Jaboukie Won’t Sacrifice Himself For Stardom
We sat down with the multi-hyphenate to talk about mixtape culture, constructing punchlines versus lyrics, the intersection of queerness and rap and his debut album, All Who Can’t Hear Must FeelPhoto by Tiffany Champion Music Features Jaboukie Young-White
If you have a pulse, then you’ve likely been subjected to the glorious, absurd, boundary-pushing and cosmic universe of Jaboukie Young-White. Ever since he made his TV stand-up debut on The Tonight Show nearly six years ago, he’s wedged his way into the zeitgeist online and on our screens over and over and over again. Hell, Jaboukie’s Twitter account is so infamous that part of the “career” section on his Wikipedia page is dedicated to what tweets have gotten him suspended from the app. When he first caught fire on the stand-up circuit, he got on every numerical, promising futures list you could find: Rolling Stone’s “25 Under 25,” Vulture’s “20 Comedians You Should and Will Know,” BET’s “Future 50.” Since then, he’s written for Netflix shows like Big Mouth and American Vandal, worked as a correspondent on Trevor Noah’s edition of The Daily Show and even found himself under the spotlight for TV and film roles in C’mon C’mon, Only Murders in the Building, Fairfax and Strange World—the latter of which found him playing Ethan Stone, Disney’s first openly LGTBQ+ protagonist. Now, Jaboukie has arrived onto the scene of a post-quarantine world with All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel, his debut album that, immediately, subverts any and all expectations you might have had about him.
Jaboukie’s interest in music can be traced back 25 years, to when he was entering his post-toddler phase in Harvey, Illinois and fiddling around with his dad’s programmed organ. As the first-generation son of Jamaican immigrants, the musical resources he had at home weren’t vast or all that plentiful—but he found a haven in the presets of his dad’s instrument. “It would be a ‘bossanova groove’ preset and then a ‘waltz’ preset, one of those things,” Jaboukie tells me. “He got a used one of those organs and just brought it home one day—no lesson, no anything. Just that and vibes. I would play around with it, but I was, like, four years old, so I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.” He grew up in a church-going household, and Sunday services were a gateway for him into the world of live music. But, even then, his heart was holed up elsewhere. “I honestly was always drawn to electronic stuff, even on my dad’s organ,” he says. “I really didn’t care about the keys that much, I just love mixing the presets and seeing what this group sounded like stacked on top of this group. I think, had I gotten a Mac product before college, I would have been—actually, it’s best that I didn’t get it, because I never would have done my homework. I would have just been on GarageBand all day.”
He cites Lil Wayne’s pre-No Ceilings mixtape run, DatPiff (which he often gets confused with his Chicago rapper friend PatPiff) and Yeezus as untouchable obsessions during his formative years. “It’s so sad that he’s dead now, but it was really cool,” Jaboukie says of Kanye. “It was interesting, seeing the transition from the backpack-art-kid Kanye era to Chief Keef taking over and changing rap forever, especially in Chicago. Seeing that happen and watching the culture change was really wild. I still remember when DJ Khaled shouted my neighborhood’s name, and that changed my life.” For folks who came of age in the late-2000s blog era, loving the art of the mixtape was like a gospel, especially when it came from the likes of Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Whale or Mac Miller. But, even then, it’s nearly impossible to reject tradition and embrace modernity fully. “It’s almost a semi-universal experience, the oldhead phase that everybody goes through, in rap, when they’re, like, 12. Some people stay there, and that’s totally valid. I definitely had a hip-hop or rap purist phase,” Jaboukie adds.
