Chimezie, the rapper, first discovered hip hop when he was around eleven years old. The artist, who is also a prolific reviewer of rap albums on YouTube, grew up in a religious family. He heard gospel music around him, both in church and at home. He attended a Baptist church when he was a child, and there was great energy there, the congregants vocal in their praise and worship, a spiritual dynamic that he still carries with him today, both in his art and in his life, and in his appreciation for music.
This spiritual energy can manifest itself visually when Chimezie reviews albums on YouTube. When he picks an album to review, he sits in a vehicle and listens to the album for the first time. He does this so he can evoke an honest and fresh response to what he hears. A video camera begins to record and he gives himself over to the music. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and you can see the music move through him, its power pulsing through his body as he reacts to what he is hearing, a congregation of one, God’s force revealing itself to him, by the sounds playing out of the car’s speakers.
In fact, Chimezie calls what he does album reactions, rather than album reviews. If you watch enough of his videos, you would probably agree; he cocks his head to fully absorb the sounds, then he reacts to the music with every part of his body. If he likes what he’s hearing, he smiles, and punctuates his listening with exhortations: “oh man, that’s so good,” or “wow,” sometimes a “what,” spoken in disbelief at the beauty and breadth of the talent he is considering. He draws out the “a” sound and the “t,” full of both delight and awe, as if he had just witnessed someone walk on water, or watched manna drop from the sky.
As a child, the first popular artist Chimezie remembers listening to was the Christian rapper, Lecrae, whom he discovered on YouTube. There, he and his brother found a video by Lecrae and became transfixed by what they saw and heard. Soon, Chimezie and his brother immersed themselves in Lecrae’s music, studied his lyrics and watched every video that the artist had posted on the site. Lecrae’s blend of hip hop and gospel was a safe distraction in his house, and acceptable to his mom and step-father. Back then, when Chimezie listened to music, everyone else in the family listened to it, too.
Things changed once he got his own phone. Like many teenaged boys, when Chimezie heard Eminem for the first time, it was a revelation. It was as if he had been asleep for years, and somebody slapped him awake to witness a new world.
“I was going through the typical teen angst type of deal. His lyrics were just so raw in emotion. Anger, sadness; it…captivated me. I wanted to learn everything about his music, his technique, all of it. At thirteen-years-old, I was all for it.”
From Eminem, Chimezie looked backward, to the pantheon of 1990s hip hop, and began to study its history in earnest. He focused on many of the New York artists, who transformed the genre and helped it to lay the foundation, and then eventually conquer the pop music charts. He listened to Nas, Big Pun and the Wu Tang Clan and other Golden Age icons, and he refused to listen to anything else. To travel forward, he needed to linger in the past.
Then came Odd Future, and, more specifically, a member of the collective named Earl Sweatshirt.
Chimezie says that when he heard Earl for the first time, it caused him to shed his old head hip hop mentality, and open his eyes and ears to rap’s potential, for introspective teenagers like him. Earl rapped about things that Chimezie could relate to. Earl was sensitive and awkward; he rapped about his feelings. He captured the swirling emotions of adolescence in a relatable way.
In May of 2012, Odd Future, the hip hop collective that featured Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, was conducting a photo shoot with Terry Richardson. (Yes, THAT Terry Richardson.) During the shoot, the Odd Future posse track “Oldie” was playing in the background. A video camera was rolling, and the guys in the group decided to clown around, lip-synch their verses to the song and mug for the camera.
Tyler, who looks like he’s wearing a pink oven mitt or a sock puppet on his right hand, bookends the seven separate features in the song. There are Nerf guns. Left Brain wields a large plastic hammer misplaced by Thor. Mike G grips a light sabre. Frank Ocean holds a plastic cup that looks suspiciously like it’s filled with a Blonde Doubleshot on Ice. Earl appears at center stage during Mike’s verse, but he still must wait until Domo Genesis, Frank and Jasper Dolphin finish their bars. Fucking Jasper Dolphin.
Earl wears a pastel blue button-down with clouds on it and a black Supreme cap. He looks like he’s twelve-years-old. Somebody tries to steal his hat. When he delivers his verse, though, he’s the real deal. He may look like he’s in middle school, but when he spits bars, he sounds like a man.
It’s hard to overstate Earl Sweatshirt’s impact on popular music. He’s already influenced a generation of acolytes and imitators. His acolytes have acolytes, and he has too many imitators to count. For every person banging WAP, there’s probably another person, sitting in a darkened room, listening to Earl, scrolling through Genius and trying to decipher his lyrics. Earl demonstrated to thousands of artists and would-be artists that you didn’t have to be hard, you didn’t have to front in your art; you just needed to be honest and authentic, even if that meant grappling with personable foibles, trauma and depression, demons and angels, your truth. People would listen if you spit the truth.
Chimezie says he was attracted to both Earl’s voice, and his lyrical content. Earl’s first full-length album, Doris, released in 2013, when Chimezie was around sixteen-years-old, and he thought the album was “mind boggling, that he was able to do what he did.” Earl was leading a hip hop revolution.
