Mykki Blanco is beaming down the phone from an Airbnb in Chinatown. “My dream neighborhood,” she says with a breathy contentedness in her voice. “We can all live out our fantasies of having rent-controlled apartments in SoHo.” Fresh from a summer tour through Europe, the North Carolina-based, multi-genre music icon is clearly happy to be back in the city where her creator Michael Quattlebaum, Jr. gave birth to her in summer 2011. Now, Blanco is back in the big city on another occasion — to promote the release of her long-awaited debut album, Mykki. When I ask Blanco what the album means to her, she responds with discerning wit. “It’s so funny because a lot of times when someone’s releasing their first album, you hear all these clichés about like, ‘This record is more personal,’ or, ‘Oh, I just really took my time with it,’” she says with a laugh. “But actually, it’s the truth. This record is more personal and I actually did take my time with it — because I had the infrastructure to do that. I didn’t have to go on a tour to make a quick buck to be able to survive, and that made all the difference.”
Mykki is due out Dogfood Music Group, which Blanco started in 2015 as an imprint of Berlin-based !K7 Records, and it is a document of just how much an artist can thrive when afforded the space to just be. Pounding, imagery-rich raps shine beside poignant songwriting, and even, surprisingly to her, her sweetly gritty singing voice. “The only reason I sing on this album is because of Woodkid,” says Blanco. “He literally made me.” Co-producers Woodkid and Jeremiah Meece spent months working with Blanco in Paris and Chicago respectively, and the result reveals a more melodic, intimate side of the boundary-pushing artist. Mykki balances autobiographical lyrics that explore self-realization and coming of age, with fantastical queer reinterpretations of classic hip-hop tropes. As a body of work, it’s a fearlessly vulnerable self-portrait that challenges listeners to experience the artist’s humanity beyond being a consumable symbol on a stage. Ahead of its release on September 16, Blanco gave The FADER a track-by-track explanation of the stories, inspirations, and collaborations behind her debut album.
1. "I’m In A Mood"
MYKKI BLANCO: “I’m in a Mood” came about organically with Jeremiah and I in the studio. It’s one of those Mykki Blanco tracks where I’m trying to reference my drag aesthetics, the feminine gay aesthetics, with also this kind of very masculine, street thing.
Jean [Deaux] was in the studio that day with us, and even though she only features on two tracks her presence on my album is super monumental because she softens and adds so much soul to each track that she’s on. When she laid down the vocals for “I’m in a Mood,” it just completely transformed the song [and] gave it so much more depth.
[“I’m in a Mood” is] not something that you’re gonna hear out in the club, but it is rhythmic, it is melodic. I was like, I think this is the perfect song to set the tone for the whole album.
2. "Loner" Ft. Jean Deaux
Where “I’m in a Mood” puts me in more of a comfort zone, “Loner” was the most uncomfortable song for me to write because when Jeremiah sent me the production for it I was like, this is a pop song. I don’t know how to write a pop song, but I’m gonna try. And so for three weeks on and off I would try to write that song, and I was trying to rap and rap and rap, and I was like, you know what, I’m gonna have to try something different. I’m not a singer, but I’m just gonna [sing it]. And then it just started to come. I was like, oh shit I’m writing a pop song. 100% “Loner” is Mykki Blanco’s first pop song.
And then we got Jean. The only female recording artist I had ever worked with before was Princess Nokia. So, I put out this APB on Twitter like, "I’m looking for a female vocalist in Chicago." Jean Deaux’s uncle saw the tweet, emailed her and was like, "you should hit up this artist." She hit me back just with a simple message. All of a sudden I was on her Soundcloud, and when I heard the music I was like, Oh it has to be her. She was preparing to do a showcase at South by Southwest but she came to the studio for one day and in that one day she was able to lay down the hook for “Loner” and for “I’m in a Mood.” It was the first time that I realized maybe I could actually start to write music for singers, eventually. Because even though I couldn’t sing it, I was like, "Jean, it should sound like this," and she just started to do it and my eyes just lit up.
3. "High School Never Ends"
One day I was in the studio with Woodkid in Paris and he was like, "I want to play on the piano, let’s just do some old school stuff." And I had never before tried to write a rap song from a piano. I’m kind of disinterested at first and then I start to do what I call "cadence blabber," which is where you just start to make a sound and then you later turn that sound into lyrics. And so “High School Never Ends” began out of both of us just making sounds, no lyrics, no plan.