All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel arrives with a construction that is heavily reflective of the mixtape era Jaboukie found his bearings of personhood within. You can hear it in the interludes or the sub-minute tracks that exit as quickly as they arrive—mimicking how now, in a post-physical media world, you can cut a stream short if you’re ready to switch to the next mode. The hoops to jump through have significantly eroded. “I had one CD and that was The College Dropout. I never bought a CD after that. Everything was either ripped or, then, just streaming forever,” Jaboukie says. “That allowed this level of arbitrariness and ease to listening where, if I was actually tracking what my listening was, it didn’t adhere to any genre or any specific mood or feeling or length, really. There are a lot of songs where I’m actually good at the 1:45 point. I don’t need to hear the rest of the song.” In less than 30 minutes, he fits an entire cycle of sounds and textures into the habitat of the record, hitting everything from pop to soul to indie rock. The result is stylistic, well-studied and curious chapters on a project unafraid of pulling from too many palettes in order to fully shine.
On our call, Jaboukie calls out Brian Eno’s famous quote about distortion being the sound of failure and that the limitations of a medium end up becoming the things that define the medium once its time has passed. Going into the assembly of his debut album, he wanted to underline the artifice and the mechanics of how he listens to music—especially the music he loves and the music that influenced him 15 years ago, as the mixtape era turned into the streaming era. “I feel like that was the precursor to the streaming era, the people going direct-to-consumer—Radiohead doing In Rainbows and being like, ‘Just get it online,’ and then Wayne throwing everything out in mixtapes, knowing that people would torrent it.”
In 2020, Jaboukie built a home studio in NYC as a way of taking the pressure off of stand-up being an outlet (or a “machine,” as he affectionately refers to it as) for his own self-examinations with a joke coming out on the other side. But, because of COVID, he couldn’t perform in front of crowds and the few Zoom shows he did felt too weird to make a living off of. “That’s not what I started doing stand-up for, to perform to a screen and be alone in a room,” Jaboukie says. “So I had all of this [equipment] that I was looking to do something with. At first, I was making the music as a joke on my alt account on Twitter. I was making songs and sharing songs with the people there. There was one song that was a hit, it went platinum on the alt account. It was about having sex with Mitch McConnell and Madea, and that was a crowd favorite. The lyrics would be joking, but I’d be so dead serious with the production. I was like, ‘I want this to sound like a good song. I just want to be saying stupid shit on top of it.’” As the pandemic carried on, Jaboukie started peeling away at the irony, joking less and less and making songs that reckoned with veracity and detachment. “Sometimes, you will just shitpost so much that you move around to sincerity being the only thing that feels challenging at that point,” he adds.
Much of All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel, like all great art in the 2020s, began as random lines in Jaboukie’s notes app, which he expanded on once lockdown gave him the time to really sit down and streamline one focus. “When I first moved to New York, I was making beats, doing open mics. I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And then I was like, ‘I’m making negative dollars doing this. I have got to get more serious.’ And then, as comedy started unfolding, I was like, ‘Okay, let me focus on this so I don’t fuck this up while I have this opportunity.’ [Music] was always something that I put on the backburner,” he says. “But, when I had the chance to start working on more of it, I was like, ‘Okay, this is the moment that I was waiting for.’ Quickly, the stems of an album came together and there was an intentionality behind it that went beyond Jaboukie’s own edification—music-making was no longer just a hobby that lived in the background of his far-spanning interests.
His approach to both comedy and music scratches different itches—and they each require much different creative approaches. For him, stand-up is convergent thinking that requires the comedian to get the entire crowd all on one page, so they laugh at something together. But music is a much more ephemeral token than that. “I find that I can sit down and work on a song, no matter what kind of mood or feeling I’m in,” Jaboukie says. “For jokes and writing comedy, I have to write for a bunch just to flush everything out, and then I have to get into a mindset. It’s more ceremonious, whereas music has always just been. I grew up with it and it’s always just felt like such a natural part of life.”
