Pink Siifu’s music sounds like a deep-fried meme. Both are composed of multiple layers of information that manage to simultaneously complement and defy their surroundings, a collective of hands distorting the melancholic, funny, and deep into a jarringly pleasant haze. A SpongeBob meme filter shouldn’t be the first thing to cross your mind when thinking about a deeply personal album like Siifu’s 2018 breakthrough ensley, but it was the first topic I mentioned during our phone conversation at the very end of the year, and to my surprise, he loved it.
“That’s crazy to me because that’s some new age shit,” he says, chuckling. “Black people are crazy. We’re so next, bro.”
For Siifu, 26, it's about more than just internet cool points. Like most online trends, both are on the cutting edge of new age Black expression, embracing myriad influences from far and wide and forming a product more eerily beautiful than the sum of its parts. The artist born Livingston Matthews is just as likely to drop a slapdash punk EP or two lengthy DJ Screw tribute tapes as he is to put together a proper rap album, and those are just four of the 10 projects that were homegrown and released on his Bandcamp page in 2018. There’s an emcee, a bandleader, a poet, and a goofball all jockeying for position in his mind, ready to paint your ears first and still ask you questions. And this isn’t even his final form.
That form first took shape as a Southern-bred band geek raised on Nigerian jazz and Drumline. Matthews’ father was a jazz saxophone prodigy, the son of a “pivotal Nigerian jazz nigga” who he doesn’t know much about. Nonetheless, his own love for music grew out of a wide range of sources, from playing in his fifth-grade marching band and worshipping Dungeon Family (“Being from the South, Dungeon Family was our Wu-Tang, our Death Row, our Dogg Pound”) to college poetry sessions as he constantly moved between Birmingham, Alabama, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I didn’t wanna go to class, so I’d start writing to the beats that niggas would send me,” he recalls. It was 2012 to 2013 when I started making raps for real for real.”
This decision gave birth to Liv Martez, a rough sketch of the rapper he would eventually become. It was Martez who met PJ Ricks during his time in Cincinnati, a mentor who helped him paint more rhythmic pictures with his words: “Before I met this nigga, I was a poet. When I linked with this nigga, I became a rapper.” A move to California brought new surroundings and a new perspective to the man who would eventually rap and produce under many new names.
“Pink Siifu came from me being in my Shaw Brothers bag and I was sampling so many kung-fu flicks. Everyone called their teachers 'siifu' which is Cantonese for 'teacher,' and I’m so into color and shit so I thought it’d be super tight if I was teaching color. My favorite color is pink and I just put the two things together. I was taking and selling mad acid at the time, so I was all about that third eye. This was 2011, and in 2013 I started making beats. I thought about 'iiye' as a personification of the third eye, so that just came together.” —Pink Siifu
By 2017, he’d rapped as Siifu, made beats as iiye, and even explored jazz as the one-man outfit VCR@aol.jazz, using film clips and lo-fi production to further tease his thoughts into the ether. He also dropped roots into LA’s then-surging indie rap scene, sparking friendships with producers like MNDSGN—whose birthday party led to him meeting longtime collaborator Ahwlee (pronounced “Ali”)—while drawing inspiration from Iman Omari, Medhane, and the almighty Loop Digga himself, Madlib. It’s these roots that also formed the basis for ensley, a sprawling rap album made up of tiny thoughts and lost moments passing through pink clouds of haze.
In fact, ensley—named for the town within Birmingham that his grandmother lived in—feels more like an audiobook of a family photo album than a proper project. Siifu’s streams of consciousness lead us through the dualities of his life: wanting to help his father (“Pops tired / I told him chill / When I get it, he can throw away the bills”) while simultaneously wishing he’d put the bottle down (“outlet”); confiding in his sister’s love and strength (“proud/pray”) while simultaneously hearing out his homegirl who’s “tired of breathing” (“birmingham skies”) and completely ceding space to women to vent their frustrations on tracks like “black woman is god” and “no mo fux"; using gold and prayer to ward off the evil keeping him from living life.
When he's rapping, Siifu is aware that counting his blessings daily shouldn’t prevent one from seeing the forests of racism, capitalism, and depression for the sacred trees he holds so dear. Soulful doesn’t begin to describe it. The production on the album, on the other hand, plays at the opposite end of the spectrum. The shimmering loops are caked in a lo-fi glaze that sounds otherworldly and two blocks away all at once. Credits include Jeremiah Jae, sLUms members MIKE and Navy Blue, as well as Siifu himself, among others.
ensley floats above self-seriousness, using fragments of life to blend the candy-colored beats to just the right tinge of sepia. That the project is as community-oriented as it is and still cohesive is an astounding achievement, especially since it was recorded during the month of Ramadan and mastered by PJ Ricks in just a week:
“I brought this nigga 30 songs and told him I needed this shit in a week. I did some Kanye shit. What Kanye does with changing things so much is what I do with every project. That’ not genius, that’s a last minute nigga [laughs]. There’s a genius to that, but we just movin’ last minute as fuck and it’s perfect. [Ricks] mastered that shit in a week and I wound up only using 25 songs. He did that shit, bro.” —Pink Siifu
That sense of cohesion and inclusion stretches from brothers in lo-fi like MIKE and Mavi all the way up to Earl Sweatshirt, who Siifu credits with replacing the battery in his entire movement back with his 2015 single “Grief.”
“'Grief' set the tone for everything,” he says. “That shit inspired sLUms, me, everybody to slow this shit down and really have your thoughts in order. The reason that people say that Some Rap Songs sounds like other people’s work is because we’re all trying to slow it down and just speak truth. Thebe like 22 or 23. MIKE 20. Mavi 19. Columbia couldn’t say shit because everyone been on the edge of their seat waiting for new Thebe shit. He made this shit for the loop niggas on a major platform. He’s crashing this door so niggas can bum rush through this. He don’t have to do this, he could be on his Tyler shit, but he’s not. He's really for the people. That’s why he fuck with MIKE and Mavi so much. These niggas really livin' in they truth.”
It’s easy to hear this influence on a single like the saintly centerpiece “stay sane,” a hymn anchored by a gossamer vocal loop from Navy Blue that ultimately finds comfort and faith in the future while walking across the tightrope that is America. Is “Somewhere on the train, faith on my brain” paranoid or genuinely hopeful? Who knows? But at least it sounds beautiful.
After a significant 2018 campaign, Matthews’ 2019 is looking equally as bright. The night before our interview, he attended a screening for Issa Rae’s Insecure. He’s trying to convince his friend Terrence Nance—creator of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and director of the upcoming Space Jam 2—to give him some screentime next to Bugs Bunny. He’s crossing his fingers for work with The Internet’s Steve Lacy, Noname, and Smino, but is also fostering established bonds, including a new project with Swarvy coming in February and follow-up albums with B. Cool-Aid (his soul group with Awhlee) and Kryptonyte.
Later this year, Siifu will be moving to New York to focus on crafting his proper debut album, which will be centered around a character named ronee sage. While ensley wasn’t crafted to go lowkey viral, he’s ready to keep the momentum going.
“I’m happy to hear that people are going in for [my music] because even though I’m not at his level, Anderson [.Paak] didn’t get on this huge level until he was 30,” Siifu says with confidence. “Niggas from the projects, so I’m in the door now. Show me where I need to go. Where the refrigerator? I’m ‘bout to eat. There’s so many people that’s fire as fuck at this shit that died. I don’t give a fuck about that shit, niggas is grateful. Niggas be needing gentle reminders all the time.”
Proof that humbleness isn’t bound by form.