Tierra Whack’s Multi-Hyphenated, Multi-Dimensional Authenticity

In our latest Digital Cover Story, the singer, songwriter, rapper and visual artist sits down with us to talk about mental health, reclaiming joy, and her breakout debut album, WORLD WIDE WHACK.

Music Features Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack’s Multi-Hyphenated, Multi-Dimensional Authenticity

Decked out in a white jumpsuit detailed with bright red flowers to match her fiery scarlet hair and oversized cherry colored frames, Tierra Whack is sipping on a delicious-looking mocktail. After meeting in the dimly lit bar of the Austin Proper Hotel, we sit in the middle of a room with a gorgeous transparent piano haunting one of its corners, lavish furnishings and a stocked bar on the wall behind us—an ironic backdrop for two people who don’t really drink. It’s only a few hours following her second-ever performance of songs from her debut album, WORLD WIDE WHACK, where she brought her vibrancy to a stormy, dull day in Texas’s capital.

We spend time swapping war stories about coming out on the other side of deep depression and how it truly puts things into perspective—especially when we both laugh at the fact that we both don’t take things too seriously, yet we wanted to disappear at one point. Those notions ended years ago for me, but for Whack, these feelings are still fresh. She had never planned on making it past 27, yet we are both sitting and talking about everything that has transpired since we decided to stick around and see what cards life has yet to deal us.

Born and raised in Philadelphia by her mother, Tierra Whack, now 28, started rhyming in elementary school, pulling inspiration from Dr. Seuss and writing poems for class. Whack’s mom has been in her corner since day one. At age 15, on her way to her grandmother’s house, the pair met a crew filming We Run the Streets, a prominent rap compilation series. Her mom ushered Whack into the middle of the segment to showcase her skills, and a video of her performance went viral, gaining attention from the likes of Philly rapper Meek Mill. Following this newfound virality, she began releasing tracks under her Snoop Dogg-inspired moniker Dizzle Dizz, and her love of music began to blossom into an admiration for artists like Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Ms. Lauryn Hill and André 3000, leading her to aspire to an artistry that existed beyond street cyphers.

Tierra Whack

In 2017 after signing with Interscope Records, Whack shed her former rap moniker and embraced her legal name, which is equal parts quirky and star-powered, to release three singles “Toe Jam,” “Child Please” and “Shit Happens”—“Shit Happens” and its intoxicating flow is still in my Tierra Top 5. In 2018, she released her 15-minute, 15-song debut Whack World, which was part visual album, part conceptual art project—all inspired by the childlike wonder that began her curiosity for witty wordplay. All this inspired artistry led to a Grammy nomination for her “Mumbo Jumbo” music video, the then-peak of her well-deserved accolades and critical success before releasing a full-length debut, which became the rawest and most authentic trip through her life history and suicidal thoughts to date.

WORLD WIDE WHACK kicks off with Tierra Whack drawing from her youth for lead single “CHANEL PIT”’s music video, which finds the rapper getting pummeled by a carwash—a fantasy she has always wanted to play out. “I was working at a carwash when I was 18, and I remember thinking it would be so cool to go through one,” Whack says. The one-take video follows her delivering lines about the suffocating smell of her expensive perfume while being soaked by huge spinning mops. “When the day came, I was like, ‘Yo, I’m really about to do this.’ I was so afraid,” she continues. “I put my foot in my mouth, but I did it. It is still one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. But I’m happy I did it.”

The album’s follow-up single, “SHOWER SONG,” has Whack playfully chronicling her shower singing abilities—and it brings the same carefree energy of “CHANEL PIT.” Whack casts a shadow on her characteristic colorful persona and gets down to the heart of the album in “27 CLUB.” Though Whack has discussed serious topics—like her deadbeat father in “Fuck Off” and the passing of her friend Philly rapper Hulitho in “Pet Cemetery”—before, she has always maintained a certain amount of levity or tongue-in-cheek energy by using country accents to mock her father or using a metaphor to sing about Hulitho’s death.

For “27 CLUB,” however, Whack lays her emotions out plainly, stating that she’s “Lookin’ for somethin’ to commit to / Suicide.” It’s a profoundly moving and honest confession of her depression and mental health battles, though she still maintains her wacky humor with the double entendre in the chorus: “Coach got me doin’ suicides.” “Before I was going to perform ‘27 CLUB’ today, I was like, ‘Alright, this next song is a club banger!’” Whack says. “Then, when nobody laughed, I was like, ‘Okay, bad joke.’” The dark humor she employs to better emphasize her ugliest emotions is nothing new, but now Whack is breaking through boundaries by openly discussing suicidal ideations—a topic saddled with an unfair stigma, especially in rap. “You say the word ‘suicide,’ and the room just stops. Everybody’s like, ‘Don’t say that’ or ‘You don’t mean it.’ But what if I don’t want to be here anymore? How are you going to tell me how to feel?” she continues. “[‘27 CLUB’] is one of the songs that everybody knew and were singing along [to] when I was performing today. My saddest song is the one that everybody’s connecting to.”

