Tierra Whack is wearing a T-shirt that reads “I <3 Dick” when we first meet. It’s a fitting a selection for the North Philadelphia native, who just released one of the year's most quirky and eye-catching projects, but Whack is also very serious about her business. When she arrives at a Chinatown apartment-turned-art-gallery, she's tailed by an entourage of management, handlers and a glam squad for hair and makeup. After warm introductions, the 22-year-old immediately changes into her looks: one for the bright, bubbly side of her personality, one for the darker, more mellow side. Like her debut project, Whack naturally commands attention and defies expectation, a force whose essence lies in her subtlety.
Whack World, released in May, is an audiovisual collection of 15 songs that position her surrealist sensibilities with artfully savvy takes on hip-hop and R&B, all running exactly one minute long. The project thrust her into the spotlight off the strength of its virtuosity and fearlessness. It seems like it could've come from the mind of a crazed genius (and maybe she is), but doesn’t have the typical trappings: she doesn’t smoke or drink, has no tattoos, and her nose piercing is “the spiciest thing [she’s] ever done.” But even without the extra typical artist accoutrements, she has a Philly-certifiable style of confidence that speaks for itself.
As we talk, she digs into some dumplings and rice (hard pass on the chicken feet), happy to finally wind down from the week's press run. Food is a recurring theme throughout the conversation (cheesesteaks are just okay, hot wings are better), as are horror movies (she loves them), Dr. Seuss (she loves him too) and her mom (her best friend and biggest fan, sorry to those who thought).
It was her mom that pushed Whack towards her first big break when she was just 15. On an after school trip to visit her grandma, she remembers how she was agitated in the passenger seat of her mom's car when they pulled up at 18th and Oxford in North Philly, where a group was assembled for a We Run The Streets shoot that was taking place. With a bit of extra nudging from her mom, she got herself together and hopped out to join them. She tells the story like it just happened yesterday, the random, serendipitous nature of the entire scene still fresh on her mind.
"Can I rap for y'all?" she says in a high-pitched voice, imitating her younger self.
"What's your name?" she says, comically dropping her voice into a low baritone.
"My friends call me T Dizzle," she squeaks, laughing at herself.
What followed was a razor-tongued freestyle with all the animation and cleverness of the best Smack DVD battle rappers; it was the unofficial birth of her first music-making persona, Dizzle Dizz. The video was uploaded to YouTube and spread quickly within local circles, landing her audiences of Meek Mill and A$AP Rocky. "That's why I'm so crazy because my mom is crazy,” she says of the memory. “I don't know how it would've happened if I didn't do that.” Some would call it luck, but if luck is nothing more than preparation meeting opportunity, Whack had been preparing for that moment for years.
“For a long time, I couldn’t talk about my problems because I felt like I was complaining. It would be like, I can’t tell you how I feel, but I can play you a song.”
Around 9 or 10, she was given a poetry assignment in a reading class and, with that, found the freedom to express herself on her own terms. She committed the poem to memory and presented it to her peers, garnering enough positive feedback in class to go home and ask her mom for a composition book that night. Eventually, the poems that filled the journal would become her first raps after an uncle suggested setting them to beats. "I realized that music was the only thing I really thought about — music and writing. It just all came together,” she says. “For a long time, I couldn't tell somebody how I felt or I couldn't talk about my problems because I felt like I was complaining. Writing would help me or it would be like, I can't tell you how I feel, but I can play you a song."
After doing a few years in the Philly cypher scene, she got away for a brief two-year stint in Atlanta. She needed respite from feeling boxed in the place she’d always known, and the Southern rap capital allowed her an opportunity to gain perspective and experience varied audiences. She came away feeling like “someone is bound to like [my music], and that's what I care about — that one person." The time also helped her figure out who she was as an artist outside of the influences that made up her foundation. The transition from Dizzle Dizz to her given name, Tierra Whack, signaled a new artistic chapter that would be built around her own impulses. The first glimmers came through a string of experimental loosies made up of warped melodies and lyrical somersaults that she started uploading to Soundcloud in 2015. The only hint of her hometown was the way in which she could play with words and syllables, how she could bend them to her will even behind the distorted effects.
Though none of those tracks would end up on Whack World, they were an opportunity to sharpen her edges to an impeccable point. When it was album time, she knew she wanted to present a snapshot of herself with a visual element. The rest was letting herself fall down rabbit holes: more Dr. Seuss, YouTube, Austin Powers, assorted artbooks. And once inspiration struck, she followed the feeling to its end and then started all over again. The result reflects Whack’s varied interests and a kaleidoscopic idea of what constitutes art or even an album. “It was just a feeling. It felt right to put a collection of songs together. I wanted to do videos, but I was trying to find the right person to work with,” she says of the process. “I got everything I wanted: videos and new music.”
The sudden attention coupled with critical acclaim, which Whack admits doesn’t feel real, is particularly exciting when you consider that neither the art nor the person making it fit into any sort of current trend. Popular and mainstream rap hasn’t championed a darker-skinned woman since Missy Elliot (with whom she shares a creative lineage as well), and Whack seems poised to be the one. It is just as rare that women in rap are celebrated when they steer away from the clichés and club bangers and into something that exists on its own terms, free from the expectations of grand statements or the responsibilities of saving the world. “We can't afford to look dumb," Whack says, and it’s true: Art for art’s sake isn’t a privilege that is usually afforded to those in her position, but words like “usually” mean nothing. She’s making her own rules. "I've noticed [those kinds of patterns] in that world, but I'm living in Whack World."
Light installation by Jelisa Blumberg; "Western Standards LV2000" (Window art display) by Alan Ruiz.