Jaboukie’s not the first actor to put out a record after first making waves elsewhere, beyond music. He admonishes the public scrutiny from folks who weigh in on whether or not artists weaving in and out of mediums have to possess copious amounts of ego, too—reflecting on the organic, joyous, humanistic and accessible foundations of art itself. “Even when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re making music? Oh!,’ it doesn’t strike me as that crazy. I could see why it’d be crazy that I’d be releasing it and putting it out there, but making music—everyone can do that,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean that it’s good or going to be widely received. But, to imply that, to make music you must think very highly of yourself, that makes me sad that people believe that. I think that musicality is innate in every single person.”
There’s a similar conversation between songwriting and comedy, about how much of a story gets embellished versus what’s unfiltered, authentic and anecdotal. But the truth is, the line in Jaboukie’s own storytelling techniques holds a lot of crossover. Each medium is, yes, its own entity—but they are often in conversation with one another, harmonizing. “With stand-up, from the beginning, there was a musicality to every set,” he says. “The laugh has to come in at this speed, it has to crescendo right here, you have to move on at this time. It’s all time-based. And, when you do it so much, you really start to see the grid of your set, where everything needs to fall. With music, how that translated was I was writing a lot of things that took the shape of a joke but weren’t necessarily funny. I found that tension and that contrast and that dissonance interesting, and that’s what kept me pushing forward with putting [All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel] together. While writing the songs, I was like, ‘Okay, I would be able to sink my teeth into this.’”
As a kid, Jaboukie traveled across the country while attending different religious camps and programs. He’d adopt that nomadic lifestyle again later on, when he began pursuing the comedy circuit head-on and full-time, doing sets in different states and migrating across America. Seeing that many environments has impacted the way he considers how his own art interacts with the world, too. “All of those places have stayed with me. I think, in general, the more you travel, the more you take back a piece of that place with you—the person who you were in that place comes back with you,” Jaboukie says. “I find that, especially in writing, I’m thinking of every word from every angle possible and every possible layer of meaning or interpretation. And, oftentimes, I’m trying to massage the meaning of a line in a way where it could be taken in seven different directions—and all of them could, potentially, be correct.” When he was younger, Jaboukie used to have a self-proclaimed “Holden Caulfield” angst toward the subjectivity of place and meaning. Only now has he found the beauty of different folks and their understanding of objective, real realities. With time comes grace, and so on.
Jaboukie’s persona is not a complicated one, but his legacy and reverence from fans and peers certainly is. There’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to preserving all of his deleted tweets, not allowing any single thought he’s ever put online to fully go away forever. At this point, Jaboukie has perfected the art form of deleting a tweet. “I have heard people make jokes anytime I do something that is traditional media. They’re like, ‘What is he going to do, delete it off of the HBO app once it comes out?,’” he notes. Jaboukie’s own favorite tweet he’s gotten suspended for—when he changed his display name to “FBI” and wrote “Just because we killed MLK doesn’t mean we can’t miss him”—is now an evergreen document that continues to circulate and circulate (and will probably do so until the internet falls completely). But a Twitter account can go away in an instant, and Jaboukie’s has many, many times. When making an album, though, it’s alive forever somewhere. With two major Hollywood guilds on strike right now, the question of what art survives and what doesn’t is more prescient now than it ever has been. You can’t hypothesize what’s going to become timeless; rather, you have to find beauty and awe in the finality of your own creations.
“I do think that what I strive to do is honor whatever was honest and real and true to me at the time of the creation, because that is the thing that will forever be true. It could fall in and out of vogue, it could not be cool—but if that’s what it was at that time on that day, that’s what it was at that time on that day,” Jaboukie says. “The things that survive and last forever, I think the shortcut that people go for is awards and prestige and critical acclaim. I just don’t feel like sacrificing enough of myself in order to do those things. Those things are a certain set of tastes and ideas and moors and presentations and postures. If I happen to fall into that, that’s amazing. I love that, but I can’t force it.”