“His delivery at that time was a very straightforward monotone, very repressed. I loved that because I wasn’t able to do much with my voice and I could rap along to his songs pretty well. Also, the content of his music, how personal he was. He was still able to rhyme well, and intricately. It was very poetic. A lot of aspects of his music aligned perfectly for me, the kind of person I was.”
On his last verse in “Oldie,” Tyler expresses this very idea: Odd Future’s music was for “the n***** in the suburbs…and the ones who got called weird, fag, bitch, nerd/’cause you was into jazz, kitty cats and Steven Spielberg/they say we ain’t actin’ right.” He was telling budding artists out there, you be you. Tales From The Trap House weren’t the only thing an artist could rhyme about.
What do you do if you sound like one of your most important artistic influences? How do you establish your own identity as an artist? Action Bronson built a career in music, while sounding like Ghostface Killah. In an interview with VladTV, Ghostface himself told the show’s host, DJ Vlad, with a sense of disbelief in his voice, “I thought he was me one day!”
Chimezie does sound something like Earl, in cadence and inflection. He sounds a little like MIKE, too, the man with a PhD in Earlology, who did his own, original research, and then created a distinct, artistic persona for himself. Chimezie does display some of MIKE’s verbal tics in his flow, the same throat clearing “uh, uh, oooh, whoa, yeah, huh,” and the deep resonance of his voice. Chimezie’s flow can sound inert, particularly at the beginning of a song; he slurs his words, like a plane taxiing down the runway, gathering its strength for lift-off, something that MIKE does, too. When the plane levels off, the articulation becomes more clear.
You can’t fault a man for his voice, but you can fault him for what he does with it. Or, you can praise him for what he does with the voice that he has. If you listen to Chimezie long enough, if you devote yourself to his art, you can only conclude that the person he sounds like is himself.
Chimezie led an itinerate life as a kid, a life familiar to anyone with a parent serving in the United States military. He was born in Stuttgart, Germany and spent significant amounts of time in Georgia and Alaska, where he graduated from high school. In Alaska, Chimezie met a friend, Austin Phothiboupha, who was also an aspiring musician and encouraged Chimezie to record with him. Phothiboupha released music under the name AApril.
“Once he got a home studio set-up, I realized I could actually do something here. I didn’t have to write lyrics and then record them on the computer, with a microphone. It was a gradual progression overall, but meeting Austin was the reason I recorded songs and put them out for other people to hear.”
The first track the pair recorded together was called “Feelin’”, a gentle love song, with a strummed guitar, keyboard washes and a soaring hook. Chimezie contributed a verse to the song, under the name Artis. His flow is relaxed, and unhurried, but a little tentative, too, because he was just learning and experimenting, feeling his way, and he hadn’t yet settled into his voice.
Eventually, in 2018, Chimezie moved to Dallas, where he could focus on his art and find and develop an artistic persona that felt comfortable, and true to who he was. He bought himself a microphone, sampled beats from YouTube, and set to work.
“I didn’t know anyone down here. I just wanted to be creative on my own time and put music out for other people to hear. The move really just propelled me to make music.”
He performed at open mike nights, and worked at his craft, writing and recording, connecting with the artistic community in the city. He honed his skills and developed his sound. He focused.
In October of 2018, Chimezie released his first official single, “Prologue,” an introspective song, with a simple, looped R & B sample. “Twenty” was released a month later, and then the one off, “Dark Knight,” a Denzel Curry sounding, hyped up track, which samples Hans Zimmer’s music from the film by Christopher Nolan. The song is uncharacteristically aggressive and energetic, the experimentation of an artist still searching for his sound.
About that track, Chimezie says that he was inspired to make something more upbeat, that was reminiscent of some of the artists he enjoyed listening to as a fan. “It was a fun song to make but I didn’t have the attention span going into that direction.” Instead, he went back to the lab. He continued to explore sounds and styles, continued to find his way musically, until it felt right.
In February of 2019, Chimezie dropped his first EP, Cycles, a cohesive, soulful record, that seemed to coalesce his sound. It featured confident rapping and a collection of samples that blended well with the emerging style of his flow. Chimezie seemed more comfortable on the mike, and his writing was sharper. “Thwart” is one of the standout tracks on the EP. It’s bright, the sound sparkles with promise, and Chimezie spits over the beats with confidence. “Digress” is another highlight, where the beat crackles and shines, and Chimezie rhymes over it with a nimble efficiency; the rapping no longer feels forced. Cycles ends with the instrumental track, “Shabbat,” a sly tribute to his faith.
Cycles was part of an overall theme that Chimezie envisioned for his first three collections; each represented the ups and downs of life, and a search for mental clarity. Woebegone, his longest collection to date, released in the summer of 2019, marked an emotional low point, and was seeped in pain and struggle. The first song on the album, “Muddled,” set the tone, an anguished piece of song writing, reflecting heartache and loss: “Scrambled thoughts/cannot walk/Scrambled speech/cracking my teeth/Scrambled thoughts/cannot walk/I lost my father/Bastard in ink.”
