Tierra Whack is a rapper of contrasts. Her imagination is as boundless and eerily saccharine as her raps are intricate and blunt.
Ironically, the first raps I ever heard Whack spit, for her breakout single "Mumbo Jumbo," were virtually indecipherable. Add to that a horror-themed music video, and my first trip into her candy-colored funhouse of a world was complete. Whack had recorded the record's vocal reference right after a trip to the dentist while still under the effects of novocaine, an effect she enjoyed so much that it became the song itself. The video features her in the operating chair of a Willy Wonka-esque dentist’s office, emerging with a forced set of pearly whites that would make the Cheshire Cat blush. She then stumbles into a post-apocalyptic world where homeless people sport the same look, their eyes expressing the abject fear that their mouths no longer can.
The video's message is as cryptic as her raps, but the way Whack’s cadence and melody float over RicandThadeus and Nick Mira’s ghostly production keeps things lively. I felt like I needed some novocaine myself after my jaw hit the floor following my first viewing.
Tierra Whack spent years perfecting her craft in the Philadelphia battle rap scene as Dizzle Dizz, even impressing the likes of A$AP Rocky and Meek Mill, before undergoing a rebrand to her real name. It was “Mumbo Jumbo,” though, that magnified her surreal vision on top of her sheer rapping ability. “Unpredictable” didn’t even begin to describe it.
After a handful of other singles like "Shit Happens" and "Toe Jam," her next move needed to be her best move. She could have followed up “Mumbo Jumbo” with a standard album rollout and press run, but every street corner in Whack’s world leads to a left turn.
Her debut album, Whack World, released last month, kept her growing fanbase on their toes by taking advantage of their social media habits. The album debuted out of the blue on her Instagram page; 15 tracks, each no longer than a minute, with a mini-music video attached. It turns the trend of increasingly brief albums on its head, a project and accompanying short film no longer than an Adult Swim show, consumable while you’re scrolling through your friend’s weekend pics.
Whack doesn’t mince words in her raps this time around, but the visuals have only gotten more ambitious. “Black Nails” uses the nail art popularized by Black women to explain her strengths and weaknesses with bells, kale, and poop emojis while keeping the same rhyme scheme throughout (“Red paint on my nails / Keep shit to myself / Listen to myself / Writing bars in my cell”). She mourns what appears to be her pet dog while crooning with crude sock puppets over staccato piano keys in “Pet Cemetery.” She cuts balloons tied to the ground while cursing the guy who reminds her of her "deadbeat dad” with her best Dolly Parton impression in “Fuck Off.” A painting of a house vomits cotton onto a kitchen table while she stares into the distance and sings herself to self-love on “Waze.”
Unlike recent albums from A$AP Rocky (TESTING) and Kanye West (ye), the songs that makeup Whack World don’t feel half-finished for the sake of, in part, experimentation. The album is stuffed with ideas that breathe and contort on a dime. Sounds shift from sludgy R&B to dream pop to country twang to booming trap with dizzying ease. Whack’s infectiously pastel energy and the directorial hands of Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Leger keeps things moving at a clip that would tear most other artists apart, dissolving genre boundaries and remaking them in her own image.
Love is a recurring theme across the record; the loss, betrayal, reclamation, and flaunting of it. “Black Nails” is a clear declaration of what she knows makes her great (“Readin’ my open mail / This ship here won’t sail / Best believe I’m gon’ sell / If I just be myself”), and that greatness is constantly being put to the test. The horror influence of the swollen face of “Bugs Life” accentuates stinging truths about how she “probably would’ve blown up overnight if [she] was white” and waiting to hug her friend when he gets home from jail. Her time is wasted (“Flea Market”) and her style is bitten (“Hungry Hippo”) by trifling men. She mourns her fallen friends and pet (“4 Wings,” “Pet Cemetery”). She cuts off friends with whom she shared trauma and games of Mario and Uno (“Cable Guy," “Silly Sam”). Every trial is just another hump to cross over with enough imagination to keep the Land of Ooo running until the end of time. “Waze” is the perfect point to end this story, the song’s brief verse coloring in the spots that the cotton and multi-colored jagged art don’t: “When I was sick no one went to CVS / They just wanna see me stressed / They don’t wanna see me blessed / They cannot take away what I worked for / I know that I am worth more.”
Whack cites Lauryn Hill, André 3000, and country singer Patsy Cline as influences on her work, and a team of producers helps her keep pace across 15 tracks. RicandThadeus return with the watery bop of the juicing anthem “Fruit Salad,” which sits nicely next to the sharp piano and trap drums of J Melodic’s “Pretty Ugly” and Scott Styles’ menacing trap banger “Sore Loser.” It's producer and manager Kenete Simms, though, that brings an unparalleled variety to more than half of the track listing. Jumping from the moody synths of “Bugs Life” to the staccato dread of “Pet Cemetery” and the warped soul of “Waze” is no small feat on an album that literally moves at a genre a minute.
The music business is still content to put Black women in boxes designed to shatter under the scrutiny of an ogling public. Tierra Whack—like Cardi B, Jean Grae, Sammus, Rapsody, Dreezy, Junglepussy, Gangsta Boo, and so many others—knows this and creates lemonade and jagged confetti out of the cardboard.
Whack World is rap collage as an ingenious marketing strategy as a personal statement, a mood ring whose colors are stark and weird but deeply moving all the same. Tierra Whack’s bold contrasts make Whack World a must-see destination.