate ourselves through the simplicity of adopting another persona allows us to explore areas of our personality that might not jive with what our peers would normally expect from us, so it makes sense why so many artists adopt alter-egos at various points in their career. An alter-ego can work as a reset button on the expectations an artist carries, as well as serving as a fresh canvas for artistic freedom.
Upon pressing play on Lil Yachty’s debut studio album Teenage Emotions, listeners are greeted by the friendly voice of Darnell Boat, the imaginary uncle of Lil Boat and Lil Yachty. Like a musical version of Nutty Professor, these are all characters voiced by Miles McCollum—aka Lil Yachty. Throughout the first several tracks of the album, McCollum makes sure to set up clear introductions to both Yachty and Boat.
Having two different artistic vessels in a single project allows Yachty the ultimate freedom to do essentially whatever the fuck he wants across the album’s 21 tracks. Yachty is far from the first artist to make heavy use of alter-egos in his music, though. This is a practice that’s been adopted by artists in nearly every era of rap.
MF DOOM is one of the first artists that comes to mind when we think about the hip-hop alter-ego, given his entire persona is the "super villain" alias of Daniel Dumile. While MF DOOM was solidifying his role as one of the most influential rapper/producers in hip-hop, the metal-faced villain adopted no less than six different alter-egos. There was Viktor Vaughn, King Gheedorah, Zev Love X (as one-third of KMD), King Dumile, Metal Fingers, DOOM... the list goes on. While MF used these alter-egos more for the sake of retaining mystery and confusing the hell out of listeners, there were some subtle changes in mic presence and sonic aesthetic for each incarnation of the masked emcee.
The almighty Wu-Tang Clan also had their fair share of alter-egos. RZA also went by Bobby Digital (under which he released three albums), Prince Rakeem, The Abbot and Bobby Steels. Ol’ Dirty Bastard had a litany of aliases including Dirt Dog, Dirt McGirt, O.D.B., Ason Unique, Osirus, Big Baby Jesus, Joe Bananas... even Old Dirty Chinese Restaurant. Ghostface Killah became Tony Starks, Raekwon had Lex Diamonds, Method Man turned into Johnny Blaze—again, the list goes on. The Wu had a tendency to go in one of two directions with their alter-egos; either Kung fu or superheroes, both of which played into their ever-expanding mythology.
Across hip-hop in the '90s, artists were exploring new territory and introducing new facets of their artistry through alter-egos. Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon character allowed the veteran rapper to experience new life through the often-hilarious lens of a futuristic space gynecologist, while Del the Funky Homosapien created a bonafide dystopian rap opera with Deltron 3030. Tupac’s stint in jail reading the works of Nicolo Machiavelli led the iconic multi-hyphen to adopt the name Makaveli shortly before his death, leading legions of fans to believe one of the most beloved rappers of all time was, in fact, alive and currently lamping in Cuba.
Sometimes, the alter-ego can help to fuel a rise to fame. Eminem's rap career was in limbo before he brought out his psychopathic alter-ego Slim Shady. Slim was the perfect outlet for Marshall's more aggressive, and murder-centric, yet humorous subject matter, and ended up being the break his career needed. Once again, the concept of the alter-ego was thrust into the spotlight, and since then we’ve seen a new wave of artists don a fictional persona to pursue alternate takes on their artistry.
One sect of hip-hop that has taken to the alter-ego trend most frequently is producers. Alter-egos have allowed some of hip-hop’s most respected producers to step outside their normal skill set and either try their hand at emceeing or just adopt a completely different style altogether. Flying Lotus forayed into emceeing under the name Captain Murphy, an animated, baritone-voiced stream-of-consciousness rapper who flowed effortlessly over FlyLo’s scatterbrained production. Madlib has the mischievous yellow alien-ego Quasimoto as well as Yesterday’s New Quintet—an entire fake jazz band.
On the flip side, Mac Miller has repeatedly produced under the name Larry Fisherman, while Earl Sweatshirt has donned the name RandomBlackDude for his scattered production credits.
While most of the above examples were relegated to relative obscurity from a mainstream standpoint, there have also been multiple recent examples of commercially successful artists exploring their artistry through the use of alter-egos.
Nicki Minaj, one of the most successful artists in the world, has an ensemble of alter-egos that makes MF DOOM look one-dimensional, with Roman Zolanski being the most well-known. Through her multiple alter-egos, Nicki is able to bounce back and forth between aggressive hip-hop verses and straightforward pop tracks with ease.
One of T.I.’s most successful and praised works was his alter-ego concept album T.I. vs. T.I.P., personifying his internal battles between the slick, business-minded T.I. and street-hardened T.I.P. This creative decision allowed T.I. to freely explore his growing contempt with the rap game following the death of his longtime friend and Grand Hustle employee Philant Johnson, which, ultimately, produced one of T.I.’s most nuanced works to date.
Sometimes, an alter-ego allows an artist to jump genres completely. Following a trip to Jamaica, Snoop Dogg famously underwent a sort-of cultural rebirth,becomingg the Rastafari-centric artist Snoop Lion and recording an entire reggae album entitled Reincarnation. He swiftly reverted from Lion back to Dogg, however, so it remains to be seen if we'll hear from Snoop's alter-ego again.
Tyler, The Creator—who’s now curating sold-out festivals and working with his teenage idols—has done so, in-part, by concocting a mental saga throughout his discography with alter-egos like Wolf Haley, Ace, Tron Cat, Dr. TC and more. These characters have allowed the imaginative emcee to create vivid altercations and relationships in his music with simple use of a name switch and some voice modulation.
Not all of the alter-egos highlighted in this piece are fully fleshed-out characters, nor have all of them been successful (looking at you, Snoop Lion), but one thing is true of nearly all of them—they make the music more fun. Sure, all of these artists could easily explore these different aspects of their personalities within the realm of their original name, but the creation of these alter-egos creates a feeling of wonder and depth for newly-initiated fans.
I almost lost my mind when I realized the amount of non-MF DOOM material Daniel Dumile had gifted the world, and I can only hope new listeners can experience that same feeling of exploration and excitement with some of the more recent artists to break out of their artistic Clark Kents.