The songs on Woebegone don’t necessarily reflect what Chimezie was going through at the time he made the record, but the process itself was a way to exorcise unresolved experiences and emotions from other times in his life.
“I felt it was important to me to still express what I felt. Overcome the feelings. Step over them. Making art out of it kind of symbolizes for me, getting over it, defeating or overcoming the trauma from that stage of my life.” And that’s all he wants to say about it.
While he was creating music, Chimezie plowed ahead with the YouTube album reactions. When he interacted with people, they were often surprised to hear that he was an artist himself, building his own body of work. One such person was the Israeli producer and beat maker Argov, who was also just starting out and tentatively releasing his own music. The pair conversed through Twitter. Then, in response to those discussions, Argov sent Chimezie a beat, which ultimately became the song “Flip A Coin,” released by Argov in August of 2019.
More discussions followed in a chatroom on Discord, and the pair commenced work on an EP together. That EP, Peace & Blessings, was released in November of the same year, and was a giant leap forward in both sound and skill, a synthesis of beats and rapping style that evidenced a breakthrough for both men.
Peace & Blessings dropped at a time when Chimezie was performing at open mikes in Dallas, and it felt like a turning point.
“Performing in front of people, you have to be confident; you can’t just mumble in a monotone. You have to be more emotional in your delivery. It showed me that I have to bring this energy to recording and that’s essentially what I did.”
Peace & Blessings represented an often rare moment of artistic alchemy, when the visions of two artists melded together to bring out the best in each of them, and create one whole, stellar work of music. In a world of social media, the ability to collaborate with other artists is endless; all you need is an internet connection, the ability to send and receive files, and an open mind. Argov and Chimezie never met face to face, but working thousands of miles apart, they created a deeply moving and profound work of art.
“Storms//Psalms,” the second track on Peace & Blessings, was the perfect synthesis of the sound that the two artists were driving towards. The beat is big, with a stacked chorus, and there’s a yearning to Chimezie’s lyrics and the way he presents them on the record: “In love with my art/admit is took a few years/But I’ve been feeling the way my mom and dad had intended/Ain’t no fear in my face/I’m adamant and cemented/I bleed for my case/I give it all til I’m restin’/And I eat from my plate/I don’t accept from no seconds.”
The EP Ground Up continued the progression, the third collection in the trilogy started with Cycles. It features several different producers and Argov returns to handle the boards on three of the album’s tracks. It marked a new optimism and clarity for Chimezie, a new positivity towards life and his identity as an artist.
“Ground Up reflects my growth as a person, trying to better myself, trying to see the positivity in life. I wanted [the project] to be more positive. Not necessarily upbeat, but more positive in my outlook, more mature, not as [filled] with self-loathing, or depressing.”
“Autumn” is an achingly beautiful song from Ground Up, and sees Chimezie grappling with complex emotions and loss, but moving on from that loss, too: “I don’t talk I speak, wind up under my wings/Fallacies in ya spirit/weak, we witnessed you flinch/Free-wheeling and free-willed//I am wisdom equipped/Quit the weepin’/reap what’s mine/Watch for whispering hints/Threw on fleece and went outside/walk the winter abyss.”
This month, Chimezie released his latest single, “Trading Jerseys,” a joyful collaboration with Adé Hakim, who raps and produces with MIKE’s sLUms Collective, and releases music under his own name and also as Sixpress. It’s a boyaunt track, with chirpping electronics and meandering keyboard loops, the sounds of a pogo dance club in Robotlandia. It’s probably one of the most upbeat tracks Chimezie has released and it suits him fine, further evidence of his evolution and growth as an artist.
Chimezie has more new material on the way, including a collaborative album and he is working on new material with redveil, Jay Cinema, Dyron Miller and Brit Domtavlor, an inspired collection of innovative, underground emcees pushing hip hop’s boundries foward, in subject material, flows and beats.
For one of his latest album reactions, Chimezie hops into his car with two of his friends and plays the new album from Black Noi$e, OBLIVION. It’s constructive to watch Chimezie and his buddies first with the sound off, to fully appreciate the importance of music in his life, and to his life.
The sheer joy on Chimezie’s face as he listens to the album conveys something otherworldly, a pureness in his appreciation for the medium with which he expresses the himself, almost like a divine prescence has inhabited his body and bathed him in light. He smiles broadly, and his eyes crinkle up, and his face looks beatific. There’s a fervor to the way he listens. You need to see it to understand.
There’s a fervor to his rapping, too. He’s on the cusp of something now. Grinding, honing his art, giving of himself to the music, listening to it and creating it, whereever it takes him. Jump in the car and come along for the ride.
“What’s good, it’s your boy Chimezie…” And we’re ready to go.