At the intersection of hip-hop and the painting of gorgeous murals stands Vader the Villin. When not crooning about love and heartbreak, Vader, 27, is painting incredible pieces. I discovered Vader’s work through his collaborations with New York’s eminent bedroom trap singer, Rothstein. Both Vermont-raised Vader and Roth tap into the achy and trickling sensation of feeling left for dead after a breakup. Both Vader and Roth make unashamed tunes—even better when they’re together, as on “Mia Wallace,” “Jet Lag,” and “Tell Me Twice.”
“I met him in 2012,” Vader tells me of Roth. “We met at a mutual friend’s clothing store, he had just moved to New York at the time, and he was living upstairs. The spot doesn’t exist anymore, sadly. Aside from hitting it off on a personal level, we bonded over a love for the craft. A love for lyrics. A love for songwriting. It’s been that ever since. We’ve been all over New York together, doing this shit for quite a while.”
In terms of visual rhetoric, Vader’s artwork is marked by thick lines, saturated hues, and cartoonish exposition with a devilish edge. Vader uses color and sheen to its full potential, dazzling onlookers. One moment, we’re peering at a snarling wolf with heat radiating out of its mouth; the next, Vader is putting together a mural of delightful spools of paint. Vader’s work, both on wax and the proverbial canvas, is larger than life and not self-serious. The thrill of simply doing the thing seems to permeate Vader’s art.
“I try to do things with little to no sketching when I’m painting murals,” Vader reveals. “Everything I do is fairly dark, and my painting, to me, I find it to be humorous. Some people find it a little frightening sometimes, but to me, it’s very funny. I have an affinity for things that are a bit darker, so [rap and painting] interplay that way pretty well. When I’m not doing one thing, I’m doing the other, so it’s nice to have that sort of balance. If I have writer’s block, I’ll be working on a painting or vice versa.”
In 2018, Vader, who currently lives out of a suitcase between NY and LA, dropped Villinova. Across its 11 songs, Vader sounds as if he sings in cursive. The music feels like target marketing for me: brooding, self-aware, wounded. “Atlas” tepidly pounces along, while Vader slips into his rapper bag on “Jekyll.” Always, he sounds crackling, cackling even, loving every second of being in the creative’s sphere. Perhaps that is the secret ingredient to good music: loving it and not worrying too, too much.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What came first for you, hip-hop or painting?
Vader the Villin: It was definitely painting. My parents are both artists in their own right, so that was something they helped perpetuate. They didn’t stop me at all when I was going down that route. I had a pretty unorthodox schooling career, and it ended kind of abruptly, and I have been making art ever since. I started making music when I was 16 or 17, which is the same time I left high school.
How does your work in one medium influence the other? I feel like you rap as you paint.
One hundred percent. Everything I do is fairly dark, and my painting, to me, I find it to be humorous. Some people find it a little frightening sometimes, but to me, it’s very funny. I have an affinity for things that are a bit darker, so [rap and painting] interplay that way pretty well. When I’m not doing one thing, I’m doing the other, so it’s nice to have that sort of balance. If I have writer’s block, I’ll be working on a painting or vice versa.
How drastically does your thought process shift between painting and making music?
It’s different. Painting… A lot of the work I do is freestyle. I try to do things with little to no sketching when I’m painting murals. It’s almost muscular if that makes any sense. It’s something I’ve been doing for so long, I’ve gotten confident about it. Music is something that has been a challenge to me. Not saying art isn’t a challenge to me, but the confidence levels are different there. Art is more natural to me, I guess. But I’m getting to that point with music, too.
Having two significant mediums is a lot to carry around in your head. How do you find balance with the demands of both mediums?
In terms of my mental capacity, it isn’t that affecting. I feel way more at peace when I’m working. It’s what makes me calm. In terms of demand, I make all my money these days from painting and music. In 2018 I quit all my jobs, so the demand is necessary, and it’s something I run towards. I’m just trying to grow this up bigger and bigger, so bring it on. I need all the work. It’s more healthy for me to be fully locked and working than the opposite.
How did it feel when you quit the day jobs?
I moved to New York [at the] end of 2010; 2010 to 2018, I was working, doing this, that, and the third. Stupid broke, all the time. I was getting by on the skin of my teeth. I made a decision I would rather soak myself in what I love to do than keep messing around. Oddly enough, as soon as I quit all my work, the universe accepted it. I started getting tons of jobs. It’s been that way ever since. There are up and down periods, of course. But it’s been rewarding. I don’t see myself settling down or switching this up, hopefully ever. I just wanna keep at it.
What’s the most exciting thing about being a multifaceted artist?
It’s just another way to get out whatever you need to get out. Aside from that, it’s incredibly fun. Finding a passion and making art is an incredible gift, not even for the audience, but just for yourself. It’s undeniably rewarding. I’m the happiest when I’m alone in a room, working.
What’s your strangest art ritual—the thing you have to do before working on a piece.
For music, I don’t wanna say I have synesthesia, but… Where I am setting-wise and also colors, that makes or breaks it for me. Setting is huge. I can be in a setting, and I’m tuned in to how it feels, and if I’m in the wrong place, my music is gonna be trash. It’s pretty annoying, honestly. Colors affect me with music. With art, it’s a lack of ritual. It’s very on the fly. It’s impulsive. Not a lot of premeditation. Music is, for the most part, more premeditated, but I will say: A lot of the writing I do is simultaneous with recording.
I discovered you through your work with Rothstein. Can you tell me about your history with Roth?
I met him in 2012. We met at a mutual friend’s clothing store, he had just moved to New York at the time, and he was living upstairs. The spot doesn’t exist anymore, sadly. Aside from hitting it off on a personal level, we bonded over a love for the craft. A love for lyrics. A love for songwriting. It’s been that ever since. We’ve been all over New York together, doing this shit for quite a while.
What is your favorite thing about working with him?
Trust! I don’t work with a lot of artists, which is something I would like to expand on. I just trust him. I know he’s going to deliver something I’m gonna love, and I think he feels the same about me. Also, our styles are fairly similar. There are some big differences too, but it’s like peanut butter and jelly. And we know each other, as people, and that works as well. Making this stuff is such a personal thing for me, [knowing each other] is important.
You’ve got a joint project coming soon, could you tell me about the process behind it?
It’s been tricky, just because I’m constantly on the move, and we’re not always in the same location. A lot of the ideas and songs are coming together from phone calls, emails… When we’re in the studio together, that’s just butter. This record, in particular, has been long distance. We work so well together, [the distance] doesn’t make a difference. All of our friends, for the most part, are producing the album. We trust them, and when we get in the studio with those guys, it’s just instant. It’s a family affair.
At what point did you become comfortable calling yourself an artist?
For a long time… I’ve always made art. I never sought to call myself anything or even thought about it. A lot of other people dubbed me rapper and painter. At this point, since it’s my profession and the only thing I’m doing, it’s like, “Okay, yeah, I’m an artist.” Honestly, I’ve never liked to call myself anything, but of course, art is all I do.