After about an hour or so, he got off of the piano and went back to the keyboard and started to plug some stuff in and he was like, "Start rapping, but try to rap to this beat." And it was so off-kilter. He was like, "Stick with it, try to make sense out of being off."
We ended that studio day and then I went back to the apartment I was staying in in Paris and just started to write. It was the most off-beat rap I think I had ever made until we came back in and then I was like, Oh wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense, but we’re making it make sense. And then he took that track and just went full-on Woodkid. Like, he got the Paris Opera to record strings for it, he had a friend of his who’s this singer who does cartoon voiceovers to do the children’s choir on it. He sent me [a video] of the Paris Opera doing the strings for “High School Never Ends.” When I saw it I started to cry because, and this is no lie, in January when I said that I was gonna quit doing music I went to see a psychic [who] told me, "you’re not gonna quit doing music." The psychic even went so far as to say, "You’re going to create your album this year and when you create your album I see strings, you're going to have songs on your album that have violin." And I was like, what? When [Woodkid] wrote me this email and was like, "Mykki, I’m getting people from the Paris Opera to do strings on the track," I was like, "Oh my god." And then we ended up having this insanely just beautiful meditation on the song.
4. "Interlude 1"
“Interlude 1” is this combination of this dark dissonant, industrial vibe that’s been throughout all of my music and then this also very theatrical showgirl showmanship. Jeremiah hated it. He was like, "Oh my god, are you gonna keep that?" And I was like, "I’m gonna keep it. This is representative of me."
5. "My Nene"
“My Nene” is one of those songs where I get to play with gender roles. As a queer artist, sometimes on a certain song I on purpose want to play with universal things. I on purpose want to make sure that I use wording that doesn’t gender what I do so that it can have a universal appeal. “My Nene” is one of those songs where I’m using words that could be applied affectionately to a man or a woman, and I’m doing it on purpose. For me I’m definitely talking about a guy, that’s my baby, that’s my nene, but through the wording and through not gendering it, also a straight guy or straight woman could listen to that song and completely identify with it.
6. "The Plug Won’t"
“The Plug Won’t” also put me in a space that I had never been, which is creating a song about romance. I just want[ed] to pull from a couple of these experiences that I’ve had where I’ve been out in the club partying, I’ve taken a pill, I’ve taken an ecstasy, and all of a sudden I think I’ve met the person of my dreams. Then I wake up and it’s all bullshit. Or I’m living this certain lifestyle and thinking that I’m making all these deep connections and they’re all actually pretty surface-level when certain things get removed or certain hierarchies come into play. It’s [about] those people that only wanna come around when you have your music videos out and your name’s out in the press and you’re in magazines. So when I started writing “The Plug,” I was like, I’m gonna call all this bullshit out. Like fake people [who] try to come off like they have this vested interest in you and really they just want to ride a wave, any wave they can, because they think that’s how they’re gonna get over in the world.
7. "Hideaway" Ft. Jeremiah Meece
The hook for “Hideaway” I’ve had actually in my head for I think two years, [it's] one of those tracks that I used to sing in the shower. The vibe of that song is a mood that I always wanna be in. I listen to every song on the album, but I know I listen to “Hideaway” the most.
It’s a storytelling song, me doing my take on something that I might have heard Notorious B.I.G. rapping about when I was a kid. It plays with Mykki Blanco as this fantasy character, this queer boss-type figure. It’s taking things that are supposed to be super macho and super hardcore and queering them, talking about these hip-hop tropes of selling drugs and working with South American drug lords but then changing it. I talk about this guy’s like a fat kingpin, but he has a huge dick and I know about it. It’s like a hardcore track, but it’s so blatantly queer. And I also like — because I have a lot of Latino family members — how I use Spanish in the song.
Jeremiah also features on the track. He sings on it and smoothes out my vocal parts to make this song kind of like this love story about this female drug kingpin and this bandit and then queer it. Then to have the chorus, Hideaway, he’s gone astray but come play today, if you wanna see me. It’s like talking in code.
Honestly, I think it’s my favorite song on the album because it combines so many things that I’ve always wanted to do on a song. It’s smooth and it’s melodic and it just has a beat that just makes you want to dance.
