Marlon Craft, live from Hell’s Kitchen, New York, raps for truth. In 2019, with the release of his debut album, Funhouse Mirror, Marlon has fully transitioned from an up-and-comer rapping to prove he belongs, into a comfortable, confident artist working from a deeply personal place.
“Music has always been my coping mechanism,” Marlon tells me. “That’s how I started rapping, dealing with my anxiety. I’ve always had these vulnerable moments. But I’ve also been trying to prove how much I can rap [on the older projects].”
Funhouse Mirror captures the need to be introspective to hit at outward, universal realities. Marlon tackles himself, but he also tackles systemic inequality. He addresses his loneliness while tackling toxic masculinity. Funhouse Mirror is both broad and insular, colored by incredible pops of jazz, blooming live instrumentation, and endless, spiraling flows. The record is bursting with ingenuity. Marlon is worldly and focused. It’s his best work to date.
There’s an urgency to Funhouse Mirror that was missing from 2017’s The Tunnel’s End. Funhouse Mirror boasts the passion and earnest tone The Tunnel’s End was sorely lacking. More than that, too, Marlon used his debut album to break down what it means to become a man.
“I think I’ve become a man over the last four, five years,” he explains. “The process of making the album was a part of it, but it was also a reflection of how I got to this place of understanding who I wanna be.”
Two years removed from his last full-length project, a handful more years removed from releasing “Craftstyles” videos from his bedroom, just under a year removed from signing his deal with SamePlate Records, and not even weeks removed from his viral freestyle on Sway in the Morning, Marlon Craft is rightfully—finally—proud of himself. We’re proud, too.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: At what point during the recording of Funhouse Mirror did you realize you were making an album and not just a collection of songs?
Marlon Craft: It was super defined. It all started with this week-long period at the end of last August, where I flew Arbus Beats in from Sweden to work for a week. We were set up on my homie’s brownstone in Brooklyn, and we were between there and the studio with the musicians. Then we went out to LA to work for a week. I kept working, kept working, but it was a defined thing of working on the album. That was inspiring.
As opposed to your last project, The Tunnel’s End, this debut album feels a lot more focused on truths. You’re not rapping to prove something, but to say something. Talk to me about that transition.
I feel like a debut album speaks to who you are as a person. Does it set the tone for who am I gonna be? What’s my role in the landscape of this hip-hop space, but also the world? I just felt, more than ever, that I wanted to make clear… I’ve always had a lot of substance. I wasn’t one of those bar-you-to-death rippity-rap guys. I tried to put bars to the side and [show] Marlon Craft, the artist. I wanted to establish myself as an artist and musician.
What’s the most important moment on this album?
Damn, that’s really tough. It’s hard to pick a single lyric, but I think the last line of the album is: “If I only get 15 minutes / I’ll say what I need ‘em to hear / I vow to never let this hope disappear / Shit, I think I’ve finally broken the mirror.” To me, that’s what you’re getting at with the last question. Like, I have this chance to make this debut album. I have a little bit of budget to do it with. I got people listening. None of this shit is guaranteed; I could croak the next day.
Especially, I wrote that outro towards the end of making the album, and Mac passed during the middle of the album. That was weird and eerie to me. I kept saying, “Yo, if I die, they can’t take this. This is what I leave behind. I wanna feel comfortable with that.”
Talk to me about the opener. It sounds like you have something to lose, but you’re not letting that stop you.
It makes me hyped whenever people like the intro. I fucking love that intro. We made it; it was all a live band. It was built on the spot from a jam that the band was doing! When I sent it to the engineer—and he did an amazing job—he was like, “Bro, you know this is not how contemporary popular music is done? Usually, you loop it and duh duh… Bro, you’re kinda off-beat.” I was like, “I’m doing something, just rock with it.” I wanted it to be weird, and I wanted it to be musically satisfying. Motherfuckers might not be into a live band intro that’s weird, but I’m gonna go for it. That was the emotion with that intro.
Where does the need to be personal come from?
Music has always been my coping mechanism. That’s how I started rapping, dealing with my anxiety. I’ve always had these vulnerable moments. But I’ve also been trying to prove how much I can rap [on the older projects]. I feel like I honed my instrument enough, to the point that where I express myself, it’s gonna come out in these dexterous, skillful raps. I was sitting around, thinking, “Am I accurately expressing what I feel here in a way that someone can understand?” I just wanted to make someone feel something. I needed [to be personal], like, this is who I am.
Considering the themes of this album, “Gang Shit” especially, do you feel a sense of responsibility when you’re creating in a Black space?
Absolutely. At the forefront of my mind, I have the consideration that I’m a white man in a Black space. I think that’s how it has to be. Part of the funhouse mirror concept is not only are we getting distorted images of ourselves, but there’s also distorted images of America. Where do I sit as a man to figure out myself and who I am? Where do I sit in the context of all this shit? I feel a responsibility to make songs like “Gang Shit,” when I think of them. It’s about contributing. Like, we take. So what do we give? We can’t only take, so what do we give back to the culture?
How do you make sure that sense of responsibility doesn’t transform into white guilt?
It’s just a consideration. You can feel when something else is getting corny. I look at it and ask: “Is this about me? Am I making this about me? Or is this about the culture?” If you could move a person and offer a perspective that moves them, then they have to confront why they were moved. That’s what I was trying to do with “Gang Shit.” I had a direct perspective and thesis, but it’s show-don’t-tell because if you list a bunch of facts, people are just gonna agree or not. Who does that serve? I’ve been trying to figure out even more ways to make these pieces of art that move people.
This album is also the story of becoming a man. I think of “Word To My Mother” and “Family.”
I think I’ve become a man over the last four, five years. The process of making the album was a part of it, but it was also a reflection of how I got to this place of understanding who I wanna be. On “Word To My Mother,” I have the confidence to say, “I stand for certain things.” Self-understanding, leadership, love. The “Family” joint, understanding where you come from… What are my emotional roots? What are the things that have made me who I am, good and bad, that kind of reflection? A lot of becoming a man is going back to go forward, in the sense of being honest with yourself about where you come from spiritually, emotionally, all these things so that you can make an accurate assessment of yourself.
Are you proud of who Marlon Craft has become?
Yeah, I’m proud. I say that with a lot of strength because I spent plenty of time not being super proud, having a lot of self-doubts. Having a lot of guilt, having a lot of concern about my ability to be the type of man that I wanna be. I have a long way to go, and I have a lot of work to do, as an artist and as a man.
Right now we’re getting a lot of looks, we’re getting all this love from people I respect and admire, and I did it the way I wanted to. Sway is talking to me about the live stuff and the intro… This person that I look up to as a staple of the culture. Rob Markman. All these artists who I grew up admiring. I want to be known for speaking on important things, but also having the bars and talking my shit.
I remember five, six years ago, sitting in meetings and I told them I wanted to make songs like J. Cole’s “Be Free,” and they were like, “People aren’t gonna know you for speaking on these issues.” I found a way to be me, and whether people like me or they don’t, they believe that it’s me speaking.