The Power of the Artistic Brain Trust

This is an article, but it is also a thank you.
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I spend a lot of time watching forgotten Mac Miller interviews. Watching him detached from our understood media cycle is redeeming and rewarding. He is loose in new ways, clammed up in others. There are gaps to fill in and new gems to discover. And always, he has a gem to drop. The most press Malcolm did, it seems, surrounds his 2013 album Watching Movies with the Sound Off. The album, much like Noname’s Room 25, I am learning, is really an ode to brain trusts. 

Across interviews, Mac gets asked the same question: How do you choose your collaborators. One even makes reference to the elusive nature of Odd Future, the difference between himself and Action Bronson, and the curiosity of the tracklist itself. Yet, for Mac, the collaboration is a natural part of musicianship.

“It’s just organic, man. The people that hung out at my house were the people that got on the songs. If you came over, and you were hanging out, and you’re my friend, you get on the album. If you weren’t hanging out, then you wouldn’t… [Odd Future] are just my friends, man. Me and my crew, and them and their crew, we’re fam. Those are the homies, so it just made sense. We didn’t start making music ‘til a while after we started hanging out.” —Mac Miller

When Noname’s superproducer Phoelix spoke with Vinyl Me, Please in October, he detailed the making of Room 25 in a similar fashion: “I think after doing Telefone, and after playing with Brian [Sanborn] and eventually playing with Luke [Sangerman], myself and Noname really made a decision to work on the album with those two and utilize their musicianship and also production abilities. And of course Matt Jones, who orchestrated the strings… With Luke and Brian, we’ve played live together over the past three years or so, and we just developed such a limitless chemistry as musicians. And [we were] figuring out how to hone all of that into an album — you know, one idea, one statement, being on the same page as Noname, making it one complete thought and one theme.”

Later in the interview, Phoelix would detail the rhythm of their camaraderie, and how “fun and exciting” it was to make Room 25. The task for the album was getting the collaborators on the same page. As Phoelix told The FADER: “It took a while for her to be ready to make stuff, but once she got into that mode, it really clicked really fast.” In the same breath, Mac Miller continued on to say that the more he hung out with Odd Future and who all else featured on Watching Movies, the more he realized they were all similar. Their friendships and collaborations formed into something deeper: a brain trust.

The threads here go deeper than two albums with heartening collaborations. These are two albums that explore the depths of the given artist’s mind. For Mac Miller, at the time, Watching Movies, was his most bare work. For Fatimah, at present, Room 25 is her coming into her own, being open and honest about the impact Los Angeles had on her self-worth, her image, her understanding of mortality as it compares to Chicago. The album also stands as a welcome party for her blossoming and defined sexuality. In the same breath, Noname advocates using protection and loving down her man. It is endearing, refreshing, and wonderfully sexy. Yet, none of this blistering openness would be possible without the Noname and Mac Miller brain trusts.

We find it easiest to give away our hearts and souls when we are in good company. Or, as Phoelix puts it: “Wow, this is an amazing space, we really found something here, we’re really onto something here… This is a reflection of the power we knew we always had.” The power he is referencing courses through Room 25, Watching Movies and any other piece of art made with a meticulous and thoughtful brain trust. It is all the more rewarding to be honest when you have trusted companions cheering you on.

Much like music, none of my writing would be possible without my brain trust. Prior to writing this article, I had a call with an old friend, which lifted my spirits. She jokingly told me to write about her. Staring at my pitching notebook, I got to thinking: that’s not such a bad idea. Thank you for this, and for loving me though we lost contact for a time.

With the year winding down, this is an ode to my brain trust. Writing will never be possible in a vacuum. Too many times, thankfully, our very own Yoh has picked up the phone and worked out a pitch with me for over an hour. Even when the subject of the call is something off-kilter, not writing related, the pure elation of our time together puts me in the creative mood. Our very own Dylan Green listens to my laments and helps me massage out knots of concepts daily, starting bright and early. Our editors, Z and Brendan Varan, field my ideas and my anxieties for 15 hours a day, every day, without complaint. Congratulations should be directed their way. There is no writing without my brain trust, only scribbles in a notebook and the heat of frustration.

I would be nothing without my chosen family, without my roommate who hears out every idea that excites me, even the ones that are obvious duds. My roommate who supports my career and pours me a drink when I am three edits deep and wanted to sleep hours earlier. I would be nothing without my father who does not understand my career, but loves me and calls every day to ask what I wrote and patiently listens as I explain my ideas to him. They all sound good to him. As a collaborator he is not much help, but as a cheerleader, he gets top marks.

This is an article, but it is also a thank you. We would all be nothing without our brain trusts. Our successes will always be joint. All of us are on so many teams, and perhaps it gets easy to forget that when writing is such a solitary and emptying thing. I wrote this so you all would know I could never forget about you, as Noname so advises. 

Happy holidays, guys, I love you.