There are various checkpoints on All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel where Jaboukie is ruminating on the very human understanding of close-proximity loss and grief—and he’s exploring it through different polarities and a spectrum of emotional audits. On a song like “INCEL,” he especially considers the deaths of folks around him (“People I know will die / No goodbyes, no farewells). In “hit clips pt ii,” he interpolates a voice note from his brother, who talks about someone they both knew and loved while growing up passing away. “When it first comes up, it’s just shrouded in floweriness. And my brother’s voice is run through effects that make it feel elevated and sprightly and otherworldly and effervescent,” Jaboukie says. “It feels almost organic, it defangs it. Then, when it comes up again on ‘INCEL,’ it’s very blunt and, almost, trotting and oppressive. The instrumental itself is just barreling forward, the vocal effect is pretty flat.”
Much of the seeds of Jaboukie’s approach to writing about dying were planted over 20 years ago, when he drowned at a Jesus camp he wasn’t really supposed to be at. He was the youngest kid there—at eight years old, when the cut-off age was 10. And, desperate to prove himself to his older peers, he went as far as—during a game of Marco Polo—volunteering to retrieve the ball from the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. “I thought that I knew how to swim because I saw people swim on TV and I was like, ‘It’s easy,’ you just go like this,” he says, flapping his arms in a doggy-paddle. “So, I go over to the end and I fall under. But, by the time I was going over there, there was a commotion happening. No one saw me while I was over in the deep end, struggling. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s it. All right. It’s a wrap. That’s a lifetime wrap on Jaboukie, everybody.’ I remember being like, ‘Damn, I’m going to Heaven and I did not do shit. I didn’t do anything, I’m eight years old.’ My last subjective thought was ‘I’m gonna go to Heaven,’ and then I remember just interminable blankness, nothing. I didn’t have a sense of self. And then I woke up on the side of the pool.”
During the pandemic, that near-death moment returned to the front of Jaboukie’s mind, especially in how he thought about loss and grief in a time filled with inexplicably large tolls of it. “The subjectivity of it, so many people saying that, when you die, the experience is really how you feel as you are dying. If you’re wracked with guilt, if you have so much regret, if you feel terrible about yourself—that’s hell. Some of the most evil teachers I had when I was growing up, who were super Catholic old ladies, I’m sure that, when they were dying, they were like, ‘Cha-ching, baby. We’re going to Heaven. We got it, we made it.’ They filled their quota. But I think that experience shrouded [death] in mystery. In the music, I definitely explored it in a few different ways.”
There’s a swagger scattered all across All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel. If Jaboukie has adopted one surefire thing from his hip-hop ancestors, it’s their bravado. But that’s about it, as he intones about everything from stretching the limitations of his own vulnerability to yearning through fallen romances to being candid about mental health. This isn’t a comedian making music as a bit; it’s a personal endeavor that turns the comedy of everyday life and its often-insurmountable, juxtaposing perils and wonders into something whole, breathing and vivid. For every “I knew Cupid caught me lackin’ when you pooped my deck and my reply was ‘ai yai cap’n,’” on songs like “hit clips pt ii,” there is a moment like this one on “not_me_tho,” where Jaboukie instills promise into his own verses of wisdom: “Everybody got high hopes / Dreaming you climbing the rope / Whole time, you being choked / Not me, though / I’m a free hoe / And when you climbing the rope / You realize there is hope / You ain’t gotta choke all alone.”
What is splendid about All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel, though, is how Jaboukie probes the strong convergence between being a gay Black man and the art of hip-hop—a genre that has had a long-standing, turbulent relationship with LGBTQ issues, whether it be F-slurs plaguing verses or decades-long, industry- and culture-incited transphobia. Jaboukie’s dad was a DJ who used to spin dancehall, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, house, juke and stepper records, which led to a vast, dynamic and diverse arrangement of music flowing throughout his childhood. He vividly remembers Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye”—the controversial dancehall song that levies an entanglement between gay people and pedophiles—coming on at a Thanksgiving gathering once and being an early memory of willful ignorance.
