To the hum of my car engine, I fire off a text message: “I'm running about 15 minutes behind.” Before my recipient, Wiley from Atlanta, a 21-year-old rapper from Atlanta, could respond, I scroll through our DMs on Twitter, stopping dead in my tracks at a series of messages he sent me in January 2018. As the car slowly rolls backward, my heart sinks into my socks.
Memory lane is colored in hues of grey.
When I arrive at Wiley’s East Atlanta spot, he’s sitting on the porch waiting underneath a radiant spring sun. Rather than waste an afternoon indoors, we decide to conduct our interview outside. When he speaks, I’m reminded of how his voice drew me to his 2017 EP Teen Spirit. The six-track project is rough around the edges, but potential appears in its shortcomings. Puberty and cigarette smoke gifted the 21-year-old vocalist with an instrument capable of producing shades and textures with a noteworthy weight.
Wiley is a voice born to sing the blues.
For almost two hours, Wiley and I talk of his past, present, and dreams of the future. He is mature in ways I wasn’t at his age. There’s no story too embarrassing or subject he’s too self-conscious to touch upon; from quitting music after his first mixtape was panned by classmates to receiving praise after he accidentally uploaded a diss track on Facebook about an ex-girlfriend, Wiley produces candid answers to every question.
When the subject moves to Blue Don’t Make me Cry, Wiley’s debut LP, we talk about singer and songwriter Jarrod Milton, our late friend who passed away 16 months ago due to complications from leukemia.
The two direct messages Wiley sent me last January is when I learned of his passing.
Wiley’s relationship with Jarrod was different from mine; they shared the same manager, the same producers, collaborated and encouraged one another.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like I need this as badly as I need breathing because I think that's how he felt about it,” Wiley says, explaining his desire to make an album that, if nothing else, would be good enough to impress the late artist.
Through a tangled web of grief, artists are tasked with making art. For Jarrod Milton, Wiley from Atlanta sang his blues.
DJBooth’s full interview with Wiley from Atlanta, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first become interested in hip-hop?
Wiley from Atlanta: I got into hip-hop hardcore in middle school. I started writing lyrics and everything when I was like 12 or 13. I wanted to be in this rap collective and I would write verses and show them to Derrick, my friend who was the head of the collective. He’d be like, that’s pretty cool, but they didn’t want me to be in it. I can't really blame them, I was trying to fit way too many syllables into everything. I was someone trying to sprint before learning to walk. I always tell people, the first time you start making music, you believe it’s fire, and then you put it out or you start listening to it in a playlist with the other stuff you like and then it hits you, "Oh damn, this really isn’t it." There's a difference between music you like and music you believe is amazing.
So, then, your earliest material wasn’t well received?
The first thing I recorded and put out was horrible. I don’t feel bad saying that now; you can find value in everything you do. I got horrendously clowned. The kids would plug in the aux at the school assembly and play shit just to roast me. I quit after that, I thought, "Fuck this, I'm obviously bad."
Then [Earl Sweatshirt's] Doris came out. [Mac Miller's] Watching Movies came out. [J. Cole's] Born Sinner came out. Just that whole year was crazy. All the albums that came out were so inspiring. Kendrick [Lamar] was coming with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Joey Bada$$ was blowing up. I felt like hip-hop was going into another golden age.
I used to record in the office next to my little sister’s bedroom. Around this time, she said to me, "I never hear you, like, record anymore. Why is that?" And I felt like "Damn, maybe I could try it again." Ever since then, even when the music wasn’t there, and I was still trying to find my voice, in my head, I knew it would get there. I was pretty good at a lot of stuff, but there wasn't anything that I was like this is the shit I'm supposed to be doing until I performed at my first show.
What inspired you to tailor the subject of your music around relationships?
That’s a good question. My dad told me when I first started making music to do what you want, but there's no point in doing it if you're not being genuine and if you're not telling your story in whatever way that takes shape. I was like, "Okay, how can I be as honest as possible and also be interesting, and what I decided was to talk about how I'm feeling, how different experiences affect me, and how relationships affect me?"
I often find myself using relationships and situations as a metaphor. For the song “Pressure,” I was sitting in class, my parents were really going through it with my brother. He was a full anarchy kind of kid, you know? I thought of that verse as things I wanted to say to him. Drawing inspiration like that makes me feel I’m being honest and genuine at all times.
When did you start working on Blue Don’t Make Me Cry?
Technically, I started working on it before I knew it, which is to say the day that Frank Ocean dropped “Chanel.” I took a semester off school and was working at a restaurant equipment warehouse. I had this whole idea that working at a warehouse was going to be very inspirational for me creatively, with so much time to think. It was the opposite, though. Full stop writer’s block. I had all these beats and nothing to say on them, but when Frank dropped “Chanel,” I listened to that song like 30 times and then I sat down and I wrote “Champion” as a free form poem. We recorded it over a YouTube beat in [our manager] Austin [Weatherly]’s parent’s basement. We were taking shots of Hennessy and Jarrod [Milton] was so hype he recorded these crazy ad-libs.
I didn’t know I was going to start an album because Jarrod had finished an album and that was what our whole focus was on. I was the long term plan, Jarrod was the right now, but then Jarrod passed. The day after his service was when Oliver Blue, Malik Drake, and I made the skeletons of three songs: “Blood Orange,” “Back Seat” and the fully realized version of “Champion,” with new composition was recorded that day. The version of “Back Seat” is the same from that day, it’s the only one we didn’t change.
The album [officially] started that day and then we went to Athens, Georgia as often as possible because that's where both the producers live. We finished the rough draft in August and then we finished the album in September.
“Blood Orange” is one of my favorite songs. What was the inspiration behind the lyrics?
For the longest time, I wanted to make a song that had similar energy like “Suede” off the NxWorries project. “Blood Orange” is not that, but when we first started it, the lyric, “How you so bitter but you so sweet” was me imagining Anderson .Paak saying that. It just evolved from there.
How difficult was it for you to create an album after Jarrod passed away?
It was very difficult to figure out what place I wanted to come from. Having something that dramatic and affecting happen took all of us by surprise. It was so fucked up just to be in a place where everybody's like, "Oh things are getting better, you know," and then it just immediately nosedived. It put me in a headspace for the first time in my life; I felt like I need this as badly as I need breathing because I think that's how he felt about it. Not as much about having success, but getting his ideas out and sharing them.
His passing made me say, fuck whatever I did before. I was really into sampled heavy hip-hop beats. Huge fan of Kanye and that era of hip-hop production, but I knew I needed to lean harder into my other influences and into other music that inspires me. Jarrod always felt I had so much potential. I knew I had to make, if not the album that defines me, an album close to the current peak of my artistic abilities. An album that I could show Jarrod and make him say, "Oh shit!" So I leaned harder into singing, and the blues, R&B, and rock music, while keeping it all based in hip-hop because that’s all I really love.