Luke Bar$ Is Rapping to Heal: Interview

The Massachusetts rapper’s second project, ‘GoodEvil,’ is a roller coaster ride through an addled mind.
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Massachusetts rapper Luke Bar$ makes music that proves rap has the power to heal the wounds time forgets about. His second project, GoodEvil, begins with six words we’ve all heard before: “The truth shall set you free.” Thankfully, in the hands of the rapper born Luke Janvier, these words sound the furthest thing from trite.

“To be able to grow into the artist and man I wanted to become, I realized you have to speak the truth unapologetically,” Luke tells me over the phone. His bid for transparency took root as a teenager in Brockton, Massachusetts, where he took up writing after his mother forced it on him as punishment. Luke’s writing blossomed into a knack for poetry and rapping, which he would later capitalize on in college.

In 2019, Luke was a music business major at Bay State College in Boston, but he was in a holding pattern. Rapping was fun but it didn’t extend beyond cyphers with friends in the early days of the Van Buren collective. It wasn’t until after Luke attended a Terrace Martin guest lecture at Harvard that he began to take his dreams seriously. “[Martin] was preaching about the detachment of the ego from the creative process,” Luke remembers. “It just put a battery in my back because it showed me that all of this music shit is bigger than me.”

GoodEvil, released on January 21, is a roller coaster ride through an addled mind. All of Luke’s inner frustrations and insecurities manifest in the form of close calls (“Robber”) and posturing (“Gangbanger”) before a sobering reality creeps in: By keeping his feelings inside, Luke’s pushing the people he cares about further and further away.

Voicemails act as interludes throughout the project, breaking up Luke’s elastic flows and ear for clanging production with profound moments of reflection. This concept is further reflected in the album’s cover, a family portrait featuring Luke donning a ski mask. “Even the closest people to me, the people who made me who I am, don’t even fully know who I am,” he reveals. GoodEvil is the first step in Luke Bar$’ self-reckoning.

Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: When did you first fall in love with music?

Luke Bar$: I always flirted with the idea of writing. My mom used to make me write little ideas for the day out of punishment, and that just translated into poetry. In fifth grade, I used to freestyle during lunch. It was fun for me. I never took it too [seriously] because I was more into basketball, but around my sophomore year of high school, I just got the urge to rap. By the time I turned 19, I was all chips in on rap.

What inspired that decision?

I was studying music business at Bay State College in Boston at the time. I was in the middle of the scene as things were starting to bubble. I was rapping, and I was putting out music, but I was half-assing it. I talked to my homie Latrell [James], and he told me, “Yo, you’re in the middle of the city. Take advantage and go after it.” After that convo, I was at every event; every open-mic; every concert and I was networking crazy. I didn’t like college, so I figured lemme do this.

Where did you land on the name Luke Bar$?

It came from school when I was 15. (laughs). I was freestyling to myself and said, “I got bars, Luke Bars!” People tried to get me to change it, but I liked it. It’s easy to remember.

I read a conversation you had with Terrace Martin inspired your GoodEvil album. Can you elaborate?

He spoke at a seminar at Harvard I attended in 2019. He was preaching about the detachment of the ego from the creative process. It just put a battery in my back because it showed me that all of this music shit is bigger than me. It resonated with me. After the seminar, I spoke with him a little bit about how he helped create [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp A Butterfly. He was transparent with me, and I appreciated that.

Where was your head at while you were creating GoodEvil?

I just wanted to be transparent and open and speak the truth. One of the first lines on the project is: “The truth shall set you free.” To be able to grow into the artist and man I wanted to become, I realized you have to speak the truth unapologetically. Me speaking on my upbringing and including my family on the album cover and in the interludes shows the roots of who I am. It’s the purest form of honesty. Once you finally start speaking on what’s bothering you, you heal. I wanted to heal from what was bothering me in the past and move forward, so that was my mindset. Take Tyler [The Creator] going from “Yonkers” to IGOR. If I want to go down that path, GoodEvil plays a role in that because I want to be seen as fearless.

The phone interludes throughout the project hint at your internal struggle. Why did you feel it was necessary to emphasize that interiority?

Things were holding me back in my day-to-day within music and my relationships. Relationship failure influenced this album because I was reclusive and unresponsive to the people who needed me most. The only way I know how to let that go is through music. Nowadays, I feel free. I can say what’s on my mind and not be afraid of it. I just told you some of my deepest secrets. So, it’s helping.

In this context, one line sticks out to me: “I don’t speak, I demonstrate.” How do you feel being a part of a generation of rappers who are coming into their transparency?

It’s beautiful. It hasn’t hit me that I’m a rapper yet because I’m a fan first. I see dudes like [André 3000], Kendrick, Eminem, who would always say what’s on their mind. Being a part of that community hasn’t hit me. I don’t know if I can fully answer that. Ask me again in five years.

You performed the album live for the first time last week. How did it feel to have your songs out in the world?

It felt amazing. I’m trying to get used to the record since it’s brand new, but the music is affecting people. I performed “Reflections,” and I got to see people in the crowd chanting every word back at me. This shit is connecting with people. When I was making it, I was afraid to share it. Seeing people connect with it reminded me that people are going through the same things, and they don’t know how to express it. I know that music is powerful, and I know I want to keep making this kind of music throughout my career. Not necessarily music that sounds like GoodEvil, but good music. Music with some substance behind it.

Speaking of substance, talk about the project’s cover. Where did the idea come from? Who’s on the cover with you?

I always liked the idea of having a family portrait, and I always wanted to do something music-related with my family. The people on the cover are my mom, my grandma, and my two younger siblings. Me, with the ski mask standing in with my unmasked family, represents me being open but still hiding at the same time. You don’t know who I fully am. Even the closest people to me, the people who made me who I am, don’t even fully understand who I am. It was time for me to reveal that to them and the world. It all comes back to the idea of transparency and healing.

You were invited to the Dreamville sessions last year. Tell me about your experience.

It was fire. If I didn’t go down there, I probably wouldn’t have made this album. One thing I realized is these dudes are no different from me. I caught J. Cole for a good five minutes, and within that five minutes, I learned that our creative process is almost the same. He hears the beat, it touches him, and he starts writing to it; I’m the same way. Once I made that connection, I thought to myself, “If he can do that, I can do that.” I quit my job the Monday before heading to the Dreamville sessions, and I met Cole, Akon, Ludacris, and T.I. the following Sunday. That gave me so much confidence.

The Massachusetts rap scene has been steadily growing over the last few years. How does it feel to emerge from your city’s rap scene as the scene itself is coming into its own?

It’s a trip because it proves that we’re meant to be a part of this. We came at a crucial point in all of this. I’m a part of the Massachusetts scene, but I’m also a part of the Brockton scene. Brockton isn’t known for being a music city, and Van Buren is trying to make something out of this. We’re making a bubble out here, so it’s a dope feeling to see the city get some respect. At the same time, I’m not truly aware of it because we all have that same keep working mindset. It’s hard to feel both if that makes sense.

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