Duckwrth doesn't fly under the radar. Standing outside the Nature’s Brew coffee shop a few miles north of the USC campus, the Los Angeles native's appearance instantly commands attention, from the “USS Lake Champlain” bomber jacket on his torso to the freshly twisted Bantu knots atop his head. After speaking with his cousins for about 10 minutes, he pulls out his phone to type a quick message, and less than 40 feet away, my phone buzzes with a notification.
“I’m outside. Coming in,” reads the text, its sender unaware that I’d already noticed him through the glass window that separated us. Soon enough, the adjacent door opens, and we have our first true interaction over iced coffees and blended chai lattes with almond milk.
The vibrant, colorful nature of Duckwrth's discography suggests a man who is equally dynamic and enthusiastic and only a few minutes into our conversation, it’s apparent that the personality that explodes through the speakers is not a facade. Jittering in his chair as he speaks, there’s an unwavering energy about the 29-year-old that comes through just as clearly in a quiet coffee shop as it does on stage before an audience.
“With music, style, and perception, I like to make people trip out,” Duckwrth says. “Like, on stage, instead of always going ham, [I'll] just stand still for 20 seconds and look at the crowd eye to eye, and see what happens. Or kicking the mic stand out to the crowd and then bringing it back with my foot, just to see how they respond. It’s really cool to see human nature.”
Duckwrth's willingness to experiment is central to his live performance success, a methodology that was challenged on his recently-wrapped Come To My Party Tour with Rich Chigga. The tour was a success, but Duckwrth readily admits the age demographic of the crowds didn’t match that of his own core listenership, unlike his previous experience on tour with Anderson .Paak.
“With .Paak, it’s writers in there, it’s lawyers, people who were probably listening to Musiq Soulchild in high school,” he says. “[At Rich Chigga], a lot of these people don’t even know who Missy Elliott is, like when she came out at the Super Bowl they thought she was a new artist. There is a definite generational gap in music, and for us to continue that sound of OutKast, N.E.R.D, Goodie Mob, and do it for that generation, that was our role.”
Connecting with a young crowd required Duckwrth to be as transparent as possible, and, for lack of a better word, "nasty." “We’d talk about ‘no dry booties in the vicinity, we need nothing but booty sweat,’” he says with a laugh. “Being belligerent, but in a way that it breaks those walls down.”
It’s the same concept of transparency that inspired the UUGLY theme connecting his two latest releases, I’M UUGLY and An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape. Always spelled with two Us—because “it’s more about you than it is about me,” he says—Duckwrth created the motif as a way to accurately depict his life at a time when things weren’t easy.
“I literally just moved into my own place for the first time in my life, like three days ago,” he says. “With the music that I do, it’s not a walk in the park. I didn’t want to be this artist that’s politically correct or is putting on a face. My spirit animal is punk, so within that, there has to be a certain bit of anarchy. If I sat there and tried to be the perfect artist, it just wouldn’t feel right.”
Duckwrth released the lead single from XTRA UUGLY in August, titled “MICHUUL.” Along with the funky, disco-influenced track came the announcement of his record deal with Republic, an accomplishment he was thrilled to reach.
Duckwrth praises and takes influence from legendary pop artists such as Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and Whitney Houston, but senses the negative connotation attached to the pop genre as a whole. Breaking that perception, as well as that of the major label-signed artist, is something he hopes to accomplish, and sees infiltrating that system from the inside as the best way to do so.
“When you’re signed, you’re promoted on a different platform, and in a different way. When you see ads on Instagram promoting an artist, it doesn’t have that special feeling of ‘Damn, I just discovered this unknown artist, this shit is amazing.' When you’re commercial, it’s like the whole world knows,” he says. “I’m at this place where I want to take this stigma away from pop music, and really commercial music. It’s just good music.”
Even still, Duckwrth remains adamant that he wouldn’t have signed a record contract unless he was guaranteed the level of creative control necessary to pursue his vision. After being in talks with Republic for "some time," he caught a fortunate break when his manager was hired by the company and eventually earned a promotion to A&R, providing him the reassurance that he would be walking into a good situation.
Duckwrth acknowledges that his entry point was somewhat unique, but believes artists often have more bargaining power than they utilize when it comes to negotiating a deal. “They want you at the end of the day, so you have to demand,” he says. “All they’re going to do is give you the general shit, and if you’re that person that’s not gonna question, they’re not gonna tell you to look through it.
"For anything in the world, people have to see themselves as ‘I am a commodity, I am of worth.’ So the person that wants to buy into my brand, they see the worth in me, so that means I’m going to tell them, ‘This is what I need for me to sustain, as a human being.’ You can’t really argue that shit. I need to eat.”
The rapper credits his mother for instilling that sense of self-worth in him from an early age by giving him a taste of culture outside South Central. She would solely play him classical music on the way to school and take him out of the neighborhood to see plays such as Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast. That broader exposure was monumental in his growth, and as he grew older, he was naturally inclined to a life larger than his block and saw music as a perfect avenue to see what else the world had to offer.
Initially, though, it was difficult to convince his mother to go along with his secular music. As a member of the Pentecostal Church, her mission is to “spread the good word,” and her son had to prove to her that his music had a deeper purpose. When a fan messaged Duckwrth on Instagram to thank him for crafting the album that got him through suicidal moments, it was reaffirmation to them both that the Duckwrth was headed down the right path.
“It’s like the caramelized apple; the apple has the nutrients, but then you put the caramel around it, and it becomes like candy,” he says. “I had to give her that approach to it, and now she gets it because she’s seen the fruits of the labor.”
Family matters to Duckwrth; he tries to never stray too far from kin. As we’re walking to the nearby Rose Garden at Exposition Park following coffee, Duck runs into another one of his cousins. They excitedly dap each other up and make plans to meet up after his cousin grabs a bite from Chick-Fil-A.
“That’s my heart right there,” he tells me after the two part ways. “We go back so far. Like, 'mommies put us in the same bathtub'-type shit.”
Duckwrth’s vision for 2018 isn’t yet set in concrete, but he's comfortable with that approach. He’d rather experiment as he goes to formulate a new sound. Along with releasing more music videos to support An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape, Duckwrth is hoping to embark on his own headlining tour, performing across America and into Australia—with an emphasis on performing.
“When people see us perform, they always trip out, because they haven’t seen anyone actually perform in a while,” he says. “Trap music has a type of energy, so people are going to go up automatically, but if you actually watch a lot of these trap artists on stage, that bass is going, but they’re not really performing. So there’s gotta be moments where something drastic happens like the lights go down and now I’m on the floor. Shit like that.”
Little has been easy for Duckwrth on his journey thus far, but I get the feeling that's exactly what makes him such a special talent.