“I Don’t Wanna Be Famous,” the lead single from NNAMDÏ's second album, Please Have a Seat, is a pop-rap track about becoming grossly, conspicuously, exhaustingly famous. Here NNAMDÏ lives in a world of Patek Phillipe watches, diamonds, and private jets. People see him on TV and roll their eyes at his ubiquity. “Showing off flying to islands, buying 'em,” he sings. There are Migos-style ad-libs and car noises. It sounds fun as hell.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s rise from the Chicago DIY scene to national recognition has been hard-earned. After releasing three promising albums that fidgeted at the intersection of pop, indie rock, and hip-hop, he broke out with a prolific and unpredictable few months in 2020. He released his genre-hopping fourth album, BRAT, in the early lockdown months and followed that up with two utterly different projects: Black Plight, a punk EP channeling the anger of the George Floyd protests, and KRAZY KARL, a full-length tribute to the Loony Tunes composer Carl Stalling. He grew his label, Sooper Records, which he runs alongside fellow musicians Sen Morimoto and Glenn Curran, into a hub for more than a dozen like-minded artists in Chicago. Acknowledging all this, the Chicago Tribune named him a Chicagoan of the Year.
So, yes, “I Don’t Wanna Be Famous” is fun and overblown, a slightly sickly fantasy about the type of wealth and profile that nobody ever really seems to enjoy. But there’s a little apprehension in there too. It is, Ogbonnaya told me a few weeks back on The FADER Interview live on Amp, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on his dreams of taking his music far and wide without relinquishing control, anonymity, or day-to-day normality. And jammed between the luxuries, there’s a moment that verges on autobiography: “Used to say that I was too weird and shit / Now they wanna take me serious.”
That’s not really a dig at his critics — Ogbonnaya identified his music as weird from the jump and, in places, it was objectively pretty weird (not least on his second LP, Feckin Weirdo). But it does signal something of a change in direction for the now 32-year-old singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. When writing Please Have a Seat — out today via Sooper Records and Secretly Group — he set out to make each song hummable, catchy enough that he’d still be singing it to himself a few days after writing it. In that sense, Please Have a Seat is an inviting record, packed with melodic choruses and pop hooks, breathless rapping, and crunchy guitars. But even at his most accessible, he’s curious as ever, approaching every trope from an odd angle. There’s always something thrilling about hearing NNAMDÏ jump from experiment to experiment on an album. On Please Have a Seat, he sounds more confident in those experiments, and more excited to share them, than ever.
I’ve talked to a handful of artists recently who broke through at the very beginning of the pandemic. It must’ve been a very odd feeling, having this music that you are ready to bring to the world and then it breaks through just as you’re not allowed to tour or see people face to face.
It’s definitely weird, especially at a time when things were super confusing and a lot of people were struggling to have one positive thing in a world full of chaos. In some ways you’re very appreciative to have this happy moment of people listening to art you put out, and in another way, it just made things feel so unimportant and minuscule because there are way more pressing things to think about. But it was cool. I think art helped a lot of people in 2020, me included. It was definitely an escape from the insane realities of things going on outside of our control.
You had quite a prolific year as well. Black Plight was released that June. Was there something cathartic about releasing that EP at that moment?
It was a very stressful time, and I think making that EP was kind of like meditation for me. Something to focus on through all the noise. It felt cathartic after the fact. I think I was too angry and stressed to fully enjoy it until I saw that it was helping other people and impacting people. It was the best-selling thing on Bandcamp that day, which was crazy. It was just beautiful to know other people were feeling how I felt and to know that maybe it helped someone during the time.
You followed that up with a jazz LP in tribute to the Loony Tunes composer Carl Stalling. Was he an important influence on you?
It definitely was. There’s this program called Soulseek. It was a peer-to-peer file-sharing thing where you could log in and see the shared files of anyone else who was logged in at the same time — so, you could go into their iTunes. People would just share all their catalogs and discographies, and I found a bunch of obscure stuff on there. I remember downloading Carl Stalling, not even the performances, but like full rehearsals of the orchestras. There would be 40 takes of the same run. Imagine Tom chasing Jerry, that type of run. They would do it so many times until Carl would say, “that was the one, that was perfect.” But the differences in them are so minuscule that I feel like most people won’t be able to hear them, and I loved listening to all of those and listening to the ones that he ended up picking.
After three projects in a pretty short space of time, did you make a conscious decision to pause?
Yeah. I was still working on music. I put out a couple of singles that I ended up taking off the internet. And I was working on two albums at once: one that would ultimately turn out to be Please Have a Seat and then another one of songs that I wasn’t feeling as much as the Please Have a Seat batch. So, I never really stopped. And I know it seems like I was very proactive and I put out a lot of things, but those other two albums that were not BRAT were so spur-of-the-moment. It took a day to record the Black Plight EP and pretty much a week of Yerba Mate-infused lock-in in the studio to produce KRAZY KARL. Those were very short amounts of time in like a year of us being locked inside. So, it seems like a lot to other people, but just based off my normal productivity, I wasn’t working on music every day. There were big chunks where I was not doing anything and just trying to exist without being horribly depressed.
What was the difference between these two projects you were working on?
These ones just made more sense together. They made a better project, a better story. I like a lot of the other songs. I might release half of them, but the other half probably won’t see the light of day.
Please Have a Seat is a joint release between your own Sooper Records and Secretly, who distributed BRAT. Obviously, Secretly is a huge label that can take your album a long way. But did you have any reservations going into that deal, coming from your own independent label?
I don’t like to be told what to do at all at any time. Even if it’s good advice, I’m still kind of salty about it sometimes. So, I had reservations about not being fully in control. I’m a control freak when it comes to my own music and I’ve had to relinquish some of that because I realized some people know things that I don’t know. So I’m having to navigate that — wanting to be in control and also wanting to learn so I can know how to do it for other people, not just for myself. Being a record label owner, I want to know if it works for me, then I want to translate it to hopefully help other artists. But it’s been good, it’s been pretty smooth. A lot more emails than I would like.
You’ve said elsewhere that you wanted every track on this album to be hummable. Why have that rule?
My natural inclination is, I think, to make people a little bit uncomfortable and awkward, just because that’s sometimes how I feel in my brain. It just comes out unintentionally. I consciously wanted to make more communal things, some things that bring people together rather than alienate them — even though I love music that is dissonant and jarring and sometimes off in different ways. It was just a conscious effort to see what that would sound like for me. I tried to have something that felt like an earworm to me. I’d record something and come back in a few days, and if it was like still stuck in my head and I was still singing it, I’d use that.
Between striving for earworms and trying to create a sort of communion, you must be quite conscious of your audience in your process.
I think more on an emotional basis. What emotions will it invoke in people? That goes back to the Tom & Jerry thing. It’s not about tricking people into having emotions, but the way music can swell and build and then be sparse and dissonant or be jarring and frantic — those all invoke different emotions in people. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things you can do: make someone feel something that they were suppressing, or just like didn’t know they needed to feel in that moment. I want to make people feel something and then think about it.