Nothing on Earth sounds like Makonnen

His songs are relentless hooky and impossible to forget, and yet they’re too daring and weird to exist on the radio with any regularity.

Photographer Delaney Allen
June 17, 2019
Nothing on Earth sounds like Makonnen

iLoveMakonnen is so Los Angeles that when John Singleton would shoot movies a block over from his house, he would lie and say he was the director’s son so he could sneak onto the set. He’s Atlanta enough that the deceased “Travis” from “O Let’s Do It” was a friend. He’ll slip into voices and characters that force you to picture him as a musical guest on Jack Paar; other times he seems (and dresses) as if he’s been beamed from the year 3000. He made the most original club songs of his era while he was locked up on house arrest and could not legally set foot in a party. And then he just sort of disappeared.

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A little over a month ago, Makonnen put out a new song. It’s possible you didn’t know this, and if you didn’t, you aren’t alone: at the time I’m writing, “Drunk on Saturday” has just under 165,000 views on YouTube, and that’s if you combine the totals for the music video and for the intricately animated lyric video that somehow fucks up the lyrics to the hook. This is insane because “Drunk” is incredible. He sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of the well, which I mean literally but also otherwise. It feels like being sad on uppers, which is to say it doesn’t feel exactly “sad.” It runs a little over two minutes and there’s really only one verse. In the verse he’s the hook’s precise tonal opposite (“I know your girl wanna slurp me”; “Blow a bag on your bitch ‘cause she worth it”), which is to say they’re exactly the kind of thoughts one might have immediately after the thoughts in the hook.

The video is another beast entirely. There are milkshakes on the table and a tiny legal pad catching gin-soaked thoughts and exposed thighs and expensive bumps and sunglasses that should be illegal. There are variations on that mannequin head, a relic from his days at a beauty college, which he repurposes as album art and as an eerie, disembodied symbol of an aesthetic sense too strange to spread yet too striking to forget.

I know next to nothing about the musical traditions in, say, ancient Rome, but I’m sure even back then songwriters were trying to capture the exact feeling and syntax of texting an ex while you’re drunk at the club. No one has come closer than “still lonely; feeling sad i didn’t love you like i should.” You can imagine Nero tacking the AZLYRICS.COM printout to a wall in the town square along with a scrawled “mood.”

Makonnen has promised that the song will be included on M3, an EP set for release later this month. The details of that disappearance I mentioned are a matter of extremely public record. First of all, the qualifier: it wasn’t quite a full disappearance, as Makonnen has continued to drop excellent, innovative, influential, and occasionally popular songs since it seemed, briefly, like he was going to be a superstar. But he’s sunk into the internet ether that birthed him in a way that probably suits both his work and his personality, even if costs him untold millions. The obvious catalyst was the rift with Drake, who signed him and remixed his indelible breakout hit, “Tuesday,” before he lost interest in –– or felt threatened by, or became embarrassed of, or etc. –– his newest vampire food/protege. (That song, by the way, is the Makonnen DNA: woozy, weightless, remarkably specific.) Makonnen’s career at OVO stalled, and what seemed like an easy ascent became a lost, alternate reality.

With hindsight, the era when Makonnen had a direct presence (rather than an obvious stylistic) on the rap and pop charts seems like an accident of history. His songs are relentless hooky and impossible to forget, and yet they’re too daring and weird to exist on the radio with any regularity. Right? Speaking of that era: for four summers in a row kids in the Canadian city where I lived had been dying off bad MDMA, and then Makonnen dropped “Don’t Sell Molly No More,” and nothing changed, but we remembered that time could pass.

About a year and a half ago, I spent a few days with Makonnen while I was profiling him for another magazine. That’s when he told me about John Singleton and he and Flocka’s friend. He showed me his childhood home, complete with the tree he planted in his front yard and dubbed “The Gaye Tree” as a nod to Marvin, who was murdered just blocks away. He cooked a delicious vegan brunch for me and his mom; he talked glowingly about Lil Peep –– these were the last few weeks of his life; he furrowed his brow and sent some barbs toward Drake when I brought him up, then said very gracious and diplomatic things on the subject a few days later, over email.

A few things stood out to me during my time with him. The first is that he’s one of the most irrepressibly funny people I’ve ever met. The second is that he not only works incredibly fast, but thinks in component parts that are already nearly-completed thoughts –– where some artists might hear a pocket in a beat and start cooking up cadence placeholders that might include some key phrases, Makonnen begins from crafted, chorus-anchoring lines. And the third is that he’s fixated, to an appropriate degree, on the flow of influence from originator to descendent to imitator to biter. What was refreshing in conversation then (and is exhilarating in practice now) is that he’s not obsessed with accumulating credit –– he simply wants to make shit that sounds unlike anything on Earth and then hibernate if necessary so he can do it again.

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Nothing on Earth sounds like Makonnen