The rise of Tierra Whack: 'One day I’ll make a rap song, the next a pop song'

The musician, who’s been drawing praise from Solange Knowles and Flying Lotus, talks about refusing to be hemmed in by definitions

“Crack kills, if it don’t get ya Whack will!” Tierra Whack was leading an outdoor crowd in a chant, and despite her quick-paced rapping and the hot temperatures on a summer Saturday evening, people were keeping up. The Philadelphia artist and musician was playing a set midway through Warm Up – an ongoing weekend concert series at MoMA PS1, the Queens offshoot of the New York art museum – with an unfalteringly high level of energy. Whack urged the crowd to keep repeating the refrain before, during and after her song – which has the same chorus – remarking approvingly at the end: “I really like that song.”

Whack – who says that’s her real name from birth – has been gaining buzz with Whack World, her newly released debut album that includes 15 songs with 15 accompanying videos, and each is exactly one minute long. It has drawn rave reviews and praise from some big names. Solange Knowles named her as a musician that excites her now – “She sent me a shirt that says, ‘Tierra Whack is my mom,’ and I wear it proudly,” Knowles told Billboard in March. Flying Lotus posted praise about her last fall and asked her to open one of his shows. And Whack will be opening for Lauryn Hill at the Philadelphia stop of Hill’s 20th anniversary tour for her masterpiece album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. (Whack says she loved “every single song” on the album. “That’s my idol. She’s the reason I do it.”)

Her success comes amid an unusual boom period for female rappers. Cardi B has been breaking chart records and currently has three songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, two of which are in the top 10 amid a sea of Drake tracks. (She’s also managed to give birth to a baby daughter in the same week.) Nicki Minaj has also seen continued chart success ahead of the release of her fourth album, Queen. And Pitchfork’s best new music label is increasingly being applied to smaller, up-and-coming artists such as Lizzo and CupcakKe. “I want more females to join in and get the shine, and I hope to be part of the reason,” Whack told the New York Times in June.

Though she recognizes the importance of women in rap at this moment, Whack doesn’t identify solely as a rapper. She’s constantly shapeshifting, both onstage and on her album. During Whack’s short set at Warm Up, she was wide-eyed and bouncing back and forth across a small stage beneath clumps of inflated animals suspended in the air, wearing a bright yellow T-shirt dress with a giant pink “W”, commissioned and designed by her friend Tatyanna Nance. Whack alternated between rapid-fire raps and heartfelt sung lines such as “I miss my dog”, with one hand extended forward to punctuate her words, and asking people’s names and demanding dancing or group shouts between songs.

“I never do the same thing twice,” Whack says, in a basement green room at PS1 before her set. Though Whack World has been out less than a month – its official release date was 30 May – she already knows her next project will be different.

Every minute on Whack World, which Whack describes as “a visual and auditory project” (the visual part is by Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Léger), she reinvents herself. (“I had 13 different hairstyles,” Whack told Paper earlier this month.) Her rapping and singing styles shift, her voice morphs and her entire look changes. After recording the album, Whack says, the videos seemed essential. “I just had to figure out how to bring it together. I knew I was doing something new. It couldn’t just be audio, I had to capture their attention. I had to make a video to every single song.”

For the first minute, a mellow song called Black Nails that’s sung almost entirely in the same note over electric organ, the viewer doesn’t even see Whack’s face – instead there’s a felt collage illustration of it on her drawn-down hooded sweatshirt. Whack illustrates her lyrics by holding up nails painted to match the words of the song. We finally catch a glimpse of what she looks like on the second song, Bugs Life, when she lifts her head to reveal half of her face is grotesquely swollen and drooping. She mumbles quick raps out of the non-puffy side of her mouth.

Whack is drawn to dark humor and discomfort, and has a love for horror films ranging from the classics (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to lesser-known festival flicks (The Eyes of My Mother). Whack World blends deeply personal feelings of pain and loss with disquieting humor, as though all there is left to do is laugh. In the video for Pet Cemetery, Whack sings cheerfully about missing her dog while hanging out among misty graves with a group of cigarette-smoking puppet animals. On Fuck Off, Whack wanders a room of red balloons, snipping at the strings with scissors and singing: “Whenever I’m happy it makes you mad / I hope your ass breaks out in a rash / You remind me of my deadbeat dad / Fuck off” in a faux country accent.


“One day I’ll make a rap song, the next day I’ll make a pop song, the next day I’ll make a rock song, the next day I’ll make R&B,” Whack says. “I don’t have a pattern.”

Whack is undeniably a skilled rapper, but she doesn’t define herself as singularly a musician of that genre – or even a musician at all. She prefers to be called an artist and an entertainer. And that may be a reaction to the confines she felt as a developing musician. “Growing up people would tell me: ‘Yo, you only can do one thing. If you’re going to rap, just rap. If you’re going to sing, just sing.’ It boxed me in. But I just figured out a way to show everything. It’s like if you have a job interview, you want to present as many skills as you have. Your résumé.”

Even in interviews, Whack edges toward pushing the limits of her presented identity and which details matter – though she’s been quoted in other publications as saying she’s 22, she told the Guardian she’s 36. (A YouTube video of Whack rapping impressively on the streets of Philadelphia at age 15 in 2011 suggests 22 is her real age.)

Whack’s résumé as an artist began with a school assignment – she had to write and present a poem to her class, which was a big deal since she was so shy at the time. She wrote and memorized a freestyle poem. “I went up there and just presented it crazy. I was just talking about the weirdest things, just rhyming any kind of word,” Whack says. She felt it was the first time her friends and family really saw who she was. She immediately asked her mom to buy her some notebooks, “and I just started writing and writing”.

Eventually, an uncle suggested she put what she was writing over a beat, and turn it into rap. The idea hadn’t occurred to her, though she had grown up listening to Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and Lauryn Hill.

Though Whack’s talent and album have been gaining pop culture momentum, right now her résumé also includes a few day jobs – as a self-described “doorman” at a condominium in Philadelphia, and driving for the ridesharing service Uber on weekends, when she doesn’t have shows booked. It only seems like a matter of time before one of her Uber riders recognizes her. For now, she likes to cover up by wearing a hoodie, just in case. “I’m incognito,” Whack says.


Caitlin Curran in New York

The GuardianTramp

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