8. "Interlude 2"
“Interlude 2” comes directly from my journal. Those are my real thoughts. With some of the more traumatic things I’ve gone through in my life, I want the most basic things like so many other people, which is just a stable home, an environment where I can fulfill those passions of wanting to have, if not a family, some kind of family structure of my own, to have someone to share that with. It’s so basic, but I feel like a lot of people want that. I know I do.
9. "You Don’t Know Me"
“You Don’t Know Me” is directly about me coming out as HIV-positive and about the fallout, too, and all the articles. It’s like never before had Time Magazine wrote about me, but when I came out as HIV-positive, Time Magazine was like, "Mykki Blanco, rapper announces..." And I didn’t realize just how big of a deal that was to so many other people, because it was so personal to me.
That song is also about the fact that I feel like a lot of my fans and a lot of the people that like my music, up until this album, don’t really have a sense of my personality. This album, the reason that it’s called Mykki is because I think [it] is so much more representative of how the people who actually know me, my close friends, how they know me.
“It’s like a backpack rap track about being an intern, also being an escort, also having a sugar daddy, also selling drugs, also just doing anything you can to survive in New York City at 23.”
10. "Fendi Band"
“Fendi Band” is a riot track, a hardcore hip-hop, shit-talking battle track where I also get to show off some of my Southern rap influence. It plays with some of that classic hip-hop stuff, talking about wealth. It’s a political track, it’s a riot track, it’s a fetish track. It’s a classic Mykki Blanco motif track where I’m playing with all those multiple things that I embody.
11. "For the Cunts"
Even though people identify me as a queer artist, when I made the song “For the Cunts,” I [realized] I’ve never made a song for gay people. And it’s not like that was ever even an agenda of mine, because I’ve played with gender roles. I’ve definitely said very blatantly queer things in a lot of my songs. On Gay Dog Food, I have a song called “For the Homies” directly about me being like the one gay guy of these straight boys growing up, so when I made “For the Cunts,” I was like, now I wanna make this song for my most cunty, my most bitchy gay friends and have this be a club song about hanging out with them. That song is bubblegum rap on purpose. I wanted to make the most blatantly faggy track I’ve ever done and so that’s how I came up with “For the Cunts.” I wanted to make a song that could get played on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
12. "Shit Talking Creep"
“Shit Talking Creep” is kind of like my one punk track on the album that’s also a shit-talking song. There was a period in my career where people were trying to act like I wasn’t making money and that I wasn’t selling out my shows and that I hadn’t been a part of this new wave of queer artists. For a while music journalists kept trying to be like, "Oh, is it hard for you at hip-hop shows, is it hard for you to get rap fans?" So over and over I had to say, "Are you fucking kidding me? I got my own booking agents, I’m selling out my own shows, I’m doing my own thing, I have my own fans. Stop asking me how it is at a rap show." It’s like they weren’t trying to give me the respect of the fact that I was a successful recording independent artist. And so “Shit Talking Creep” is about that. I’m in Russia, nigga, making mad cash — this is a key lyric in the whole thing. One of my biggest shows ever was a private show where I got paid $60,000 for one performance. It happened in Russia in 2014. So it was just like, don’t fucking talk to me about homophobia in the music industry. I’m a recording artist who’s doing this on my own. You’re gonna respect me.
13. "Rock N Roll Dough"
[“Rock N Roll Dough”] is completely about being in the underground arts scene in New York. It’s like a backpack rap track about being an intern, also being an escort, also having a sugar daddy, also selling drugs, also just doing anything you can to survive in New York City at 23.
Those things have informed my music, those are the ingredients that made Mykki Blanco. Mykki Blanco didn’t begin until my like third year of living in New York City, so I thought it was the perfect way to close the album. I’m not somebody who raps about shit that I don’t live. A track like “Hideaway” is complete fantasy, but like I’m not like a Rick Ross kind of rapper. You’re not gonna get four or five tracks from me that talk about Mykki Blanco is a kingpin, or Mykki Blanco in this fantastical way. So I talk about the fact that for the past four years I’ve lived on the road and that my actual lifestyle is more akin to kind of like a fucking roadie in the '70s who’s gone to all these cities, played all these weird shows, in all these weird places. Also the fact that I literally fly to a different city multiple times in a week sometimes. It’s like, how do I talk about having this jet set lifestyle that also can be lonely, but that also is glamorous in a way, but also is actual fucking work?