There’s no doubt why people are singing along; Whack made a ridiculously catchy melody to underscore the chorus of “27 CLUB,” along with a powerful music video expressing her struggle to continue putting on an act as a public figure—all while still dealing with depression behind the scenes. “The response has been great. Celebrity friends hit me up like, ‘Yo, I needed this.’ People may have had those thoughts but never spoke about them. That’s what it was for me. I was never ashamed,” she confirms.

And Whack is exactly right. Reaching the point of not wanting to die is nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, being more open about it makes other people feel less alone. “Final stage of being numb / Felt this way since I was young / Tell me what could I have done different,” she opens on the album’s fourth track, “NUMB.” Throughout our interview, Whack keeps stressing how badly she wants to give everything to her fans, even the really ugly parts because they all come from her. It’s that authenticity as an artist that makes her music so affecting in the first place, and you can hear it in her confessional conclusion on “NUMB”: “Lost control of my emotions / Devil keep on provokin’ / My joy has been stolen.”

Tierra Whack

Now, Tierra Whack is getting that joy back one day at a time. “When we face the impossible, we have to remember the time when we were in great doubt,” she says. “We overcame when we thought we wouldn’t. We gotta go back to those times. Two months ago, I had a situation where I thought it was the end. But I’m here today. We have to give ourselves that credit. We get through stuff, and we forget. Then we make the next thing a big deal. But it’s like, actually, the last thing was a little bit worse, but you got through.”

One of the most complex parts of being suicidal is coming out on the other side and looking for your purpose. Planning for the future goes out the window when you live for so long under the weight of thinking you won’t be around to see any of it through. The beauty in sticking around is seeing what comes from your strength to hold on. “It’s honestly like a mind fuck,” Whack says about surviving past 27. “I just sold out Webster Hall—1,300 people before the album was out. People care about me. For a long time, I felt like no one cared about me, and I don’t know why. The mind plays tricks on you. But I’m having fun, I’m living a dream. A younger me would be so proud of me right now, so I just have to always remember why I started in the first place.”

With WORLD WIDE WHACK, the Philadelphia icon wrote herself off the ledge with the help of her mom, best friend, therapy and God. Throughout the entire recording process, these feelings kept resurfacing among the crushing weight of fame and the pressure to perform—all while struggling just to make it from morning to night. “I was born to survive / See the pain in my eyes / I been stressed and deprived / Ha, ha, ha, ha,” she sings in “DIFFICULT.” Whack confesses that she tends to put other people’s needs above her own, which made pulling herself out of depression harder, because she kept giving pieces of herself away. “I love making other people laugh and happy. I’m such a giver,” she says. “But when you give everything, you’re left with nothing, right?”

When Whack finally got to the bottom of the hole, she committed one final act of selflessness by warning her mother and her loved ones that she was feeling suicidal—even though she was beyond the point of caring enough to stick around. She details this conflicting feeling in “TWO NIGHT,” a warning and confession of her willingness to finally let go. The line “I might die tonight / But before I go, want to let you know / I didn’t pay the light bill this month” builds on the album’s dark humor, of course, but it’s also a representation of that foreboding and worrisome and honest conversation she had with her loved ones. “When you’re ready to just be done with everything, nobody else’s opinion matters,” she says. “‘Hey, I’m telling you guys I don’t want to be here—just a heads up.’ Even telling everybody, that was me still being unselfish.”

Even though it became a catharsis, Tierra Whack never intended to write WORLD WIDE WHACK—or, at least, she didn’t intend to make an album riddled with such immense emotional truth. “I would go to the studio three or four times a week, and I would only make sad shit,” she explains. “Every day wouldn’t be so sad. You can be depressed and still be smiling and making jokes. My team would make heavy beats, and I couldn’t think of anything. Then they made a slow beat—a sad beat—and I’d hop on and let something out.” There is an overwhelming sense of melancholia throughout WORLD WIDE WHACK. Yet, Whack still manages to bring some of her past humor to tracks like the cheeky opening of “INVITATION” (“I’m just not like a fan, more like air conditioner”) and the funky electro-beat of “SHOWER SONG.” The shifting moods can feel jarring, but Whack’s earnest confessions and authenticity draw listeners in and take them through her story while granting them the grace and space to resonate with it.

Tierra Whack

“The songs all come from me and are under one umbrella. I’ve been telling everybody, hey, I’m human, we’re human. We’re allowed to have different emotions, like I say in the first song of the project, ‘MOOD SWINGS.’ I just want to be free enough to feel what I want to feel. These are songs from months or years back. Today, I’m not suicidal,” she explains. “I think it just was important to include because I’ve been making heavy music lately and wanted to give the fans everything. I really respect and appreciate the process because when it was pouring, I didn’t know if I would see the light. I just kept trying. I kept going.”

“I check my horoscope a lot,” Whack continues, chuckling. “It just gives you something to look forward to.” An anecdote like that just reflects how universal finding joy in the silly and ordinary is. Whack brings that same playful energy when she goes to work on music. “I think I tap into different zones when I go to the studio,” she says. “I never know what kind of music I’m going to make. I surprise myself every time, which makes it fun. I like becoming other people. It’s like an escape. What would Erykah Badu sound like if she did this, or what would this verse sound like if I held my nose the whole time?”