“I’m not gonna lie, that song is hard as hell. The instrumental is amazing. He’s spitting pure, vitriolic hate, but it slides—the bassline on that is so good,” Jaboukie says. “I think that, in and of itself, that cognitive dissonance that has, for so long, been required of queer people who love hip-hop and who love dancehall. It’s always been an uncomfortable chaperone in the room. You’re enjoying the song, but then there’s something sitting right next to you—which is the queerness leaving your body and sitting right next to you while you’re enjoying this music. I think [All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel], in a lot of ways, was an attempt to reconsolidate that and to stop the splitting of ‘Okay, this belongs here and this belongs here,’ compartmentalizing aspects of yourself to consume something or be welcomed into a space or community.”
Not just in music but in life itself, being queer requires a person to shrink parts of themselves for the purpose of existing in traditional spaces that bedeck erasure. “When I can just fully take up space and do whatever it is that I feel compelled to do and I want to do and I’m being called to do, I’m going to choose that over being easily invited into a space that would require me to cut off pieces of myself to exist,” Jaboukie says. In recent years, folks like Janelle Monáe, Mykki Blanco and Lil Nas X are helping bridge the gaps between rap and queerness, while Frank Ocean’s coming out letter over a decade ago was an important brick in the foundation that’s still being blueprinted. More audiences now are willing to engage with people in the same way that queer folk are forced to overextend themselves when engaging with heteronormative resources.
I think about one of Jaboukie’s verses on “hit clips pt i,” where he spits these lines: “Two hoes, black and white / Mike, he ride that dick like a bike / Told him I’m a Cullen, I don’t bite / I could never cuff him, I just love him for the night / I’m looking at the money / He say he looking for a wife / I don’t roll the dice / I can feel the knife / Coming at my back, coming for my life.” Or on “BBC,” when his smooth, jovial flow morphs rejects coarseness: “I came in his ass and his jaw / He spitted / Shame, shame, shouldn’t have swallowed / Hate long lost siblings.” 10 years ago, bars like those wouldn’t have survived in a mainstream rap track. The way Jaboukie delivers this moment is full of finesse and grandeur, a polished, glimmering vessel that is so often untouched for queer people in music circles altogether. But he’s trying to be a piece in the machine that helps the old guard and narrow-minds walk back their own predispositions while also opening up more lanes for people in his community to float through.
“There was this study that showed that people who read a short story and found out that the character was queer at the end of the story liked the protagonist an exponential amount more than they did when they found out that protagonist was queer at the beginning of the story. And that irked me for a while,” Jaboukie adds. “But when people would be like, ‘You’re so unapologetic,’ I’d be like, ‘What would I ever have to be apologizing for?’ It was a semantic little ache that I had. But I do realize now, it is just a baseline for people to not want to have to extend themselves to understand anyone, period—let alone queer people. I think, in terms of [All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel], what I would just love is to stretch the imagination a little bit and just be another wedge that just takes up more space for queerness and queer people. And, even beyond that, I think our appetite and palettes have slowly, slowly, slowly started to atrophy—even though we have the entirety of human history at our disposal and can stream anything. When you’re just guided by the algorithm into liking this and liking that, it can be difficult to engage with something that’s challenging and not tailored specifically for you.”
All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel is a burgeoning ecosystem of various pushes and pulls, a manifestation of reclamation and a braggadocious testimony of a life still being lived in a world aiming to erase you from multiple angles. The complexity merges with wordplay and many metaphors to chew on, but the soul of the record shines through Jaboukie’s storytelling—a pen sharpened by survival on-stage and fashioned into a new, limitless weapon of sonic extrapolation. In barely half-a-decade, he has accomplished more than most multi-hyphenates his age—so his foray into a music career might just seem like another rung he was destined to grab onto. And you’d be right, but this isn’t some actor thinking he can make a banger album on a whim. No, All Who Can’t Hear Must Feel is quite good, pushing the sky even further upwards—cementing Jaboukie as one of our most brilliant voices and redefining what it means to never let anyone know what your next move is.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.