These quirks measure just how much Whack stands out. She thinks about every detail and how to craft a distinctive feeling, making her music an all-encompassing sensory experience. The visuals behind every song are just as important as the sounds, and Whack writes visceral descriptions in her lyrics while building a world through sampling beats and whatever affectations she throws her voice behind. All of this comes from her writing process. “For each song, I have visuals slowly forming as I write the song. I’m coloring as I go,” she says. Whack turned to Alex Da Corte—who recently did the visuals for St. Vincent’s All Born Screaming—for WORLD WIDE WHACK. The pair met through Interscope CEO John Janick and, from then on, it was a creative love affair. After the album was done, Whack sent it to Da Corte, and they chose their favorite tracks to craft a three-part narrative.

“The story is about a character that represents the face the performer must wear while performing—showing up for millions but still being alone in a crowd—we thought of the trilogy: morning, noon and night,” Whack says. “So, ‘SHOWER SONG’ will be morning, noon will be ‘27 CLUB’ and then night will be ‘TWO NIGHT.’ It’s just showing a day in the life of a public figure going through the ups and downs. You can start your day off thinking that everything’s going to be okay, and it’s going to be a great day, but the character is put through her paces by the wider world. It’s tricky because everyone’s cheering me on, but they are also wearing me down. Then, becoming a celebrity and gaining fame was a lot. I was depressed for a long time because I just didn’t know how to adapt. Everybody’s so happy and things are going good, but why do I feel so down?”

Since finding burgeoning success—including a feature on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift album and a partnership with Lego and an upcoming role in Jordan Peele’s new horror flick, Him—and a massive breakout, Whack has been maintaining a balancing act between Tierra Whack the person and Tierra Whack the persona. “I still live in Philly. I think that’s a big part of me staying grounded,” she says. “I’ve tried to record in other places, and it never works out—I never get music I’m proud of. But when I go back home, it just flows out. I’ll travel the world, go to 10 different places, return home and release everything. It’s just like going out into the world any day. You have a crazy day, and then you go back home, flop on the couch or on your bed, and journal about your whole day. You just reflect. Coming back home, it’s just my safe space.”

Being authentic to herself is how someone as kaleidoscopically whimsical and brutally honest like Tierra Whack continues to make such visionary music. She makes me laugh when I ask her specifics about why she made certain song choices, replying that she doesn’t “have a cool, profound answer.” She explains, instead, that she is just living her truth—and whatever that brings out is where her decisions spawn from. “When people ask what made you put on two different earrings, I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I couldn’t choose—so I decided I wanted to put on both!’ It’s that simple,” she adds.

Tierra Whack

As we get deeper into our conversation, Whack sits less upright, and more of her personality starts seeping out. She has proclaimed on multiple occasions that she doesn’t enjoy doing interviews because she prefers to express herself through her music. “I never cared for my speaking voice. I still don’t care for my speaking voice,” she maintains. “I prefer to sing or rap. It’s a constant battle of being self-conscious about who I am.” She emphasizes how anxious she gets before she puts on her armor as Tierra Whack the superstar, notably by breaking into song in the middle of answering a question hitting me with a barrage of “so”’s—28 to be exact, I counted—to hyperbolize her feelings of being “so” nervous.

Whack shares some incredible advice—and later a meme—from her friend and musical inspiration, Erykah Badu, by pulling out her notes app on her phone to show me her “well of wisdom.” “Erica told me, ‘self-doubt is the girlfriend of success.’ They go together, but you must remember you can’t let that self-doubt control you,” she says. Whack has proven that persevering through your most challenging moments and your own insecurities can lead to incredible, prolific music if you let it—and incredible, prolific music that listeners can throw parts of themselves into, too. I find myself in “27 CLUB” when Whack sings, “Like a glass full, but I’m empty”—such a simple twist on a classic idiom that subverts the meaning in a painfully relatable way.

To connect with someone I have looked up to since high school—when I was dealing with my own struggle for survival—and talk candidly about a very emotional and shared life experience is a surreal, fleeting feeling. Whack’s silky flow, whimsical beats and colorful, multi-hyphenated virtuosity were something I could lean on to shine a light on my darkest moments—and thousands, even millions of others can rightfully say the same. Her brazen confidence in her rapping, and her fearless ability to be herself in all her wacky glory, was something I tried to harness as I grew up with her and her music. She and her admirers have grown together. I was along for the joyride the minute I came across her on YouTube, fearlessly throwing down unforgettable lines like “You whack, so imagine how Tierra feel.” Few moments can be more humbling and inspiring than witnessing Whack, for over a decade, staying authentic to herself. WORLD WIDE WHACK might be her most vulnerable work to date, but her universe is still growing. Like Whack says in “TWO NIGHT,” there are only two certainties: “Everybody dies; you live, and you die.” So we’ll keep on living until we die, this time at the hands of fate rather than our own.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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